The old dog's new tricks: cognitive dysfunction

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Jun 20 2011

My beloved dog, Katie, turned 13 this month. She is obviously getting up there in years, and I’ve noticed some changes in her over the past several months. Her sleep patterns have changed--she sleeps so soundly that sometimes she doesn’t even wake up when I come home. Her bathroom habits have changed and she often wakes me in the middle of the night to go outside. She occasionally paces at night and seems anxious. She barks from the back porch at imaginary threats in the backyard.

I recognize these changes as the start of canine cognitive dysfuntion, or senility. Other signs of this disease include:

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  • Confusion
  • Wandering
  • Staring into space
  • Separation Anxiety
  • Panting
  • Loss of house breaking
  • Getting stuck in a corner (cannot figure out how to get out of corner)

The signs of canine cognitive dysfunction come on so gradually that they are hard to notice, and often owners consider these behaviors as normal in an old dog. But just because the behaviors occur with more frequency in older dogs does not make them normal behaviors. In fact, researchers have found that affected dogs have deposits of protein in their brains very similar to the protein deposition found in human Alzheimer’s patients.

There are a few things you can try to help out your aging dog if she is showing signs of senility. A medication called Anipryl prolongs the activity of dopamine and helps scavenge free radicals in the brain. In addition, diets high in antioxidants and essential fatty acids have been shown to improve cognitive function.

Finally, you can try a few things on your own with your dog to improve her quality of life. Try teaching hand signals for commands in case her hearing is also suffering. Pick up any clutter around the house that could be confusing, and try not to significantly rearrange the furniture. Confused dogs are prone to wander off, so be sure to keep your older dog securely fenced or on lead, and make sure she is always wearing a collar with an ID tag. Hopefully you already have your pet microchipped. If not, consider having a microchip placed the next time you are in the vet’s office.

Our pets are now enjoying longer lives, thanks in part to advancement in veterinary care and owner education. Most of us view our pets as a part of the family, and it is difficult to see them age. If your dog is showing signs of cognitive dysfunction, talk to your veterinarian about what you can do to help her.

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