We can all relate: sometimes it’s just hell getting older, no matter what age we are. Gradually we learn to accept the slightly stiffer joints, forgetting where we left our phone, and having to hold that restaurant menu just a little bit further out in front to read it.
Of course our dogs also experience physical changes as they age. But oftentimes we chalk up any mental or behavioral changes to simply “getting older”, or the slow onset of senility.
But what if there was a physical reason for these changes? One that, if caught in time, could be slowed down, enabling our senior dogs to enjoy a better quality of life?
There is. It’s a disorder called “Canine Cognitive Dysfunction”, and what we’re learning about it now can help us take better care of our dogs well into their golden years.
What Is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), also known as “dog dementia”, is most commonly found in older dogs. It’s a cognitive disorder, which means it’s related to the brain’s mental processes of learning, attention,and memory. CCD causes many of the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s disease in humans, and is thought to share a similar cause – proteins called “beta-amyloids” that form deposits and plaque build-up in the brain.
These beta-amyloid plaques (which start to show up in the brains of dogs affected with CCD around the average age of 9 years) interfere with the brain’s transmission of electrical signals. Over time, they also begin to destroy specialized nerves in the brain.
In humans with Alzheimer’s disease, beta-amyloid plaques form clusters called “neurofibrillary tangles” that can easily be seen on an MRI. However, these “tangles” have not been identified in dogs and cats, making it much more difficult to diagnose CCD in pets.
Beta-amyloid plaques are not the only cause of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. The root cause is actually the numerous changes that occur in the brain as it ages. Dog’s brains age in a similar fashion to ours, undergoing atrophy (shrinkage and deterioration), loss of neurons, and cellular damage – all of which contribute to the development of CCD.
A study by the Animal Behavior Clinic at University of California, Davis showed that the risk of CCD increases with age: 28 percent of dogs aged 11-12 years and 68 percent of dogs aged 15-16 years showed one or more signs of cognitive impairment.
All dogs are at risk for developing CCD – a dog’s gender or breed doesn’t matter. The only common factor seems to be age.
Symptoms of CCD
Some of the signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction are similar to other conditions commonly seen in old age, including loss of hearing and vision. Since only a veterinarian will be able to distinguish the difference, it’s best to seek veterinary advice as soon as you notice anything unusual with your dog.
Signs of CCD may include the following (not all dogs will exhibit all of these symptoms):
- Confusion or disorientation
- Not recognizing (or becoming startled by) familiar people or places
- Forgetfulness, including inability to remember tricks previously learned
- Wandering through the house
- Not responding to name being called
- Staring into space or at walls, getting lost in corners
- Problems with learning
- Lack of awareness of surroundings
- Having accidents in the house
- Decreased attention
- Less interest in play
- Whining and barking for no apparent reason
- Pacing, restlessness, walking in circles
- Excessive panting
- Lack of interest in food (some dogs may even “forget” to eat)
- Changes in sleep/wake cycles (sleeping all day and wandering through the house at night)
- Withdrawing from interactions with family members
- Anxiety or irritability
- Uncharacteristic aggression towards people or other pets in the household
- Personality changes
Diagnosing Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Diagnosis of CCD is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that other causes are ruled out first through process of elimination. Many medical disorders can cause the same symptoms seen with CCD, including epilepsy, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, bladder problems, thyroid disorders, cancer, heart disease, even chronic pain.
Some behavioral problems, such as separation anxiety, phobias, fear-related aggression, and compulsive disorders, can also mimic CCD.
Preliminary medical testing may include:
- Blood tests, including a basic chemistry panel and/or more specialized tests to evaluate thyroid function and check for other medical disorders
- X-rays to look for evidence of arthritis, cancer, heart disease, or other organ disease
- Urinalysis to check kidney function and rule out bladder infection
- Ultrasound if x-rays are inconclusive
If these tests are normal, your veterinarian will then make a diagnosis of CCD based on the presence of one or more of the following “DISHA” signs (as presented by The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine) :
- “D”isorientation – changes in spatial awareness, loss of ability to navigate around familiar obstacles, wandering behavior.
- “I”nteraction changes – decreased interest in social interactions, petting, greetings; dependent or “clingy” behaviors.
- “S”leep/Wake cycle changes – restlessness or frequent waking during the night, increased sleep during daytime hours.
- “H”ousesoiling – incontinence, indoor elimination, pet no longer lets owner know when it needs to go outside.
