Cognitive dysfunction in older dogs

A few weeks back, one of our vets assisted at a conference on cognitive dysfunction in older patients. It was eye opening. It bought realisation of how certain behaviours which were actually considering normal old age changes, were in fact part of a much more serious condition which can actually be delayed and partially controlled: cognitive dysfunction. But what exactly is cognitive dysfunction? The human equivalent would be dementia and Alzheimers. It is a syndrome caused by neuropathic changes in the brain. Some of the causes of these changes will be accumulation of free radicals, oxidative stress, vascular dysfunction, nutritional depletion and reduction in cerebral tissues.

In a study conducted by University of California-Davis, they found that more than 62% of dogs between 11 and 16 years old had at least one sign of cognitive dysfunction. Signs most commonly noted will be decreased reaction to stimuli, confusion (e.g. wandering, staring), disorientation (e.g. decreased ability to recognised familiar places or people), changes in interaction with owners (e.g. more clingy or fearful), increased irritability, slowness in obeying commands, alterations in the sleep-wake cycle (e.g. sleeping excessively during the day and staying awake at night), problems in performing previously learned behaviour such as house training (e.g. eliminating indoors).

The diagnosis can be challenging. The first step is to ensure no underlying medical condition is present. To do so, a thorough medical examination is mandatory, which further includes a complete blood test and urinalysis, a neurological examination, an evaluation of vision and hearing function as well as an arthritis and a dental check, which could be major sources of pain. 

Although cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a degenerative disease which responds better to treatment when taken early, the aim is to slow the progression of the disease and to normalise the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain (dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, norepinephrine). Furthermore, one massively important point that the speaker discussed is the need for a quality diet to be fed to older patients as well as the enrichment we provide to their environment. Researches proved that enhanced diet with Vitamin A, C, E and other antioxidants including beta carotene, selenium, flavonoids and carotenoids, will help inactivating free radicals. A commercial diet made by Hills called B/D (brain diet) contains the above supplantation. Furthermore, Senior Vitality multivitamin powder by PAW (Blackmores) has also recently been released and seems very promising.

Environmental enrichment would be for example regular schedule of walks/playtime, trying to teach new tricks to your dog and introducing new and novel toys such as food filled manipulation toy or playing food search games (Kong Wobbler, Buster Food Maze).

In conclusion, older dog’s owners can appreciate the existence of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome.  Ensuring early detection of  abnormal behaviour changes in the absence of medical condition means it is possible to act in a fast and accurate manner, with the aim of slowing down the process. Furthermore, more than ever your old pet requires an excellent quality diet enriched with antioxidants and fun mentally stimulating quality times spent together.