Here’s a common scenario for me: I walk into the exam room and greet a client with a dog that I remember seeing at his or her first puppy visit, that’s now a little grayer around the muzzle, and a little slower to get up and say hi to me. They’re around 10 years old at least, and I start a conversation about how the dog is doing ( don’t worry, this blog is not going down THAT particular road, put away the tissues) and the owner starts to ask if dogs can have dementia or Alzheimer’s.
The short answer is yes.
Here’s the long answer:
Dogs and cats are living much longer these days, thanks to a combination of improvements in nutrition, disease prevention and veterinary care. All mammals experience a version of degeneration of the nervous system, with Alzheimer’s being the most commonly encountered in humans. The cognitive changes seen in dogs and cats that is similar is called cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS.
Often owners think that the changes are part of the aging process, but the changes seen with CDS are not ‘normal’, so please please tell your vet about anything that you think could be an abnormal behavior, we can only help you and your pet if we know there’s a problem. One study showed that 1/3 of dogs show symptoms of CDS at age 11.
So how do we know if it’s CDS? It’s a diagnosis of exclusion, which means we rule out other common causes of behavior changes, usually with routine blood and urine tests.
What are the behavioral changes/ symptoms I’m talking about?
Disorientation: standing at the wrong side of the door, inability to walk around solid objects like furniture, getting stuck in corners, walking into a room like they forgot why they went in there, then walking out.
Social interaction changes: aggression toward other pets or people that wasn’t there before, or vice versa, lack of normal greeting behavior, not looking to be petted.
Changes in sleep/ wake cycle: pets that sleep all day and are awake at night, panting and pacing, cats will vocalize at night.
House soiling: urinating or defecating in the house or outside the litter box, even after they were just let outside.
Anxiety: noise phobias, separation anxiety, fear based anxiety/ aggression.
So what do we do?
It’s a difficult disease to treat. The goal is to slow the progression of the disease and maintain quality of life for the pet and the owners.
There are some new prescription diets that have shown promise, my own 16 year old dog with CDS has been eating one for the last 2 years.
SAMe is a supplement that has been shown to help, as has Ginko biloba. Both are available in veterinary approved forms. Other anti anxiety treatments such as anxitane, Zylkene and feliway can help with symptoms. Adequate pain control is essential, I feel confident saying that most of these seniors have osteoarthritis pain somewhere, that can be compounding the symptoms. Management of osteoarthritis pain is a whole other blog post! Confining your pet, especially at night, using a crate or baby gates can help by lowering the sensory input to the brain, so the pet has less decisions to make, makes a huge difference to some pets. Night lights plugged into low outlets can help cats navigate at night.