Charles Hurty, DVM
Grove Veterinary Clinic
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome
At the clinic, I often field questions about whether or not dog’s experience dementia or “doggy Alzheimer’s disease” as they age. Usually a client is witnessing troubling behavioral or personality changes in their senior canine companion. Typically owners will observe changes in their dog’s attention span, sleep patterns, house training, or social habits. While some of these patients may be affected by a variety of diseases such as arthritis or neoplasia/cancer, many of these older dogs may be experiencing a degenerative brain disease/process called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, or CCDS.
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CCDS) is a common disease that is often under recognized, because many people don’t know about it. Often the behavioral changes associated with CCDS are mistakenly accepted as normal age-related processes. Some studies suggest that clinical signs of CCDS are found in as many as 50% of dogs over age 11 years and that by the age of 15 years, this disease may affect as many as 68% of dogs.
Similar to the disease known as Alzheimer’s disease in humans, CCDS is caused by physical and chemical changes in the canine brain. These changes do actually disrupt normal brain function, resulting in a deterioration of how a dog thinks and interacts with his surrounding world. As the affected senior dog has difficulty with learning and remembering, behavioral changes occur that can truly challenge one’s quality of life. While the initial symptoms can be quite mild (i.e. changes in sleep patterns), they will typically worsen over time as your dog ages; this gradual progression of CCDS is referred to as “cognitive decline.”
The clinical signs of CCDS include various behavioral and mentation changes. Your dog may exhibit one or more of following behaviors:
*Disorientation/Confusion – Your dog may get lost in places that should be quite familiar, such as the backyard or even in the house. He may even get stuck behind furniture or in a closet.
*Increased agitation or anxiety – You may notice your dog becoming frightened or anxious in situations that would not typically elicit fear. Possibly, your dog becomes excessively restless on car rides that were at one time a favorite activity. I see this in senior dogs that come to clinic sometimes; for example, a dog that we have known for a long time that has typically loved coming into the clinic for visits suddenly becomes more anxious with visits. Even gentle restraint for a nail trim or sample collection becomes a fearful experience that elicits restlessness and anxiety.
*Changes in sleep patterns or sleep cycle. Many dogs with CCDS sleep during the day and then are quite active at night. During the evening, they may pace around the house or even bark and vocalize inappropriately. These nocturnal activities become quite troubling, as owners become distressed at being unable to calm their companions in the middle of the night.
*Inappropriate Urination and Defecation in the house. Many of these dogs will “lose the house training.” Remember, these dogs are experiencing physical and chemical changes in their brains and may lose their memory of appropriate house training. They simply lose the concept of house training as if it were never taught to them, thus they don’t know that they are doing something wrong. Our reactions to their accidents in the house can elicit fear and even more anxiety, so care must be taken to figure why the inappropriate behavior is happening.
*Frequent trembling or shaking. Some of these dogs will tremble and shake excessively while laying down or while standing.
*Pacing. Many dogs affected by CCDS will wander aimlessly through the house or the yard.
*Changes in social habits. Your dog may be easily startled by family members or by other pets in the household. Dogs with CCDS may be less willing to play or even become withdrawn and not seek out the companionship of his or her people. They may seek less of their owner’s attention and praise. Some of these dogs become excessively more attached to their owners and become extremely anxious when separated from their families.
*Changes in eating habits. Some of these dogs will be unwilling to take treats and will not drink water or eat food at normal times.
There are some treatment options to help your dog deal with this difficult condition. There are several supplements that can be prescribed that may help to alleviate some of the clinical signs and to slow the progression of the disease process. Neutricks (Quincy Animal Health) and SeniLife (Ceva Animal Health) are a couple of the supplements that have been developed to address this disease. Personally, I have prescribed the Neutricks product for several of my patients; reports from clients have been favorable. Some clients report an increase in positive activity, while others describe normalization of sleeping habits while on the supplement. There is also a drug called selegiline that has shown some promise to improve the clinical signs of CCDS. One of my personal canine companions, Stanley, was on selegiline for CCDS, and the drug helped him quite a bit. Stanley started showing clinical signs of CCDS at age 14 years, and this medication helped him with his nocturnal activities and confusion until he passed away at age 16 ½ from a bone cancer. I strongly advise you to check with your dog’s veterinarian to decide if these treatments and supplements may be appropriate for your dog.
In addition to drugs and supplements, there are diets that have been developed to help these dogs. The most popular diet developed to help CCDS patients is a food by Hill’s Science Diet called b/d (brain diet). This diet has been supplemented with antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered excellent for improving canine cognitive functions.
This can be a frustrating disease for you and your canine companion. It is important to realize that there are some treatment options. If you feel that this condition is affecting your dog, please keep your patience and check with your veterinarian for the most appropriate treatments.