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Ask Dr. Jenn: Does my Dog have Dementia?

My 14-year-old Labrador has been acting confused lately. She seems to be staring at nothing. She wanders around at night, and we find her sleeping in random places. She is already on an NSAID and a glucosamine supplement for arthritis pain, so I don’t think it is pain-related. Could my dog have dementia?

October 4, 2021 3 min read
Ask Dr. Jenn: Does my Dog have Dementia?

First, good for you for managing your aging dog’s arthritis pain and recognizing her behavior change. Aging can create pain, confusion, and anxiety in our pets, but they often hide it. It takes an attentive pet parent to pick up on the cues our pets give us.

What you are describing is likely Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). Lesions in the brain cause behavior changes, confusion, and anxiety that slowly progress with time. Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome can occur in both dogs and cats and is very similar to dementia in people. Your pet may be otherwise completely healthy, making this condition even more heartbreaking for the family.

Cognitive dysfunction is usually gradual in onset and slows to progress. The behavior changes are often so gradual that the pet family doesn’t notice until the later stages of the disorder. Still, brain changes can start to develop as early as 6 years in larger breed dogs and twelve years in small breed dogs. Although less common, cats can start to develop cognitive changes after the age of ten.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is often a diagnosis of exclusion – meaning all other possible causes for behavior changes in a senior pet have been ruled out. Blood tests are usually done to look for a metabolic cause, such as kidney disease, liver disease, or changes in thyroid hormones. A neurologic exam is performed to look for underlying neurologic diseases. A presumptive diagnosis is often made if the patient appears normal neurologically and appears healthy on blood tests. If a neurologic condition is suspected, such as encephalitis or a brain tumor, the patient may be referred to a specialist for more advanced testing. With CDS, an MRI will show shrinkage of the brain without any other significant lesions.

The signs vary from animal to animal but can include restlessness, especially at night,  vocalizing without an apparent cause, confusion at doorways, unable to adapt to small environmental changes, and changes in behavior. Changes in behavior can include becoming needier or, conversely, becoming much less social. Some dogs will forget their housetraining and have accidents in the house.

While there is no cure for Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, if caught in the earlier stages, you can slow down the progression of the disease. Keep your pet’s brain active by encouraging play and physical activity. Puzzle feeder toys are a great way to increase activity, both mentally and physically. Hide treats and enticing odors around the house and yard for your pet to find. Contrary to the old adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks and stimulate their brain simultaneously!

Supplements can also help. Some dogs will respond to Melatonin. Fatty acid supplements may also be beneficial. Prescription diets have also been developed by Purina, Royal Canin, and Hill’s. These diets are have been shown to slow down damage to the brain and improve cognitive function.

The drug Selegiline has been approved for treatment of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. Studies have shown that Selegiline improves memory and causes dogs to be more alert.

In cases of more advanced Cognitive Dysfunction, the best treatment is to manage the environment to reduce your pet’s anxiety. Create a routine with established feeding times and walks. Avoid rearranging furniture as this may lead to confusion. Ensure she is in a safe place when you aren’t with her, block off stairs, and close doors, so she doesn’t hurt herself. Medications may be necessary to reduce her anxiety, especially at night.

Talk with your veterinarian to come up with the best plan for your senior pet. You know her better than anyone else, so make sure you share all of your concerns, even if they seem insignificant. Watching your pet age is hard, but your veterinary team can help your dog enjoy her senior years.

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