Dementia In Older Dogs

As dogs age, some develop behavior problems.  I hear lots of stories about dogs who whine and pace at night.  Owner’s also complain about their dog ‘losing’ their house breaking.  These may be signs of a geriatric disease called Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS).  I think of it as senility in dogs.  

Common signs of CDS are:

1) Anxiety- including separation anxiety.  It is not uncommon for separation anxiety to recur in dogs who suffered from it earlier in life.
2) Disorientation- Initially the periods of disorientation are short in duration.  As the dog ages, the periods increase in length and frequency.
3) Changes in sleep patterns.
4) Compulsive behaviors.  In my experience, pacing and licking are the two most common.  These behaviors increase in frequency and duration as the dog ages.
5) Increased vocalization.
6) House soiling- either urine and/or feces.  Many older females suffer from urinary incontinence caused by a lack of estrogen.  We can treat this with estrogen supplementation.  It is important to perform a thorough work-up to differentiate between CDS, urinary tract problems, estrogen related incontinence or other causes.
7) Phobias.
8) Aggressive behaviors- Older dogs may become aggressive for many reasons.  Some Dogs with arthritis snap at the grandkids because of pain.  The same thing happens in dogs with Lyme Disease. 

Unfortunately, there is no definitive test for CDS.  The diagnosis is made by excluding other medical problems and a thorough medical history.  I have people video their pet’s abnormal behavior at home and keep a diary as well.  I usually recommend blood work including a CBC, Complete Chemistries, Tick Disease Profile, urinalysis, x-rays and a Valley Fever test if the pet has been to Arizona or Saudi Arabia.  If the client wishes to pursue further diagnostics, I refer them to a neurologist for a CT scan or MRI.  

CDS is an incurable disease at this point in time.  It will progress despite therapy.  The goal of treatment is to make the dog and their family as comfortable as possible by minimizing the signs.  I recommend the following:

1) Establish a predictable routine.  If the dog knows what to expect, it helps decrease anxiety.
2) Make the environment as safe as possible.  Some dogs are worse at night.  Night lights and exercise before bed seem to lessen the signs.
3) DAP diffusers or collars- Dog Appeasing Pheromes help some dogs relax.  I prefer the collar because it travels with the pet wherever they roam.
4) Increase antioxidants in the diet.  I have had some patients improve on Hill’s b/d.
5) Try to enrich the dog’s environment.  Dogs who suffer with this disease tend to progress more slowly if they live with another dog.  I have also seen improvement in dogs that have regular play times.  My own dog was much better after a game of fetch in the pool.  She loved to swim after her toy.  
6) I reserve drug therapy for moderate to severe cases.  Selegiline (Anipryl by Pfizer Animal Health) is the most common drug used for this disease.  In my experience, the drug works best for the treatment of anxiety and phobias.   

Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.

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