Dealing With Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Tips for managing dementia in your old dog.

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Playing with your old dog, going on walks and other environmental enrichment might help your pet maintain normal cognitive function longer. Joyce Marrero/iStock/Thinkstock
Dr. Jerry Murray

With the recent advances in veterinary medicine, dogs are living to be a lot older than before. This also means senior dogs are more prone to some of the problems that become prevalent with advanced age. I commonly see senior dogs with arthritis, geriatric kidney disease and cancer. Unfortunately, cognitive dysfunction is also one of the problems commonly seen in old dogs.

Cognitive dysfunction is a syndrome associated with brain aging. This is also called dementia or senility. As the brain ages, it actually becomes slightly smaller. In most senior dogs, there will be an increase in beta amyloid deposited in the brain. This is very similar to what happens in people with Alzheimer’s disease. This can cause a decrease in memory, a decreased response to people, and a decrease in learned behavior, such as housebreaking. In most dogs the signs will slowly get worse and worse.

Signs Of Dog Dementia

Signs of cognitive dysfunction are often subtle at the beginning, but there are five major categories to be alert to in your senior dog.

1. Increased Confusion. Your senior dog may become disoriented, and he may become confused as to where he is. This may lead to your dog getting lost in the house, or stuck in a corner of a room or behind furniture, or having difficulty navigating through the yard when alone.

2. Changes In Interactions. Your dog may change his interactions with people and other pets. This can include a decreased interest in playing with people or other pets. This can also include a decreased response to the owner coming home or a decreased response to a favorite toy.

3. Disruption Of Sleep. Your dog’s sleep cycle may change. This can include changes in your senior dog’s normal sleep pattern, such as pacing and night walking, unable to lie down and go to sleep at night, sleeping more during the day, and being difficult to wake up in the morning. This is not only bad for your geriatric dog, but it can create a sleep-deprived owner as well.

4. Forgetting Training. A dog with dementia can suffer a loss of learned behavior. This can include urinating or defecating in the house even after your dog has been outside or no longer signaling to go outside. The loss of housebreaking is a major problem for most owners. The loss of learned behavior can also include getting up on furniture, such as the bed or sofa that the dog is not allowed on, or jumping up on people. This category can be subtle at first, but it will gradually become more obvious with time.

5. Changes In Activity. An old dog with canine cognitive dysfunction can have a change in activity level. This can include restless pacing, aimless wandering or losing interest in exploration. This can also include excessive licking or barking.

Treatments For Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

When a senior dog is suffering from any of these signs, it is time to take him to your veterinarian. There are several options to manage and improve your dog’s well-being.

1. Medications. There is a FDA-approved medication called deprenyl (Anipryl) to treat dogs with cognitive dysfunction. This medication works by increasing the level of dopamine in the brain, and it helps to lower the level of dangerous free radicals. Most dogs improve during the first month of using deprenyl. For the dogs who do not improve after one month of treatment, your veterinarian may double the dose of deprenyl for the second month. Some veterinarians also use a second medication called pentoxifylline (Trental) to try to increase the blood flow to the brain.

2. Diet. There is a commercial dog food called b/d that is designed to help improve cognitive function. This therapeutic diet contains high levels of fish oil, antioxidants and carnitine. It has been shown to help improve the behavioral changes, learning ability and alertness in senior dogs.

3. Nutritional Supplements. There are two oils that have been shown to improve cognitive function. Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA). DHA helps improve memory and learning. It also helps reduce inflammation. Extra virgin olive oil has also been shown to help improve cognitive function in older humans with cognitive dysfunction. It contains a high level of monounsaturated fat and helps reduce inflammation.

Antioxidants lower the level of bad free radicals and may help to improve cognitive function. Sam-e has been shown in canine studies to help improve the clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction. The therapeutic diet b/d also contains high levels of vitamin E and selenium. These two antioxidants may help to reduce the level of dangerous free radicals and may help improve cognitive function, too.

Supplements that help improve blood flow to the brain may help improve cognitive function. The herbal supplement ginkgo biloba has been shown in a few studies to help improve memory in humans with dementia. Arginine is an amino acid. It helps to increase blood flow, and it may help with memory loss.

The abnormal sleep cycle in dogs with cognitive dysfunction may be improved by using melatonin supplements. Melatonin is a natural hormone that is produced at night to help produce the normal sleep cycle. It has been shown to help older humans with dementia fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. It is also a potent antioxidant.

4. Environmental Enrichment. Enhancing your pet’s environment also helps to improve the clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction. Simple exercise like going for long walks, chasing tennis balls or playing with your dog’s favorite toy can help. It can be difficult to teach an old dog a new trick, but it is important to try this. The mental stimulation of learning a new trick can help to improve the signs of cognitive dysfunction.

Can Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Be Prevented?

Unfortunately, there is no proven way to prevent a dog from developing cognitive dysfunction when he becomes a senior. Some of the suggested treatment options, such as a diet high in antioxidants, nutritional supplements like fish oil, daily exercise and frequently learning new tricks, may slow down the development of cognitive dysfunction. With a lot of luck, these might even prevent this terrible problem.

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Dogs · Health and Care