Diagnosis And Management Of Dementia In Dogs

As dogs age it isn’t only their bodies that start to show signs of becoming older. Just as our memories, abilities to process new information and general brain function declines as we get older so does that of our pet dogs. You may start to notice that he doesn’t respond to your voice as quickly, that he is no longer interested in activities he used to enjoy and he appears distant and confused, he may even have accidents in the house. Often compared to Alzheimer’s disease in humans; It may be that your dog is suffering from dementia, known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.

What is dementia?

Our pets are living longer, happier lives due to advances in nutrition, medicine and the way we care for them. The process of ages causes physiological changes which affect how your dog feels and behaves. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction describes a condition which occurs as the brain ages and at present the cause is unknown although certain contributory factors have been identified by research into the condition which is ongoing. Recent statistics have suggested that as many as 1 in 3 11 year old dogs suffer from signs of dementia.* Sadly there is no cure, it is possible that some medications  and nutrients can help manage the condition however the decline cannot be completely stopped. If you believe your dog is suffering from Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome it is highly recommended that you visit your veterinary practice on a regular basis. Many practices now offer “Senior Clinics” where qualified veterinary nurses will advise on how to manage this condition, monitor any changes and importantly, prepare for the continual deterioration with a peaceful, pain-free ending in mind for your dog.

Signs of dementia

Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome can be wide ranging, some may appear slowly but others can occur and become an issue for the dog relatively quickly. It is important to talk over the signs with your Vet or Vet nurse as some signs can potentially indicate underlying conditions.

Some of the most common signs are as follows:

  • A blank, lost look in the dogs eyes – they appear distant and unreactive
  • Circling – walking round in a circle continuously
  • Getting lost/stuck in their own home – may get stuck in places around the house
  • Repetitive actions
  • Urinating /Defecating in the house
  • Makes uncharacteristic noises – may whine, pant or bark at inappropriate times
  • Change in sleeping patterns – erratic sleep patterns may be sleeping all day and awake all night , excess sleeping or insomnia
  • Behavioural changes – often due to confusion dogs may become irritable and snappy, even one that was once very placid can withdraw into itself and snap when interrupted.
  • Change in family behaviours – your dog may no longer react to his name or your voice, and may not greet you happily at the door as he has done in the past.

Causes of dementia:

At present there is no conclusive cause known although it is believed that certain changes in the brain can contribute. Nerve function is vital to cognitive function and this relies on the chemical reaction of transmission of information across nerve pathways – from structures known as synapses.

Each nerve firing is a message to the body to react, whether this is physical or mental, the nervous system has overriding control of the speed of reactions in the dog.

One theory on a contributing factor to dementia is as the dog ages a protein known as beta amyloid accumulates in the brain clustering around the nerves (known as a plaque). The build-up acts as an insulator to the chemical process of the nerve firing and thus prevents or slows the nerve sending the message to the receptors in the body.  As the amount of beta amyloid increases it becomes increasingly difficult for the nerves to work effectively.

Another view related to the nerve action is that decreased dopamine production has been identified in cases of dementia. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and its presence is essential for effective nerve transmission.

These findings are extremely useful when looking at possible treatments to manage the condition.

Diagnosing dementia

There is no single test which can diagnose canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Your vet will base the diagnosis on examination, observations and exclusion of underlying conditions.
As your vet carries out a full examination he will take notes on your concerns and what you have noticed at home, he may recommend a blood test and a urine sample. These simple tests will allow the vet to exclude any other conditions often found in senior pets and monitor the function of your dog’s vital organs such as heart, liver and kidneys. Your vet will be likely to ask you to return for a review after a few weeks of trying any treatments and will wish to monitor the progression of the symptoms.

Treatment of dementia

Although there is no cure for dementia and ultimately the condition will progress, there are options available which can help manage the signs and slow further degeneration.

Two medications are commonly prescribed in these cases, they are called Selegiline hydrochloride (marketed in the UK as Selgian by CEVA on prescription only) and Propentofylline (marketed amongst others as Vivitonin, Vitofyllin and the generic drug).

Selegiline has shown proven efficacy in dementia cases by improving signs of the condition in around 75% of cases *. It is commonly prescribed in humans and directly affects the firing of the nerves by increasing the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Propentofylline is generally prescribed to help manage signs of dementia, the drug does not work on nerve transmission instead it increases blood flow to the brain. Improvements in the dog’s energy levels, concentration and physical signs such as panting can be seen with use of this medication.

In addition to medications, a number of pet foods manufacturers now offer complete diets which are promoted as counteracting the signs of ageing.  The formulation is based on antioxidant complexes and addition of Omega Fatty acids. A branded diet has reported improvements in accidents in the house (74% of dogs) and increased recognition in greeting family members (61%) after 30 days on the diet.* Separate supplements to add to your dog’s diet are also sold in pet stores and in vets. The formulations are based on the addition of antioxidants, B Vitamin complex, Choline and essential fatty acids, all of which have attributions which may help with signs of brain ageing.

Tips for managing a dog with dementia

As your beloved pet you want to ensure you dog is as happy and pain-free as possible when suffering from this long term condition. There are some simple tips and techniques which can be used to help your dog and add security and familiarity to his changing life.

  • Keep your dog’s food and water bowls in an easily accessible place, consider investing in a dog crate and keep all his essentials in one place.
  • If your dog is stiff and lethargic, raise his water and food bowl to his level so he does not have to bend.
  • When leaving your dog alone in the house, secure him in either a crate or a confined space, this will prevent him becoming lost and the familiarity will reassure him.
  • Keep to a strict routine, he will be less likely to get confused or have accidents. Take him outside regularly to relieve himself and take him to the same patch each time.
  • Ensure he gets plenty of exercise within the limits of his physical abilities and plenty of reassurance and time with his owner.
  • Keep a diary of the signs he is demonstrating and scale from 1-10 how badly they seem to affect him each day. You will clearly see if signs are beginning to get worse.

Prevention of dementia

There are no proven techniques of preventing brain ageing but some simple techniques have been recommended to keep the brain active which is thought to slow degeneration of the nerve processes.

  • Regular play periods and varying the games played
  • Regular exercise
  • Create challenges – snack balls, hide treats, agility courses
  • Feed a well-balanced diet with essential fatty acids

All the above information will allow you to understand the condition of dementia further, if you have any questions or concerns about your pet, do not hesitate to contact your own vet.

* Sources : Hill’s B/d- nurse training 2011, Selgian Consumer information leaflet, Hill’s B/d client information pack


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