As we enter our senior years we become susceptible to both physical and mental deterioration. The same holds true for our pets. Although we usually focus on our elderly pets’ physical infirmities, like us, they can be afflicted with cognitive dysfunction. Their memory, their ability to learn, their awareness of their surroundings can all deteriorate. Animals who show signs of dementia are considered to have cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Most research on CDS has been done with dogs since they interact so closely with their owners.
While there is no precise set of criteria that signifies the onset of canine CDS, there are a few common changes that an owner might perceive. For example a dog that has had his ‘housebroken’ routine down pat for several years starts to eliminate indoors in random locations, doing this especially when in full view of the owner. Sometimes the dog eliminates indoors after returning from the outside or goes to the wrong door to be let out. If there are no physical reasons for these changes, such as intestinal disorders or bladder problems, it is likely that the dog is forgetting a routine that was learned years ago.
Other possible signs of mental impairment are decreased responsiveness or uncertainty to previously known cues or commands, confusion when performing tricks or playing games, the inability to recognize familiar people or pets, a sense of being lost or bewildered in familiar locations or the inability to figure out how to navigate around obstacles. If impaired hearing or poor eyesight are not the cause of these changes, then CDS could likely be the culprit.
Other signs that are often related to CDS are increased irritability, restlessness or anxiety, particularly separation-anxiety. A dog that no longer feels confident about himself and his surroundings becomes less friendly but more needy.
A change in sleep patterns is another indication of CDS. Dogs suffering from mental decline often sleep restlessly and frequently reverse their sleeping pattern by sleeping most of the day and then staying awake most of the night.
There are ways to mitigate your dog’s mental deterioration. Many owners give their dogs anti-oxidants to counteract the aging process. There are prescription diets available from your vet that are designed to improve brain health. You should also keep your dog mentally stimulated by teaching the old dog new tricks and acquiring interactive toys and puzzles that stimulate the brain. If your dog seems to be forgetting previous training, retrain the way you did when he was a puppy and if necessary simplify commands and instructions. Besides mental stimulation, socialization and exercise should remain daily activities. Physical exercise has been shown to improve not only the body but the brain as well. Finally there is a psychoactive drug approved for dogs, but if used at all it should be a last resort.
Of course the sooner you become aware of your dog’s decreasing mental capacity and take action, the better chance you have of slowing the decline. While every breed is different, in general a dog in the 20-pound range that is 12 years old is roughly equivalent to a human in his early 70s, while a dog of the same age that is in the 90-pound range is similar to a human in his mid-80s.
It’s easy to say that your dog is “just getting old” but as we have seen with humans, there are steps that can be taken to keep your dog not just physically healthy but mentally healthy as well.
Robert Urano is an animal lover and longtime owner of a pet food store.