Just like the humans who care for them, dogs are susceptible to numerous age-related issues, which can result in a decline in function. Things like memory, awareness, sight, and hearing can deteriorate as a result of aging. But unlike their owners, dogs can’t easily express what’s going on inside their bodies; they need an advocate who will monitor their behavior and bring attention to changes when they start to occur.
While it’s inevitable that your dog will age, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be living a good quality life, unless there’s an underlying problem causing a disruption to his well-being. These indicators can mean a host of different things, and determining whether they are treatable medical problems or more in-depth issues, such as canine cognitive decline (CCD) — a degeneration of the brain, is something that should be brought to your veterinarian’s attention.
Sadly since dogs don’t live as long as people do the aging process occurs a lot more quickly. It’s important to be aware that the signs of aging you observe could indicate something more serious taking place.
“We’ve known for about 30 years now that a dog’s brain ages in much the same way as people’s brains age,” says Dr. John McCue, a neurologist at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. “Changes to the canine brain mirror those of people, and, therefore, may respond to therapy in a very similar way.”
It’s not uncommon to write off changed behavior as “old age,” but don’t be so quick to assume that’s just it. “I rely on the owners to be proactive and tell me if they find changes in their dog(s),” says holistic veterinarian and author, Dr. Judy Morgan. “If you chalk up behavioral changes to old age, you might be missing out on catching something.” Just like humans, early detection is imperative to treating any type of condition.
Which Dogs Are at Risk?
“We probably see more cases of cognitive decline in smaller breeds because they live longer,” says Dr. Morgan. “A Newfoundland is considered an old dog around the age of nine, but the brain doesn’t age as fast as the joints and the heart in those types of dogs. I think that in a lot of the dogs that make it to 16, 17, even 18 years old, cognitive decline might present itself just because they’ve been alive longer.”
And while there is no set age for when things start to decline, Dr. McCue says that, on average, the earliest signs start to present themselves between 8 and 10 years of age. “It’s really a breakdown over time,” Dr. McCue says.
What Types of Changes Will My Dog Experience
- Sleep Patterns - One of the most common changes both Dr. McCue and Dr. Morgan notice in their patients is a change in the sleep/wake cycle. With their days and nights mixed up, dogs will tend to be active and awake at night, while sleeping most of the day. Signs such as anxiety, whining, crying, barking, or pacing in the middle of the night can be an indication of confusion, a feeling of not knowing where they are.
“They almost get the same sort of sundowner syndrome that people can get,” says Dr. Morgan. “A lot of times melatonin, a hormonal supplement, can help to reset their internal clock and regulate their sleep patterns.”
- Disorientation and Changes in Learned Behavior - Unfamiliarity with familiar environments is a red flag. Signs of disorientation can include: facing the wrong way in an elevator, not knowing which way the door opens or where the doorknob is, heading to the opposite side of the door, or being unable to find it at all.
Getting stuck in corners, staring into space, trouble finding treats or toys, change in interaction with people and other pets, withdrawing from routines such as playing and other activities that were once easy are all cause for concern.
- House Soiling - Your well-housebroken pet is suddenly urinating or defecating in the house and can’t remember how to ask to go out. Question is, does he have a urinary tract infection or some sort of kidney problem, or is it because he can’t find the door?
“This is where we, as veterinarians, have to figure out what is a medical problem versus a behavioral change,” says Dr. Morgan.
- Hearing and Vision Loss – Another indication your dog might be disoriented. Trouble navigating through the house at night can be a result of changing vision.
"It can be hard sometimes to pick up on these things because we live with our pets and might not be focused on the act, or why they’re doing these things on a day-to-day basis,” says Dr. McCue.
Getting a Diagnosis and Treatment
When patients exhibiting the above changes in behavior come into the Animal Medical Center, Dr. McCue asks owners to complete a questionnaire that delves into memory and learning tasks to help gauge the pet’s level of cognitive ability. “It is important to spot any concurrent health issues, as well,” he says.
Once dementia syndromes like those listed above take hold, there is little that can be done to reverse them, although there are ways to slow down the progression, as well as assist in treating underlying causes that might be contributing to your pet’s discomfort.
- Omega-3 supplements are an important source of healthy fatty acids that can be beneficial to a dog’s overall immune system.
- Melatonin supplements work well for dog’s that have trouble sleeping at night. As we age, the brain doesn’t produce as much melatonin, although it’s necessary in keeping our day and night cycle straight. According to Dr. Morgan, if you supplement with melatonin, a lot of times you can reverse that circadian rhythm.
- Milk thistle is a good supplement for those dogs experiencing a change in vision. While beneficial for the liver, it can also help keep the eyes clear as they’re aging. “Every internal organ has an external connection, so the liver and the eyes are connected,” says Dr. Morgan.
- Nutrition plays a big part in keeping dogs of all ages healthy. Following a diet balanced with antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, is extremely beneficial, especially when dealing with age-related issues. Pet food companies like Nestlé PURINA® have done a tremendous amount of research to come up with diets geared toward seniors that help support their cognitive health.
- Exercise is an important area where owners can get involved. Daily physical activity keeps their dogs both mentally and physically fit. For dogs that can no longer go the distance a short walk will suffice; the important thing is to keep them moving.
- Brain stimulation is important and something people don’t often think about, says Dr. Morgan. “The more we interact and challenge our dogs the better their mental acuity.” Stimulating them with engaging activities like fetch, tug of war, hide and seek with treats, are all excellent ways to keep the mind engaged.
Selegiline is a drug veterinarians might recommend which has been shown to help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with CCD. It is an enzyme blocker that works by slowing down the breakdown of certain natural substances in the brain. “I have used it with decent success,” says Dr. Morgan.
Please note that it is imperative to get a full and accurate evaluation by your veterinarian or veterinary neurologist to rule out other medical issues (such as a brain tumor).
It’s important to remember that, just because a dog is aging, does not mean he is destined to develop CCD, although owners need to be aware of the signs; with early detection, the level of canine cognitive decline can be maintained. Don’t give up on your dog too early; old age is not a disease.
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