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How to Deal With Senior Dog Dementia (Canine Cognitive Dysfunction)

Signs of Canine Senility

Just like humans, dogs nowadays are leading longer lives and just like for so many of us their longevity often lead to chronic illnesses like arthritis and cognitive dysfunction (dementia).

Some time ago The Washington Post ran an article titled “What happens when your dog gets Alzheimer’s” and because my mother is suffering with that terrible disease the article immediately caught attention and I had to read it.

I am well aware of the fact that dementia in dogs is not a fun subject to read about but as caring dog owners we try our best to give our beloved pets long and healthy lives and unfortunately have to accept that living longer sometimes comes with the risk of developing a (chronic) health problems much similar to humans.

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People are often surprised that their pets can develop something like human Alzheimer’s. But really, our brains are not that different from dogs’. The cellular changes of canine cognitive dysfunction would be recognizable under the microscope to any human brain pathologist: Plaques of beta amyloid — protein fragments believed to be the result of “oxidative stress” — lead to distinctive “neurofibrillary tangles” within the damaged nerve cells, and shrinkage of the brain appears in areas where memories are made and behaviors are shaped.

Some things are different between our species, of course. Fido doesn’t forget where he put his car keys. But he may not remember which door he uses to go out to the yard. The same inability to evaluate behavioral appropriateness may prompt a person with dementia to disrobe in public, or a dog with dementia to eliminate in the house without hesitation. Many dogs with cognitive dysfunction wander restlessly all evening in a manner reminiscent of the “sundown syndrome” of Alzheimer’s patients. And most significantly, finding familiar surroundings strangely unfamiliar often triggers anxiety and agitation.

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As with many of the dogs I treat, Sterling, a 14-year-old Labrador retriever from El Cajon, was dealing with dementia along with other health problems. He had recently lost most of his hearing, and arthritic hips made it difficult for him to rise from his favorite sleeping spot. Sterling spent hours every night panting and whining. Once he got to his feet, he could move fairly well. But as soon as he left the house for a walk around the neighborhood, he pulled nervously at the leash to get back into the house, where he would pant and tremble for the next hour. Sterling’s owners felt that he was suffering, and they had started to consider euthanasia.

Treatments for canine dementia are most effective when they are started before the signs of cognitive dysfunction start to show. This is equally true in humans, which is why researchers are working on tests to predict Alzheimer’s long before symptoms appear. A number of nutritional supplements (particularly DHA, one of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) and various antioxidants have been shown to slow the progression of mental decline. S-AdenosylMethionine (SAMe) is an over-the-counter supplement that provides mild help for old brains. There is even an FDA-approved medication to treat canine cognitive dysfunction: Seleginine is a derivative of a drug used in human Parkinson’s Disease. In my personal experience, I have not seen dramatic results with this medication, but it is usually prescribed in the later stages of dementia, when it may be “too little, too late.

Originating Article: The Washington Post
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