- “A”ctivity level changes – decreased exploration and response to people or activity around the house; decreased appetite; increased anxiety, including restlessness, agitation, and/or separation distress.
Since your veterinarian only sees your dog in the clinic and isn’t able to observe him at home, it’s important to let your vet know of any changes in your dog’s behavior. A disconnect can occur when veterinarians rely on us to tell them when our older pets are displaying behavioral changes, while we might assume these changes are just a natural part of the aging process.
Treatment Options for CCD
Although there’s no single medication that will help all dogs with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, if your dog is diagnosed with CCD, there are several options available for treatment.
This is the only drug approved by the FDA for use in dogs with CCD. Anipryl® is a psychoactive drug that increases the level of dopamine (an essential neurotransmitter) in the brain. This medication is considered the best drug currently available for treating CCD, with approximately 75% of treated dogs showing improvement in their symptoms within 30 to 60 days. Some researchers believe this drug can actually help reverse the changes associated with CCD.
Like any medication, Anipryl® can have side effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, or loss of appetite.
There are now prescription diets available for dogs with CCD. Hill’s Prescription Diet b/d contains Vitamins E and C, beta carotene (an antioxidant), L-carnitine (which enhances function of the brain cells’ mitochondria), and omega-3 fatty acids (which promotes cell membrane health).
According to The Ohio State University, in clinical trials, this diet alone significantly improved learning in dogs with CCD. The results were even greater when combined with other treatment methods.
These include the nutritional supplements Senilife™, Proneurozone™, and Denosyl®. Cholodin®, a vitamin B choline supplement, has also been shown to be effective in improving symptoms of CCD. Your veterinarian will be able to recommend the best supplement for your dog.
Providing dogs with physical exercise, new and interactive toys, and learning new tasks and tricks have all been shown to improve learning and memory in dogs with CCD.
Living With Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
If your dog is diagnosed with CCD, there are several things you can do to help.
Adhering to a strict schedule can help alleviate anxiety. Routine activities around feeding, walking outside, and playtime are calming to dogs with CCD and makes them feel more secure. Try not to make any drastic changes in your home (such as rearranging furniture), as this can be upsetting to your dog. Also try to keep your home free of clutter to provide wider pathways if your dog has trouble getting around or is unsteady on his feet.
Remember that your dog may need more frequent trips outside to go to the bathroom, as he may not always be aware of the fact that he has to go. You can also offer him daily mental stimulation by re-training him on tasks or tricks using positive reinforcement training involving lots of treats and praise – just like when he was a puppy.
Can Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Be Prevented?
Unfortunately, there are no proven methods for preventing CCD, since it’s a function of brain aging and most of the time is inevitable.
However, researchers believe you can slow the onset of CCD by practicing the following:
- Keep your dog active with regular physical exercise appropriate for his age and medical condition.
- Provide lots of interactive toys, like puzzle feeders, bubble machines, tug toys, and treat dispensing toys.
- Allow your dog to interact and play (safely) with other dogs and with people.
- Continuously teach your dog new tricks, especially those that are more complicated and require more than one step in a sequence.
- Provide your dog with a healthy, high-quality diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Keep your dog at a healthy weight.
- As your dog gets older, consider twice-yearly veterinary exams instead of just one annual exam. Be sure to mention any changes to your veterinarian.
We Don’t Have to Take CCD Lying Down!
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is rarely life-threatening. However, it can drastically affect both your dog’s quality of life and the bond between you and your dog. Just because your dog is getting older doesn’t mean you can’t intervene and attempt to slow down the onset of CCD. Early recognition of symptoms allows for early intervention.
A recent study cited by The Ohio State University showed that 48 percent of dogs aged 11-14 years who showed signs of impairment in one behavioral category went on to develop impairment in 2 or more categories within 6-18 months if treatment was not provided. Clinical trials have shown that signs of CCD can be improved (and the onset of additional signs delayed) with appropriate treatment.
Veterinary behaviorists are also starting to speak out about the need in veterinary medicine to monitor not only body systems, but also behavior in older pets. Some veterinary clinics are beginning to offer behavioral questionnaires to their clients when they bring their pets in for an exam. This can help spark conversation between pet parents and veterinarians regarding any recent changes in behavior.
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction may be a progressive, incurable disease, but early diagnosis and treatment can slow your dog’s mental decline and give him a good quality of life well into his senior years.
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Have you ever cared for a dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction? Please tell us about it in the comments below!