One of the most common questions owners ask veterinarians about their senior dogs is “Can senior dogs get Alzheimer’s?” You may have noticed that your senior dog has started slowing down, or that she seems disoriented and anxious. Some of this is normal aging, but your dog could also have the canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s: Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).
What Is Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome?
Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a chronic and progressive disease that bears strong similarities to Alzheimer’s in people. The defining characteristic of both CDS and Alzheimer’s is a decline in cognitive function. CDS is also very common. Veterinarians estimate that 28 percent of dogs 11-to-12 years old have CDS, and almost 60 percent of dogs ages 15 to 16 present with signs of the disease.
Cognitive function, or a person’s memory, learning, perception, and awareness capabilities, is easy to measure in people, but a little harder to measure in dogs. We can’t exactly ask them to recite the alphabet or the day of the week, so veterinarians and owners rely on behavioral changes and symptoms to diagnose the condition.
Symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in Dogs
Veterinarians use the acronym DISHAA to help them diagnose CDS.
- Interaction with people and pets
- Sleep/wake cycles altered
- House soiling, learning, memory
- Activity altered
Dogs with CDS often suffer from symptoms of disorientation. These can include wandering, apparent confusion, and things like going to the wrong side of a door to be let out. The dog may stare blankly at walls, floor or into space; gets stuck or has difficulty getting around objects and does not recognize familiar people.
Social Interaction Changes
CDS affects the way your dog interacts with you, as well as with his environment. Some dogs may appear needier, while others grow aloof and withdrawn. Dogs may have decreased interest or time spent in petting, spends more time alone or away from family members, or some can be more clingy and fearful.
We all want to sleep through the night, and we want our dogs to sleep through the night, too. Dogs with CDS often have difficulty sleeping and may wake during the middle of the night and pace, whine, or bark. Disruptions in sleep cycles are disorienting, and some dogs may even show agitation or fear. Some dogs may sleep noticeably more during the day.
House Soiling, Learning, and Memory
One of the more frustrating symptoms of CDS for owners is house soiling. Dogs that are housebroken often start to have accidents without any medical cause, which creates a mess for you and anxiety for your dog. Symptoms include a decrease or loss of signaling to go out, decreased response to learned commands (like name, tricks, etc.), and difficulty in getting your dog’s attention.
CDS also affects your dog’s activity levels. Some dogs may grow more active with CDS and others more sedentary, but any noticeable change in your dog’s activity level is a cause for concern.
Your dog may have increased anxiety when separated from you, he may be more reactive or fearful to auditory stimuli, or have a heightened fear of places and going outside.
Diagnosing CDS in Dogs
There is no definitive test for diagnosing CDS. Veterinarians instead screen senior dogs for early signs of CDS when they come in for checkups. If they suspect that a dog has CDS, they ask the owner for a behavioral history to see the extent of the changes in the dog’s behavior.
Before your veterinarian can give you a definitive diagnosis, however, she also has to rule out any other causes. There are quite a few diseases and conditions that can cause similar signs to CDS, including:
- Endocrine diseases like diabetes, Cushing’s, and hypothyroidism
- Painful conditions like arthritis or skin disorders
- Metabolic disorders, like liver or kidney problems
- High blood pressure
- Medication side effects
- Loss of vision or hearing
- Urinary tract infection
Ruling out other conditions usually requires blood work and other diagnostic tests. These tests are worth it, as they will enable your veterinarian to diagnose your dog accurately.
Treating Cognitive Dysfunction Disorder in Dogs
There is no cure for CDS. However, there are steps you can take to make your dog more comfortable. Veterinarians have a wide range of approaches to treating CDS, including medications, nutritional support, and behavior modifications.
There are several options in your veterinarian’s pharmaceutical arsenal to help alleviate the symptoms of CDS in dogs. Selegiline is a drug that was developed to treat pituitary-dependent hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease) and CDS, and can control many of the clinical signs of the disease. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can also reduce anxiety in your senior dog, and sleep aids can help them get back on a normal sleep-wake cycle.
Diets supplemented with appropriate amounts of fatty acids and antioxidants have been shown to improve cognitive function in senior dogs, so talk to your veterinarian about the best diet for your senior dog, especially if the dog is showing signs of CDS.
There are behavioral steps that owners can take to make their dogs more comfortable, as well. Just as we make exceptions and adjustments for aging human relatives, caring for a senior dog with CDS requires a little flexibility.
One of the best things you can do for your senior dog is to continue to provide mental stimulation. Even though he may no longer be able to run and jump, he still needs to be engaged. Play, light exercise, and training are just as important for your senior dog as they were for your puppy. Puzzle toys and food toys can also give your dog something to think about, and keeping playtime and exercise structured gives dogs a routine and reduces anxiety.
Try to avoid changing your schedule. Anxious dogs thrive on a routine, and keeping your senior dog to a familiar routine in familiar environments can help alleviate anxiety and disorientation. Teaching a “settle” command may also help very anxious dogs.
As much as we love our senior dogs, nobody enjoys cleaning up after pet accidents. Dogs with CDS are more likely to have accidents in the house. Instead of feeling frustrated, make arrangements for your pet to relieve himself easily. This could mean installing a dog door or creating designated indoor potty areas for your dog.
Living With Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome
Dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome can lead full and happy lives, as long as you know what your treatment options are. If you suspect that your senior dog may have CDS, call your veterinarian and set up an appointment to see what you can do to make your dog more comfortable in her golden years.