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Does My Dog Have Alzheimer’s?

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Image Credit: Laura Held “My buddy Copper”

Cognitive Dysfunction

Dogs can experience a decline in mental health, or cognitive function, as they age.  Physical and chemical changes in the brain that occur in some aging pets mirror the changes found in human Alzheimer’s patients.

Behavioral changes are often the first reported symptoms of declining mental health, though dog owners often underreport behavior changes in elderly pets not realizing help is available. Generally, cognitive dysfunction is diagnosed in dogs over ten years of age but recent research has found early brain changes and coinciding symptoms in younger dogs.

Brain imaging of pets at specialized veterinary hospitals can be used to map brain anatomy and look for age-related changes and other brain abnormalities. Due to expense, imaging may be cost-prohibitive to some pet owners. Currently, a specific diagnostic test for cognitive dysfunction is unavailable. Diagnosis is made based on patient symptoms and by excluding all other potential causes for these symptoms.  Co-occurring health conditions must also be properly managed. Signs of brain deterioration are vague at first; however, a collection of even minor changes can aid in diagnosis.

Symptoms of cognitive dysfunction can include:

  • Increased anxiety
  • Altered sleep/wake patterns
  • Increased agitation or confusion
  • Changes in social interactions
  • Loss of previous housetraining
  • Becoming lost in familiar locations
  • Abnormal barking/vocalizing
  • Altered appetite

*As always, report all new or changed behaviors to your veterinarian. Often changes in behavior are not visible to a veterinarian during physical exam.

Brain changes due to physical age cannot be reversed. Early detection of mental health changes can provide opportunity for intervention strategies.  With increase in years, other age related brain and cognitive changes also occur. Once changes begin, symptoms will continue to progress or new symptoms can occur as the pet ages. A multifaceted approach offers the best possible support to enhance or maintain quality of life for dogs experiencing cognitive dysfunction.  Three key methods to enhance, maintain, or slow the decline of mental health include mental stimulation, nutritional support, and medical management of symptoms:

  1. Ongoing brain health is linked to mental stimulation. As the saying goes, “if you don’t use it, you lose it!” Daily routines are also very helpful for patients with cognitive impairment. New environments and new people or pets may induce fearful behaviors.  It is not uncommon for older pets to experience sensory deficits and chronic orthopedic issues that may magnify apparent cognitive losses. Everyday events that used to be performed without fear or issue may now be more difficult due to loss of thought or sensory function.  Interactions with both animals and people should be closely monitored and structured to ensure safe interactions for all. Introduce changes to routines or environments slowly as it can be scary for any pet, but especially those with diminished brain function.
  2. Nutritional support is a vital. Many vets will recommend specialty diets that have been designed to help slow disease progression by preventing further damage. Diets which contain an optimum balance of medium chain fatty acids appear to be helpful and will promote healthy brain metabolism.
  3. Medical management of symptoms is possible as well. Many patients benefit from a drug called selegiline. Some nutraceuticals appear to provide benefits as well- but these products should be used under veterinary recommendation only, as some over-the-counter products have questionable quality control or proven efficacy. Psychotropic drugs are commonly prescribed for dogs to assist in behavioral modification and relief from symptom severity. Any medication is best utilized in conjunction with concurrent environment and training modifications and nutritional support.  

Dogs that regress or seem to forget previous learned behaviors, like house training or basic commands, are not being defiant -they may have forgotten what they previously learned. Often times retraining or different training will be helpful (ex. training to use a potty training pad or cat litter).  If the dog must be left alone, sometimes confinement in a small room with easy to clean flooring is safest.

Remember: Do not be embarrassed of your pet’s gradual or sudden behavior changes. Even if the behavior is not a medical problem, your veterinarian is a trusted resource to find help for your pet. In addition, communicating pet behavior changes will allow your vet to make note of both normal and abnormal behaviors and establish a behavioral baseline.

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Amanda Burow, D.V.M. (Dr. B), is a graduate of Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Burow’s patient list includes hunting dogs of all varieties, as well as several field trial dogs and full time sporting guide dogs. In addition to practicing general veterinary medicine, she has special interest in the areas of preventive care, emergency medicine, and dermatology. In her spare time, she enjoys being outdoors and on the lake, staying active, reading, and spending time with family and friends.

Mud River is proud to share these tips from Dr. B with our customers. Keep in mind it is best to work with your local veterinarian to determine the needs for your animals.

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