Cognitive Canine Dysfunction: What is it & what are the warning signs?

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia affect hundreds of thousands of aging men and women each year. Many of us have probably seen it happen to parents, grandparents, or others in our life. But did you know that dementia can occur in dogs as well? Best Bully Sticks came across the book Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Cognitive Canine Dysfunction by Eileen Anderson and reached out to learn more about this unfortunate canine disease.

Is canine cognitive dysfunction like Alzheimer’s in people?

Actually, yes. The two diseases are similar. One of the brain changes that happens in people with Alzheimer’s disease is that they develop what are called beta-amyloid plaques. These clumps of proteins hamper normal brain functioning. Dogs get them too, and their presence correlates with the behavioral symptoms of cognitive dysfunction. However, dogs do not get the other common brain problem that humans with Alzheimer’s do, that is the development of neurofibrillary tangles. Some scientists have speculated that dogs don’t get these other symptoms because their lifespans are not as long as those of humans. But most scientists agree that the progression of CCD in dogs is similar to early to moderate Alzheimer’s in people. Many people who have dealt with human and dog family members with both conditions see similarities between Alzheimer’s disease and canine cognitive dysfunction. That includes me; my mother had Alzheimer’s.

What were the major signs that alerted you to the possibility that your dog had cognitive dysfunction?
I missed the first sign completely. My rat terrier Cricket was about 14 and she suddenly stopped being friendly to one of my friends. She had known and loved this woman for ages, but suddenly she started dodging away from her and wouldn’t let her come near. Cricket had always been a little high strung, so I just thought it was some new kind of anxiety that would pass. But it didn’t. I didn’t know at the time that “Changes in social interactions” was one of the typical signs of canine cognitive dysfunction.

Cricket-perched-on-chair-legA bit under a year later, Cricket started getting confused about doors, then stuck in corners. These behaviors were more obviously abnormal to my eye, and I did some internet searching and found information about CCD. I made a careful listing of Cricket’s symptoms and talked to my vet. That’s when Cricket was diagnosed.

I want to mention that every symptom for CCD can also be a symptom of another condition or conditions, and some of these are acute. Even though the symptom lists are helpful (and I provide one on my website at dogdementia.com), other conditions must be ruled out. So anyone who notices these symptoms needs to take their dog to the vet as soon as possible. Some of the common ones are confusion, pacing, walking in circles, standing facing the wall or with the head in a corner, getting confused about doorways, changes in sleep habits, and loss of house training.

We’ve heard about a drug, Anipryl, that increases the amount of dopamine in the brain and can help some dogs with CCD. Have you known dogs to benefit from it?
Senior Cricket in the sunCricket went on Anipryl when she already had moderate dementia. She perked up and participated more in life. I think it’s likely that it slowed the progression, since she lived and enjoyed life for quite a while after her diagnosis.

It’s important for people to know that right now there is no cure available for this disease, and even the most effective treatments only slow down the progression, and then only for some dogs. That means that a lot of products are marketed that actually have no clinical proof. Please check with your vet about what the best approach would be for your dog.

That being said, Anipryl (generic name is selegiline) is one of the interventions that has a fair amount of evidence that it can help.

What is the best advice you can give to a pet parent whose pet recently developed cognitive dysfunction?
First of all, don’t panic. Yes, it’s an upsetting, even tragic disease. But your dog’s life is not over. There are interventions that can be made to slow the progression of the disease. You can also talk to a vet about medications for other attendant problems (such as sleeplessness or anxiety). There are lots of ways you can make sure your dog’s life is still enriched and pleasant.

Put some thought into arranging your home to keep your dog safe and out of trouble. For me, that meant making a “safe room” for Cricket. In her room there was nowhere she could get trapped, there was space to pace around, a couple of beds, her food and water in a corner (so she wouldn’t walk through them), and most important, everything was washable. I also had a Eileen and Cricket insidewebcam so I could check on her when I was away from home.

Most of all, keep in mind that witnessing your dog’s mental deterioration is almost surely more upsetting for you than it is for the dog to experience it. Dogs may be frustrated or upset in the moment, but it’s just not likely that they mourn their lost capabilities. Love and care for the dog that is in front of you and don’t torture yourself by focusing on the dog she used to be. Your dog will need a smaller world and simpler pleasures, but you can still give her a sweet life and enjoy the time you have.

If you think your dog is experiencing CCD, please contact your vet for an exam. We also suggest checking out Eileen’s book– now available in paperback!

Eileen publicity photo portraitEileen Anderson is a writer and dog trainer. She writes the well-known Eileenanddogs blog, which has been featured on Freshly Pressed by WordPress.com and won the award, “The Academy Applauds” in 2014 from The Academy of Dog Trainers. Her articles and training videos have been incorporated into curricula worldwide and translated into several languages. Eileen started a website for canine cognitive dysfunction in 2013, dogdementia.com, which has become a major resource for pet owners whose dogs have dementia, and published a book on the subject in 2015.

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