Senility in Dogs

By Rebecca Bragg

Your dog has lived to a ripe old age, a tribute to how well you've cared for him. But dogs, like their human counterparts, can get a little befuddled in their golden years. The clinical name for this "doggie dementia" is cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS, and it's a lot like Alzheimer's disease, both in symptoms and in the way vets recommend they be managed and treated.

Age is the Only Common Denominator

No matter what breed or mix your dog is, the longer he lives, the more likely it becomes that he'll develop signs of cognitive impairment. A study of elderly dogs conducted by the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of California, Davis, found one or more signs of dementia in 28 percent of dogs between 11 and 12 years of age, and 68 percent aged 15 to 16 years. In common with Alzheimer's disease, CDS is caused by a buildup of waxy protein deposits called amyloid plaques in the front part of a dog's brain. These plaques interfere with neurological functions governing memory, learning and behavior.

Symptoms of Cognitive Impairment

The College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University advises owners of elderly dogs to be on the lookout for symptoms that fall into the "DISHA" formula: Disorientation, changes in Interaction behavior, Sleep cycle disruptions, Housetraining accidents and uncharacteristic changes in Activity levels. So if your old dear seems to be wandering aimlessly around, forgetting that he's supposed to let you know when he needs to go out, staring at blank walls or acting generally anxious and spaced out, it's time for a trip to the vet. If she rules out all other possible causes for these symptoms, the default diagnosis will be CDS.

Food, Nutritional Supplements and Medication

Unfortunately, no cure for CDS exists, and the disease is progressive, but some interventions have succeeded in delaying its advance, thereby improving the quality of life of elderly dogs throughout their sunset years. According to Ohio State University, the Hill’s Prescription Diet brand formulated especially for brain health "significantly" boosted learning capacity in dogs with dementia in clinical trials. Your vet might also recommend nutritional supplements appropriate for your dog's condition. Anipryl, generic name selegiline hydrochloride, is the only prescription drug approved in the U.S. specifically for treatment of dogs with CDS.

Teach Your Old Dog New Tricks

"Environmental enrichment in the form of playing with toys, interacting with other dogs, and learning new tricks can be effective in lessening the signs of cognitive dysfunction," says Dr. Joseph Mankin, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Vetstreet recommends reducing opportunities for confusion by keeping your dog on a strict schedule for feeding, walking and bedtimes. Like people, dogs can find the decline of cognitive function extremely distressing. In order to manage signs of excessive anxiety, try to soothe your dog in whatever ways work best -- perhaps music, massage, turning on the television or administering anti-anxiety meds prescribed by your vet.

By Rebecca Bragg

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About the Author
Rebecca Bragg has been a writer since 1979. From 1988 to 2000, she was a reporter for Canada's largest newspaper, the "Toronto Star," specializing in travel. She holds a Master of Arts in English literature and creative writing and has lived in India and Nepal, volunteering in animal rescue organizations in both countries.