Dementia in Dogs

Behaviour changes might not be just due to old age. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) is a dementia-like syndrome that occurs in approximately 12-14% of older dogs more than 10 years of age. It is similar to human Alzheimer's dementia.

CCD is caused by physical and chemical changes in the brain of older dogs. Structural changes include a reduction in brain size, a loss of functional neurons and the deposition of alzheimer-type plaques in the brain tissue. Chemical changes also occur such as a reduction in essential neurotransmitters. Blood vessels to the brain are constricted, cutting down its supply of oxygen, and so increases the problem.

Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Changes in a pet's behaviour typically include:

  • confusion and disorientation
  • decreased interest in food
  • general apathy
  • wall staring
  • decreased ability to recognise places and people
  • disruption of the normal sleep/wake cycle
  • wandering
  • repetitive pacing and circling
  • persistent barking or whining, especially at night
  • loss of learned behaviours, such as toilet training
  • irritability and aggression
  • reduced interaction with the owner

These changes in behaviour are usually readily recognised but, while 75% of the owners of aged pets notice at least one of the above signs, regretfully, most don't realise the problem is often treatable and that's unfortunate because the condition is progressive. Once the signs are seen, dogs get worse without treatment.

Before diagnosing CCD, a thorough physical and neurological examination of the dog is performed to ensure that there are no other likely 'old age' causes of the changes, such as arthritis, a reduction in vision and hearing, diabetes, liver disease, cardio-vascular disease, neoplasia and anxiety disorders.

Treatment of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

CCD can be treated and the options include medications, dietary changes, behaviour modification and changes to the pet's environment.

Medications are available for treatment of some forms of cognitive dysfunction in dogs. These drugs help to normalize neurotransmitter levels, increase blood supply and protect against nerve cell deterioration. If you recognize any of the above problems in your dog, it is worth trying treatment as many dogs show marked improvement and become more attentive, playful and interactive.

Sometimes drug therapy needs to be combined with behavioural treatment, for example, urinating indoors may have become a habit requiring rehouse-training. Like in humans, dogs need to 'Use it or lose it' - provide a rich environment designed to stimulate its brain using toys, simple brain challenges and brain games involving simple training routines (e.g. sit, drop, fetch) are ideal because many older dogs are chronically bored.

Changing the pet's environment may also help. Because many old dogs are arthritic, be sure your dog has comfortable soft bedding and that the stairs it has to climb are not slippery. Ensure he or she can easily negotiate the back door and the steps so that when the call of nature beckons, your dog can easily get to the garden to relieve itself. Don't forget a 'wee' walk before bed time.

Keep household furniture changes to a minimum, though, so as not
to confuse your dog and stick to his or her normal routine.

A new diet has recently been released on the market specifically for CCD. This diet contains increased levels of antioxidants to reduce the free radicals produced in ageing brains. The antioxidants in this diet include Vitamins E and C. A special mix of fruit and vegetables are also added to give increased levels of the antioxidants known as carotenoids and flavenoids. Other ingredients are included to promote cell function and durability. Research has shown that this form of dietary management improved the learning ability of older dogs by 58%.

A new study, lead by the Regenerative Neuroscience Group of the University of Sydney's Brain & Mind Research Institute, aims to discover whether brain engraftment of ‘patient-specific’ skin-derived neural stem-like cells can help cure dogs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. If successful this world-first study would pave the way for similar clinical trials in humans with dementia.