May 06 2015

Dementia In Senior Pets – It Is More Common Than You Think

Pets with Dementia

I have just diagnosed my 12 year old Jordan with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.  Dementia, Alzheimer or Cognitive dysfunction is becoming more of an issue as our dogs and cats start to live longer lives.  60% of senior pets will have some form of dementia but less than 1% of those pets will ever receive any treatment, as owners are just not aware that there actually is a problem.  Most owners just chalk up the behaviour changes in their pets to old age.  Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is actually a condition related to the changes in the brain as it ages.  The degeneration in parts of the brain lead to changes in awareness, decrease in learning and memory, and a decrease response to their environment and an increase in anxiety.

Remember that a pet does not need to have all of these clinical signs to be developing dementia.  So what are the 10 most common signs of dementia?

  • 1 Change in sleep-wake cycle – sleeps more during the day and awake during the night
  • 2 Increase in anxiety
  • 3 Lower threshold for aggression or irritability
  • 4 Decreased activity levels
  • 5 Inappropriate vocalization (howling, barking or whining)
  • 6 Repetitive behaviours (pacing / circles)
  • 7 Inappropriate urination or defecation
  • 8 Staring at walls or into space
  • 9 Fewer social interactions
  • 10 Disorientation/ Confusion (getting “lost” in the house or yard; goes to wrong side of door)

So how did I know that my sweet girl was starting to have issues with her aging brain?  For the last couple months her behaviour changed just slightly.  She barked in the evening at weird times and she did not really seem to know why she was barking.  She did not want out, there was nobody at the door, and she had food and water.  It was a change and it was odd.  Then this week when I was away, my friend who kindly takes her in and gives her loving, noticed she occasionally seemed lost, anxious and a bit confused in their backyard.  Not everyday but that confusion and odd barking is enough for me to be proactive and start Jordan on treatment to slow the deterioration and changes in her brain.

So what can I do for my Jordan?  Medicine has changed and come a long way since I graduated and had my first senior dog who also suffered from dementia. With Jake I came home one day, he was eleven, and he had destroyed my room; tore up the carpet, dug a hole in the door, chewed his bed apart, pulled all the blankets off my bed.  Jake had developed separation anxiety.  With Jake the diagnosis and treatment of dementia was something very new.  I had missed the early signs and now he had a significant anxiety to treat.  Now 15 years later, treatment has evolved, and Jordan has been diagnosed much early in the disease process.

So what can you do as an owner and what will I do with my sweet Jordan?

  1. Know and recognize the symptoms early.  Here is another great example of how being proactive can significantly help your pet.  Look for mild versions of the above symptoms.  By being proactive and treating early we can slow the deterioration of the brain and thus prevent the worsening of the clinical signs, but once it is gone it is much harder to treat the clinical signs. (Jordan: Check-Done)
  2. Use Omega 3 fatty acid supplements.  What is found in most diets is not enough to mitigate the brain’s deterioration.  But studies have shown that the use of Omega FA in pets will significantly reduce the onset and severity of the brain deterioration. (Jordan: Check-Done) I actually recommend owner start these in all their senior pets, even if they show no signs of dementia as it is great for the heart, kidneys, skin, coat , joints AND brain.
  3. Teach an old dog a new trick. (And with cats, keep them stimulated with toys and play time).  It is true in both pets and humans use it or lose it!   Make those pets think and use their brains.  Puzzle toys, a new trick, teach cats to hunt for their treat just a few simple examples of how to get your pet to think. (I am thinking for Jordan, since she is still agile – I will teach her to back up when I “beep” – like the backup sound of a truck).
  4. A schedule can help decrease anxiety in a confused pet.  Try and keep meal times, walk times, bed time etc. the same each day as this regularity is calming in a confused mind.
  5. If your pet is starting to show anxiety then we need to manage it early.  Classical music, lighting, walks or use of crates in pets who have been crate trained early in life can all be helpful.  Sometimes we need the addition of nutritional supplements such as Zylkene, or pheromones such as DAP, for dogs, or Feliway for cats.  (Jordan doesn’t show anxiety here at home but I will try a DAP collar for her when she is staying at someone else’s home).
  6. Nutrition: We have special prescription diet, Hill’s brain diet, B/D.  (Jordan eats Royal Canin Mobility, not because she has shown me that she is sore, but at 12 I know her joints and ligaments have aged and I want to know that I am helping those joints.  But now with the increased anxiety I will change her to brain/diet (B/D) as they are both only dry foods but also want to help her joints I will also add canned Joint Diet (J/D) to her meals.)
  7. Medications.  Novifit  (SAM-e)is a reliable, first-line supplement option for behavioral disorders associated with cognitive decline and brain aging in dogs and cats. This medication can help improve activity levels, awareness and memory.

(Novifit is already part of Jordan’s daily routine.)  Another option for some pets is the use of Anipryl (selegiline), which has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the brain.

If the clinical signs are progressive, you and your pet do not need to suffer alone, I would recommend discussing it with your veterinarian.

Once again this is another area where it is important to be proactive for it is easier to slow down the deterioration than it is to reverse the symptoms.  So make sure your senior pet is examined every 6 months so minor changes in overall health, not just with cognitive function, can be caught early and treated quickly.  Our recommendation is to make sure before your appointment you fill out the senior check list, as there may be changes in your pet that you may not realize are important and should be brought to your veterinarian’s attention.

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