Canine dementia explained

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As our canine companions age, they may start to show signs of dementia not all that different from the signs of dementia seen in aging people. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, or CCD, is the dog’s version of Alzheimer’s disease. Owners start to notice that their older dog becomes disoriented, begins to stare into space and gets stuck behind the sofa or door. They may be less responsive to their owners and experience changes in their normal sleeping and eating habits.

Concerned owners will bring their dogs to their veterinarian for an exam, blood work and radiographs. These tests are often normal, ruling out metabolic disease and tumors. The diagnosis of CCD is really made from observing the dog and taking a careful history from the owner. If the dog exhibits several of the signs—disorientation and confusion, anxiety, changes in routine, no longer responding to their name and commands, extreme irritability, decreased desire to play, changes in urination and defecation routines—the cause may be CCD.

One study has found that 28 percent of dogs between the ages of 11 and 12 have at least one sign of dementia and that increases to 86 percent in dogs over 15 years of life. 

So, what is going on? Veterinary research is beginning to reveal that the cells in the dog’s brain are experiencing oxidative damage that leads to the build-up of amyloid and other proteins. This results in loss of function in areas of the brain that control memory and social functions. These changes are like the changes seen in the human brain with Alzheimer’s disease. For this reason, large scale studies of affected dogs are ongoing with the goal of learning more about how to successfully manage CCD, and by extension Alzheimer’s disease. 

We know that early intervention can improve the quality of life of your canine companion. Increasing exercise, promoting good sleep patterns, and providing stimulating play activities can help your dog continue to enjoy life. Making sure that the area inside and outside the home is easy to negotiate and comfortable, will keep your pet safe.

Medical management for CCD is limited for now, but treatment for other typical geriatric issues like arthritis can encourage more activity. Progression of the disease is variable, but it rarely reverses itself. Hopefully the future will bring more understanding as to how we can prevent these diseases in people as well as our dogs.