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by Sandra Murray

Reprinted from: Essential Elements, ShowSight Magazine

  Reprinted from: Essential Elements, ShowSight Magazine

As a youngster she had won her breed’s National Sweepstakes. Not long after that win, she finished her championship with three 5 point majors, all at large regional specialties. During her specials career she earned multiple Group placements and Best in Specialty show wins. She was a good producer with champion offspring.

But now she is old. Her eyesight has dimmed somewhat and she doesn’t hear quite as well as before. She often feels anxiety and tends to wander aimlessly about the house and yard. Her once robust appetite has gone, leaving her to abandon her breakfast and just nibble at her dinner. She seeks out sunbeams at nap time; indeed, she sleeps much of the day, but tends to awaken at night and then 
pace relentlessly.

This is a familiar scenario for us who breed and show dogs. We all have loved and cared for those special retired champions. “Old age ain’t for sissies” applies as equally to dogs as it does to humans. We watch our once vigorous champions slowly lose muscle tone while their muzzles and heads become increasingly gray. Inevitably, their gait slows and stiffens. Perhaps, the hardest to accept in our aging canine companions is an obvious loss of mental abilities. Called canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome or, sometimes, “doggy dementia”, it robs dogs of the essence of who they were, of what made them distinct individuals.


Is canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) inevitable?

Canine cognitive dysfunction appears to be very much the same as Alzheimer’s disease in humans. An excess of the same protein that is found in Alzheimer patients, B-amyloid; abnormal amounts build up in the white and gray matter of the brain forming plaques that kill cells and cause brain shrinkage. In addition, various chemical neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine drop below a normal level. Oxygen levels also drop in the brains of senile dogs. Although CDS is not inevitable, approximately 50 percent of dogs over 11 years of age will show symptoms of CDS. By the age of 15 years, that total goes up to 68 percent. Obviously, CDS has become a common problem for many of our geriatric dogs.


What are the symptoms of CDS?

Older dogs developing CDS may exhibit one or more of these common symptoms:

  • Disorientation, including appearing lost or confused in the house 
or yard; wandering aimlessly; pacing; staring into space or at walls.
  • Changes in the dog’s interactions with people or other pets such as not seeking affection from his owners or failing to greet family members.
  • Changes in sleep-wake cycles such as sleeping during the day and pacing restlessly at night.
  • Urinating or defecating “accidents” in the house.
  • Noticeable change in level of activity.
  • Increased anxiety.
  • Decreased self-grooming (decreased hygiene).
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Decreased response to stimuli.
  • Deficits in learning and memory.

If a geriatric dog exhibits one or more of these symptom, owners must be careful not jump to conclusions. Underlying medical conditions can bring on some of these symptoms as well, so it’s imperative to have the dog thoroughly examined by a veterinarian. For instance, an older dog that stands staring into space may be reluctant to move because of arthritis pain. Many of the terriers and other vermin hunting breeds possess an extremely high pain threshold that gives them a stoicism which hides all but the most severe pain. 

Veterinarian Susan Wynn explains, “I think CDS is very difficult to differentiate from pain and this is a mistake that is made often. I do see CDS occasionally, but I treat for pain first and as an acupuncturist, I often find pain that is missed on the conventional exam. If signs of compulsive walking and disorientation remain after two weeks, I’ll usually initiate a trial for cognitive dysfunction.”


What can be done to ease the effects of cognitive dysfunction?

Fortunately, both traditional and alternative remedies exist to help ease the symptoms or even halt the progression of CDS. Very positive results coming from several studies have shown that dietary supplementation and behavioral enrichment can have a positive impact on both the physical and mental symptoms of CDS. Your veterinarian will be able to guide you to which ones will work best for your dog.


Dietary Supplements

Clinical studies have proven that dietary intervention in the form of an antioxidant-enriched diet improved the learning ability of older dogs and lessened the symptoms of CDS. Supplementation included the following:

  • Vitamin E—acts to protect cell membranes from oxidative damage (caused by free radicals which are molecules responsible for aging and tissue damage).
  • Vitamin A—essential to protect cells from oxidative damage during their soluble stage. Also prevents Vitamin E from propagating free radical production.
  • L-Carnitine — mitochondrial co-factor. (A co-factor is a non-protein chemical compound. Co-factors can be considered “helper molecules” that assist in 
biochemical transformations.)
  • Alpha-lipoic acid—mitochondrial co-factor
  • Other antioxidants from fruits and vegetables such as spinach flakes, tomato pomace (the solids left after pressing the juice from fruit), or pomace from any fruit, carrot granules, or citrus pulp. Any fruits and vegetables that are rich in flavonoids and carotenoids will do.

