Understanding How Aging Dogs Develop Dementia

Understanding How Aging Dogs Develop Dementia

Dementia is a painful thing to watch any loved one experience. But we probably associate brain-aging diseases like Alzheimer’s with our human loved ones more often than we do similar diseases affecting our dogs. The truth is, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, or CCDS, is an age-related neurobehavioral syndrome that causes a decline in cognitive functions just like it affects humans. And it’s believed that anywhere from 14 to 22 percent of dogs develop this in their senior years, compared to the Alzheimer’s Associations claim that one in 10 people age 65 and older will develop Alzheimer’s. 

“First, understand that the changes are not the pet’s ‘fault’ when they start to house soil,” Dr. Melissa Bain, Professor of Clinical Animal Behavior at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine says about noticing the first signs a dog may have Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. “They can’t help it.” 

In 2001, Bain conducted early research on the subject, collecting data from 63 spayed female and 47 castrated male dogs 11 to 14 years of age. The animals were all selected at random and their owners were interviewed twice at a 12 to 18-month interval. They were asked to observe their dog’s behavior in orientation in the home and yard, social interactions with human family members, house training, and the sleep-wake cycle. 

“Between interviews, 22 percent (16/73) of dogs that did not have impairment in a category at the time of the first interview developed impairment in that category by the time of the second interview,” the results read. “Forty-eight percent (13/27) of dogs that had impairment in one category at the time of the first interview developed impairment in greater than two categories by the time of the second interview and were significantly more likely to develop impairment in greater than two categories, compared with dogs that initially had impairment in zero categories. Dogs with one sign of dysfunction in orientation were significantly more likely to develop impairment in that category, compared with dogs that had zero signs of dysfunction in orientation.” 

In layman’s terms, a significant number of dogs in her study were experiencing some kind of impairment as they aged. And according to Bain and other experts, there are signs we can all watch for even in its earliest stages. 

"Age of onset can vary greatly based on individual breed characteristics, however, we commonly see signs of CCDS in dogs 11 years and older," says Dr. Emily Wilson, of Fuzzy Pet Health. "Subtle initial clinical signs can be noted as early as seven years of age in some dogs."

1. They Interact With You Differently 

You are likely the person or thing your dog is most familiar with and comfortable with in their life. When they behave differently around or toward you it’s a potential sign of confusion and the anxiety they experience from it. 

2. Incontinence 

This can sometimes be a simple symptom of decreased mobility or injuries, but remember that your dog’s likely been house trained for years and it’s unusual for them to return that behavior. One random accident is probably nothing to stress about but certainly worth taking note of if it becomes a new habit. 

3. Sleeping Irregularly and More Often 

Needing and wanting more sleep is par for the course during a dog’s later years. But an irregular and new sleep/wake cycle can be abnormal. 

 "Some dogs will start to sleep more during the day and then be restless with increased wakefulness during the night either due to increased anxiety or decreased awareness of their regular routine,” says Wilson.

4. Aggression Toward Familiar People 

Abnormal aggression can be the result of many possible health problems in dogs but when that aggression is turned on familiar family faces, your dog may be experiencing a lack of recognition. Their aggression is actually a result of cognitive decline and is a marker of their anxiety confusion, not so much anger toward you. 

5. They Wander Aimlessly 

…as if they’re lost? If this symptom sounds familiar it’s because it might be one of the most painful to recognize when a grandparent or great grandparent develops dementia.  

"As dogs develop CCDS they have difficulty with day-to-day routine recognition and remembering where to go, similar to humans with Alzheimer’s disease,” Wilson confirms. 

This goes for getting lost around the home or even on familiar walking routes — anything that your dog’s become comfortable with and gotten to know inside and out over the years. 

6. Staring Off Into Space 

Aimlessly staring off into space can sometimes be a sign of dementia. Of course, dogs can do this at any point in their life but it sometimes becomes a more consistent habit with the development of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. 

It’s possible for some dogs to develop CCDS as early as seven years old and if you can start to recognize some or any of these signs in their earliest stages, you’ll have the greatest chance of getting them the best help available as well as ensuring the greatest quality of life possible There’s no known cure for dementia but there are still things you can do to minimize its heartbreaking effects. 

“Medically, there are diets and supplements available that slow down the progression of the disease,” Bain says. “These have ingredients such as antioxidants that can help with brain health. There is one medication licensed to treat CCD, Anipryl, that has some success in decreasing some of the signs that dogs demonstrate.”

"One of the best things is regular environmental enrichment and mental stimulation," Dr. Wilson says of how we can take an active roll in helping our pet’s struggles with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. "This can include food puzzles or some simple low-stress training to help engage their minds on a daily basis. Regular low-impact exercise is also really important and it will also help maintain a healthy weight as well as mental stimulation."

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