Why Does My Elderly Dog Howl & Bark at Nothing?

By Maya Marin

Though old age brings wisdom, it can also unfortunately introduce mental challenges -- both to humans and to pooches. For example, you may be concerned if you your elderly dog howls and barks at seemingly nothing, walks into a room and looks confused, or forgets that he's housebroken. However, cognitive impairment may not be the only reason for these behaviors in dogs 8 years of age or older. Your senior dog may be howling in pain or barking because he's become hard of hearing and, as a result, is easily startled. Though you can't rule out other possibilities, the chances are that your dog may have cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) --- often called doggy Alzheimer's. It's a form of dementia that affects your dog's memory, learning ability and awareness.

What is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome?

Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a form of dementia in older dogs. A 1997 study at the University of California-Davis found 68 percent of dogs between the ages of 11 and 16 suffering from some form of CDS. Dogs suffering from CDS suffer from confusion and disorientation, they can forget their house-training, slow down or stop eating, get lost in their own house or yard, and fail to sleep at night, only to rest during the day. Some dogs whine and cry or bark, forgetting where they are. Sometimes they show no interest in their humans, forgetting who their humans are. Some sleep too much, become anxious, lick themselves excessively, or forget to groom themselves altogether.

What Causes Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome?

Just as scientists don't know what exactly causes Alzheimer's in humans, veterinarians don't know what causes cognitive dysfunction syndrome. There may be a genetic component, but that is conjecture. Age obviously has a role since it occurs in aging dogs and not in young ones. Although cognitive dysfunction syndrome is not Alzheimer's, it is similar in severity and the changes seen in the dog's brain.

Diagnosis of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

There's no test to determine if your dog has cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Veterinarians are able to diagnosis it through symptoms and your dog's medical history. Knowing when the symptoms started to occur and whether there were injuries or other factors will help your veterinarian evaluate your dog. Dogs who suffer from cognitive dysfunction syndrome usually fit into at least one of four categories: disoriented/confused, lack of seeking attention, incontinence and changes in activity and sleep patterns.

Common Treatment for Canine CDS

The only effective treatment is a drug called selegiline, marketed under the brand name Anipryl. This medication has been found to be 77 percent effective treating cognitive dysfunction syndrome, with many owners reporting changes within two weeks, according to studies cited by veterinarian Diane Frank in her paper "Cognitive Dysfunction in Dogs," published by International Veterinary Information Service. Some dogs, however, needed at least two months for changes to occur. Your dog must take this medication every day for life. It can extend quality of life, but also helps the dog live longer.

By M.B. Lachlei


About the Author
M.B. Lachlei is an award-winning author of more than 30 pet and science-fiction/fantasy books. She is also the publisher of Sky Warrior Books.