Dog Dementia: What is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

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Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive degenerative process associated with a pet’s brain aging. It is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. It can have a major effect on the dog’s behavior, mood, and routine activities. The pet owner may see changes in their pet’s alertness, responsiveness to stimuli, altered learning capability, and a decrease in the pet’s memory.

What causes cognitive dysfunction in dogs?

The exact cause of this degenerative disorder is not known. Chronic illness or stress may increase a dog’s chances of suffering from cognitive dysfunction, but some or all of the following factors may contribute toward this dysfunction and affect the normal functioning of the dog’s brain. 

  • A decrease in neurons with age
  • The deposition of toxic free radicals with chronic illness or stress
  • A decrease in blood flow to the brain with age
  • A decline in transmission capability of neurons in older dogs
  • The death of neurons by toxic free radicals  

At what age can dogs get cognitive dysfunction?

The age of onset of cognitive dysfunction in dogs is quite variable. At least 50% of dogs by the age of 11 years have one or more of the clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction. Vigilant owners can catch signs at an early age. In some cases, declines in cognitive function can be seen as early as 7 years of age of the dogs.

What are the symptoms of cognitive dysfunction in dogs?

Your pet may show some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Disorientation; the pet may be confused and lost in familiar environments like home or park
  • Changes in sleeping cycle, including night waking or vocalization and sleeping a lot during the day.
  • Changes in interactions with family members, friends, or other animals such as being less enthusiastic to greet them, wanting less attention, and showing signs of aggression toward them.
  • Abnormal behavior and less interest in eating or playing and being unwilling to socialize
  • Staring at inanimate objects 
  • Being restless with pacing and aimless wandering
  • House soiling and lack of response to commands are also common. The dog may eliminate in an improper location. The dog may appear deaf to the owner because he does not respond to learned commands.

How is this condition diagnosed?

Unfortunately, there is no direct test to diagnose cognitive dysfunction in dogs, but common blood tests, urine tests, neurological examination, and x-rays may help your vet in ruling out other conditions with similar symptoms.

There are some other conditions that your vet will want to consider. These are 

  • Behavior problems such as separation anxiety 
  • Arthritis in older dogs
  • Impaired sight or hearing
  • Kidney or liver diseases

How do you treat cognitive dysfunction in dogs?

Unfortunately, no treatment can reverse cognitive dysfunction; we can slow down its progression with some medications prescribed by your veterinarian. 

Medication for dogs with cognitive dysfunction:

  • Selegiline, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor also known as Anipryl, is the drug of choice in treating this condition, but this drug has some side effects such as loss of appetite, increased water intake, vomiting, confusion, disorientation, and restlessness. Speak to your vet if these side effects occur.
  • Propentofylline is another drug that is licensed in some countries for the treatment of this condition in dogs.

Nutritional supplements and diet changes:

There are some nutritional supplements and diets that may be beneficial for dogs with this syndrome. Speaking to your vet before trying any supplements is a must.

  • Choline supplementation in food may be effective for cognitive dysfunction in dogs.
  • Vitamin B6 has antioxidant properties and may be beneficial to reduce toxic free radicals
  • Gingko herbal extract is also considered helpful due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Commercially available diets such as Hill’s Prescription Diet b/d TM may help to reduce age-related behavior changes in older dogs. The diet has a high level of omega-3 fatty acids and other antioxidants. 

Exercise and behavior:

Daily light exercise is helpful in delaying the onset of the condition. 

Behavioral therapy is also an important part of the treatment. 

Make the environment more accessible to the pet, for example by ensuring their bed is low to the ground and padded for comfort, and avoid moving furniture so as not to confuse them. They may need additional toilet breaks or you may find it helpful to set up an indoor toilet area. 

Provide environmental enrichment to maintain mental processes such as taking them on gentle smell walks and allowing them to sniff, and ensuring they still have interactions with their human family members. 

Add more water bowls close to resting areas.

How long do dogs live with cognitive dysfunction?

Generally speaking, cognitive dysfunction does not affect the quantity of life; rather it affects the quality of life. So, dogs with cognitive dysfunction can live a normal lifespan with a compromised quality of life.

Author: Dr. Gurpal Chahal