High quantities of fruits and vegetables serve to decrease the effects of cognitive dysfunction syndrome in dogs because of their antioxidant 
and anti-inflammatory properties. Herbs such as lemon balm, gingko, bacopa and gotu cola have also helped reduce the symptoms of CDS. In as little as two weeks, owners feeding these recommended supplements began to see the signs of 
CDS diminish.


Behavioral Enrichment

Just as promising as the dietary supplementation is the use of behavioral enrichment activities to improve the condition of aging dogs. Behavioral enrichment entails providing more daily exercise, alternating groups of toys each week, providing interactive toys that require puzzle solving, increased social interaction with both humans and other dogs (only the kind, gentle ones) and providing short outings to places that give new sights and smells to the elderly dog. If arthritis prevents long walks, then utilize swimming programs for dogs or underwater treadmills.

Veterinarians have found that short exercise sessions of 10 to 15 minutes several times a day have greatly improved the symptoms of CDS. After exercise, elderly dogs become more alert, are more interested in their surroundings and sleep better at night. We know from human studies the many benefits of continuing exercise into old age and the same benefits apply to our aging dogs. Exercise increases blood flow and, therefore, the oxygen supply to all parts of the body — including the brain. Their cognitive function improves greatly and the risk of dementia decreases. Beginning regular exercise sessions at the first signs of CDS will help prevent more severe cognitive deterioration in the dog.

Just as important as physical exercise in treating or preventing CDS is a mental workout. Here are some of the activities that noted dog trainer, Pat Miller, recommends:

  • Shaping games, including “101 Things To Do With A Prop”, or direct shaping of a particular skill (such as “shake hands”); great because even a physically limited dog can play these games.
  • Targeting games such as “touch it” with any number of objects as well as object discrimination.
  • Learning to spell (see “Teach Your Dog To Read” in the October 2006 issue of The Whole Dog Journal).
  • Playing “find it” with a hidden toy or treat.
  • Playing with interactive toys containing treats or “parts” that the dog pulls out or apart.


Diet + Behavioral Enrichment = the Best Results

Researchers have discovered that aging dogs receiving both the antioxidant-enriched diet plus varied behavioral enrichment consistently enjoy more benefits than dogs not receiving this care. Some veterinarians now recommend beginning the antioxidant-enriched diet as early as 9 years of age.

Susan Wynn, DVM, has treated many elderly dogs. She states, “I think that, as in humans, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Some older dogs are left at home with nothing to do but dwell on their anxieties — the gradual loss of hearing and sight, increasing stiffness and pain. I really think they dwell on these changes unless they are given other things to do and to think about and are provided with adequate pain control. So we should manage their pain very aggressively with acupuncture, massage, herbs, chiropractic, physical therapy and drugs and provide them with small projects, or if possible, keep them in training. Training and exercise should never stop.”


Nutraceuticals & Pharmaceuticals

Several nutraceuticals exist in the marketplace whose intent is to boost brain functions. Study results indicate that Vigorate does diminish CDS symptoms in dogs. Other nutraceuticals options are Memoractiv, Geriactive, Proneurozone and Senior Moment. So far no clinical trials or cognitive studies have been done on these additional nutraceuticals. However, anecdotal evidence from owners indicates that these have provided improvements in their dogs with CDS.

Currently, the only drug approved for CDS in dogs is Anapryl which is also given to human Alzheimer patients. As with any drug, Anapryl can cause adverse reactions and unpleasant side effects. A thorough discussion with your veterinarian on the pros and cons of this drug is needed before administering it to your dog.

There are other pharmaceuticals being studied for use on dogs with CDS. Drugs that enhance cerebral vascular circulation, others that increase alertness and regulate dogs’ sleep-awake cycles do hold out promise. Researchers are looking at anti-inflammatory drugs and even hormone replacement therapy as possibilities for elderly dogs. However, until clinical trials are conducted on the above drugs, no one can say for certain if they are effective.


Begin Intervention Early

In humans, studies have shown that reduced physical exercise and limited intellectual activity in middle age lead to a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s later in life. The same results appear in dogs. Those that lack adequate physical exertion with no mental challenges are much more likely to develop canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Early intervention, even before any clinical signs, becomes vitally important. Some of the treatments significantly slow the effects of CDS — or even prevent it. Providing both us and our dogs an antioxidant rich diet, plenty of exercise and mental stimulation reaps rich rewards both now and in the future. Not only will we live longer, the quality of our lives will improve both physically and mentally. Excuse me now, my dogs and I are off for a long walk.

Until next time,
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