When your vet talks about canine cognitive dysfunction, it is similar to Alzheimer’s or dementia in humans. It is becoming more common because 50 per cent of our dog population is over six years of age. In other words, we have an ageing population of canines.
About 10–30 per cent of ageing dogs will be affected by one or more signs of cognitive dysfunction – but clients don’t often recognise the signs and may not talk about it to their vet.
You need to ask quite specific questions to determine if an animal does have cognitive dysfunction. Often it is written off as old age – just a general slowing down.
When an animal turns 10 years of age, it is time to start screening for canine cognitive dysfunction and vets need to ask our clients some very specific questions.
Diagnostically, a dog may become disoriented. They could be wandering around, forgetting where they are. Sometimes they just start barking at nothing. Their interactions change.
Dogs are creatures of habit who tend to do the same things at the same time every day. If they usually sit and watch TV with you in the evenings, and suddenly they are not doing that, this may be a sign.
Perhaps they are not interacting with you. Instead, they are going off and lying on their own. Pain can cause this to happen but so can cognitive dysfunction. When this occurs, you need to bring it to the attention of your vet. The first thing your vet will do is to check for any medical problems that could be causing the signs.
Sleep and wake cycle
One of the most common signs we see is changes in the sleep and wake cycle. The dog tends to wake up in the middle of the night, usually between the time you go to bed and midnight. They then become incredibly anxious, barking at nothing.
Many clients come to our practice for help because their dog keeps waking them up. It seems like nothing will work. The dog may be panting, pacing, barking – and you can’t calm them down.
Interestingly, humans have a similar issue known as ‘sundowners syndrome’. This is where people become very anxious in the evening and, just like dogs, you can’t console them.
Toileting change is another common issue where the dog starts urinating or defecating in the house. Sometimes, they may go for a walk but forget to go. They’ll come back inside and then have an accident. This is very frustrating for clients, particularly as the dog has been toilet-trained forever. Unfortunately, the dog’s brain is not working.
Some of these signs can easily be misinterpreted by owners. If a dog is barking in the middle of the night, they might assume, “Maybe someone is creeping around the house and the dog can hear it, but I can’t.” The owner may think the dog’s behaving badly, and may reprimand him. That is really negative because the dog is already highly anxious. In fact, that’s the worst thing you can do.
There are several different treatments that can help. We start with dietary changes and various antioxidant supplements. Hill’s Science Diet VetEssentials is specifically good for cognitive dysfunction. It scavenges antioxidants which helps brain function.
There are also some nutraceuticals which can help brain function and the option of using medication improving blood supply to the brain.
Step by step
When treating a dog with canine cognitive dysfunction, firstly we start with diet and dietary supplements, then move onto medication.
We also use behaviour modification. For example, we show clients how to make sure the dog toilets outside before it enters the house. Small, simple things like this are very important.
The dog needs to also sleep in a dark room so there is no stimuli. It may also be worth giving a light sedative at bed time so the dog doesn’t wake up in a frenzy of anxiety.
We often use Prozac to control anxiety, as well as other human antidepressant drugs, if there’s a large anxiety component with cognitive dysfunction. An example is Eldepryl which helps the brain to function.
Antioxidants and nutraceuticals are all aimed at helping the brain, rather than dumbing down the anxiety, however sometimes you actually need to use the likes of Prozac to control anxiety.