Canine cognitive dysfunction is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people.
Has your pawsome oldie recently become more withdrawn?
Does she look a bit disoriented? And does she wake up in the middle of the night and pace around the room?
Is she having more “accidents” in the house?
Does she have trouble with stairs?
Now, do you think all these signs are simply part of normal aging, and that you can’t do anything about them?
Granted, older dogs may be having one or two of these behavioral changes due to some health problem (e.g. incontinence, hearing loss, arthritis). But, there is also a high possibility that behavioral changes are caused by cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).
Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, i.e. doggie Alzheimer’s, is prevalent in older dogs.
One survey found that 32% of 11-year-old dogs and 100% of 16-year-old dogs showed at least one symptom associated with CDS. Of these, 68% of 15- to 16-year-old dogs were classified as being “mildly affected” and 35% “severely affected”.
Despite the prevalence of this syndrome among older dogs, it is vastly under-diagnosed by vets1. And the sad thing is, some dog parents are not aware that CDS causes the behavioral changes in their oldies. As time goes by, they cannot cope with the changes and opt for euthanasia of their dogs.
So it is important to understand CDS and find ways to help older dogs maintain their quality of life despite the syndrome.
What Causes Canine Cognitive Dysfunction in Old Dogs?
Although cognitive dysfunction causes mainly behavioral changes in dogs, the cause of CDS itself is due to physical and chemical changes in the brain.
Rather similar to senile dementia in people, canine cognitive dysfunction is caused by:
- neuron loss,
- atrophy of the cerebral cortex, and
- development and accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain.
The more plaque accumulation, the more serious the symptoms become.
Interestingly, a study2 found that cognitive dysfunction syndrome was significantly more likely to affect females and neutered dogs than males and intact dogs.
Also, size seems to matter when it comes to CDS. The same study found that smaller dogs had greater odds of showing symptoms of CDS.
Symptoms of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
There are numerous signs and symptoms, but broadly can be categorized into these areas:
- Loss of learned behaviors, such as house training, obeying certain commands, etc.
- Confusion and disorientation, such as getting lost in familiar locations, getting stuck in corners, going to the wrong side of a door, etc.
- Compulsive behaviors, such as vocalization with no reason, pacing aimlessly, licking things repeatedly, etc.
- Apathy, e.g. not interested in going out or playing games, appetite loss.
- Change in sleep patterns, e.g. sleeping during the day and waking up at night time.
- Social behavior change, such as not greeting family members, getting too clingy, etc.
- Change in mental wellbeing, e.g. feelings of anxiety, irritability, agitation, etc.
Here is a checklist that you can download and see how many CDS symptoms your older dog has, if any. You can draw your vet’s attention the checklist and ask him for a thorough physical checkup so that a proper diagnosis can be made.
How is CDS Diagnosed and Treated?
Your vet will do a complete medical checkup including blood work, thyroid hormone levels, and neurological work up. These are needed to rule out possible physical health problems that may be causing the symptoms.
Unfortunately, but understandably, cognitive dysfunction cannot be cured. It can only be managed by medication and a healthy diet with supplements.
There are a number of prescription drugs for CDS, such as Nicergoline, Selegeline (Anipryl®), and Propentofylline.
According to the drug labels, these meds are generally safe and do not cause adverse side effects in most dogs. But, all dogs are different and they react differently to even the same drug, so use these prescription drugs under the strict supervision of a vet.
What You Can Do to Help Your Older Dog
If your dog is diagnosed with CDS, don’t despair! There are quite a few things you can do to help your golden oldie.
Feeding your dog a natural, nutrient-rich diet supplemented with antioxidants is the first thing to do.
Studies3,4 have shown that feeding a diet enriched with antioxidants (e.g. vitamins A, C and E, L-carnitine) could help reduce cognitive dysfunction in dogs.
Also consider adding coconut oil to his food. Coconut oil is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which can improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain.
Supplements that contain a blend of antioxidants, such as ginkgo extract, resveratrol, vitamins B6 and E, and phosphatidylserine (a natural compound vital for cognitive function) may also improve cognitive functions in dogs. One such product is Senilife XL Nutritional Supplement (link below). A study5 showed that dogs with CDS given Senilife showed a marked improvement of CDS related signs.
CBD hemp oil may also help old dog anxiety.
Don’t worry! Hemp is not marijuana and won’t get your dog “high”. It is a safe oil which, according to research, has powerful anti-oxidative properties that protect free radicals from damaging brain cells. In addition, it has calming and soothing effect.
How Can We Delay the Onset of CDS in Older Dogs?
While it is difficult to prevent canine cognitive dysfunction, you can definitely delay the onset of symptoms in your aging dog by doing a few things, such as:
Feed Your Dog a Healthy Diet
Of course, you don’t need to wait until your dog has started showing symptoms of CDS to feed him a healthy diet. Start now! Read this page to see what constitutes a healthy diet for dog.
In addition, add to your aging dog’s diet anti-aging supplements, such as SAM-e, resveratrol, choline, and coconut oil.
We all know the benefits of physical exercise. In fact, a study6 (on humans) has shown that midlife exercise “significantly reduced later risks of mild cognitive impairment”.
I would think that the same goes for dogs!
So… keep your aging dog physically active by encouraging him to exercise regularly. Brisk walking, swimming, and even fetching sticks (if your dog has no achy joints) are good exercise. Be sure to warm up and cool down before and after exercising.
As the saying goes: “Use it or lose it!”
If a dog is not kept mentally active (think home alone all day every day), his cognitive functions will naturally deteriorate earlier and faster.
Even if you need to leave your aging dog at home to go to work, be sure to schedule regular play time to actively engage him cognitively. Give him some interactive toys to play with.
Reduce the burden on your dog’s liver by minimize intake of toxins by the dog. For example, minimize the use of chemicals around the house (e.g. use natural flea/tick control, natural cleaning agents, etc.), and do not over-vaccinate the dog.
Of course, there is no guarantee that dogs will not develop cognitive dysfunction if we do all of the above. But, I am sure they stand a much better chance of staying healthy, both physically and mentally, for a longer period of time.
1. Under diagnosis of canine cognitive dysfunction: A cross-sectional survey of older companion dogs
2. Prevalence and risk factors of behavioural changes associated with age-related cognitive impairment in geriatric dogs
3. Brain aging in the canine: a diet enriched in antioxidants reduces cognitive dysfunction
4. Dietary enrichment counteracts age-associated cognitive dysfunction in canines
5. Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome: Prevalence, clinical signs and treatment with a neuroprotective nutraceutical
6. Physical exercise as a preventive or disease-modifying treatment of dementia and brain aging