by Jennifer Barrows
Have you noticed changes in your aging dog’s behavior? Are they more anxious than they used to be? Do they seem confused at times, or disoriented? Do they no longer enjoy meeting new people or other dogs? Do they stare off into space for long periods of time?
Most of us are well aware of human forms of cognitive decline, or dementia, but did you know that a similar condition can also affect our pets? Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) most often occurs in dogs who are in their later years, though not always. It is characterized most often as a constellation of symptoms and behaviors that results in alterations in behavior, mood and memory.
Research from the Behavior Clinic at the University of California, Davis reported that 28% of dogs between the ages of 11 and 12 years show signs of dementia; and the likelihood increases to 68% when they reach the ages of 15 or 16.
Signs Can Vary from Dog to Dog
Sometimes the changes in dogs with CCD are gradual and/or subtle, and they may not be identified right away as being anything other than signs of an aging dog. Other changes are more dramatic.
A dog with CCD can get lost in their own home, or get “stuck” in corners, unable to figure out how to back out. They may have difficulty eating or drinking. This can entail an inability to find their bowl, failure to align their mouth with the bowl, and not being capable of keeping food in their mouth. They also may become trapped in situations in their own home – underneath furniture, tangled in cables or electrical cords, unable to negotiate stairs – or may risk injury from falling, where it was never an issue before.
What You Can Do
Human guardians play a critical role in helping to diagnose CCD, and it all starts with being observant and noting any strange or altered behaviors in your pet. Keep a list of any occurrences to share with your veterinarian. Even if the changes are subtle, be sure to note them in detail, along with the date; they may become more pronounced later on, and it will be helpful to know when they started in order to mark the pace of the disease’s progression. A list of common symptoms of CCD is available for download at dogdementia.com.
Along with the aforementioned checklist, there is another tool that can help pet guardians to explore whether their pet may have CCD. Developed by researchers at the University of Sydney, in Australia, the Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating Scale (CCDR) has been found to be 98.9% accurate in distinguishing cognitive dysfunction from the normal aging process. The CCDR is available online; see our Resources sidebar for a QR code that will link you to the rating scale. Please note that this tool should not serve as a substitute for professional veterinary evaluation, diagnosis and care, but it may help to prepare you for discussions and decision-making with your vet. Your informed choices – and working in tandem with your veterinarian – can improve your dog’s capabilities and slow the disease’s progression.
There is no diagnostic test to identify CCD. Your veterinarian will likely give you a questionnaire to ascertain which and how many of the commonly identified changes your pet exhibits. He or she will want to rule out other age-related conditions that can produce similar symptoms, such as kidney or liver disease, separation anxiety, arthritis, and vision and hearing loss – and these are but a few examples.
Treating and Living with CCD
Your veterinarian is likely to recommend a multi-faceted approach to treating CCD, and exact methods may vary depending on how far the disease has progressed. While the condition is not curable, it is possible to stabilize or slow the disease process. The most effective interventions to date consist of a combination of prescription medications, specially formulated food and/or supplements and regular exercise. It is equally important to adjust your living space to ensure your dog’s safety, and to offer plenty of enrichment activities and toys.
Most dogs with CCD benefit greatly from exercise and enrichment activities or toys. Food puzzle toys, like Kongs, offer a cognitive challenge (where dogs have to work to get to their kibble or treats). However, the level of physical activity a dog with CCD can endure and their facility for figuring out a puzzle toy will depend on the stage of their disease. In some cases, a Kong may frustrate a dog with advanced CCD.
Make your home as safe as possible for your dog. Their condition may affect their gait, making them unsteady on their feet. If they use a doggie ramp to get onto the bed, make sure it’s stable and not too narrow for them to negotiate. If your dog has bouts of confusion, a ramp may not be a good idea.
Keeping to a routine is helpful during early stages of CCD, but in later stages, your dog very likely will not remember routines. Eating and drinking may become difficult for them for a number of reasons; the simplest solution may be relocating their bowls for easier access. You might consider the use of baby gates to keep your dog in safe areas of the house, as well as edge and corner guards to protect them from sharp furniture.
For instances when you must be away from home for a few hours at a time, consider installing a “web cam.” These are video cameras that allow you to see what is going on from a remote location, via your smart phone. They are relatively inexpensive and rely on a wifi network for the camera set up. Some will record and alert you if there is any motion detected. This is an effective way to further document the dog’s activity and to note any new or concerning behaviors that are developing in your absence.
Canine cognitive dysfunction is a subject too extensive to cover in one article; however, this introduction to the topic may prompt you to pay attention to some behaviors you had not considered to be important. Fortunately, there are very helpful and timely resources available on living with CCD. One book that we found particularly informative is, Remember Me? by Eileen Anderson. In it, she recounts her experiences living with her beloved dog Cricket, who developed CCD. Through trial and error, and working closely with her veterinarian, Eileen discovered ways to make the most of their time together, keeping Cricket comfortable and happy, even in the late stages of disease. Of particular note, the book’s sections on specific challenges and recommended solutions, ideas for enrichment activities, and end-of-life decisions are comprehensive and well worth a read.
On her website, Eileen notes,
“I didn’t recognize my dog Cricket’s first symptoms, and she had probably had dementia for at least two years by the time she was diagnosed, I don’t want anyone else to have a delay like that. There is medical help for cognitive dysfunction in dogs, and there are many ways you can help your dog have a good life even as their mental functioning is declining.”
No pet guardian wants to witness the signs of physical and/or mental decline as their pet moves into advanced age. Such decline can be an inevitable part of the aging process; however, sometimes there is another cause, as with CCD. Understanding the difference between the natural aging process and CCD – and taking early action to stabilize or slow its progression – will in many cases improve your dog’s longevity and quality of life.
Dementia in Dogs: What to Look For
Disorientation, even in their own home
Irregular sleeping patterns
Forgetting their housetraining (eliminating inside the home)
Barking for no apparent reason
Decrease or increase in appetite
Confusion over simple commands
Not responding to their name
Staring into space or at the walls
Pacing, aimless wandering, or walking in circles
Disinterest or aversion to interacting with people and other pets
Going to the wrong side of the door (waiting at the hinge-side, for a closed door to open)
Aggressive behavior (growling or snapping)
Interventions to Improve Quality of Life
Keep an eye on your pet periodically throughout the day
Keep notes on any day-to-day changes
Keep life interesting (car rides, outdoor trips, etc.)
Provide plenty of walks and sniffing opportunities
Make indoor living spaces and outdoor yard safe
Keep nightlights on at night
Allow space for pacing, which may help them to relieve stress
Hopeful News and Resources
The Australian research team that created the Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating scale also conducted the first successful stem cell transplant in a dog with CCD, who subsequently experienced a reversal in his symptoms. The results have been dramatic and hold much promise for improving and even reversing dementia in both dogs and humans. Research is ongoing.
To view articles about this promising research, scan the QR codes below with your Smartphone: