Cognitive decline and caring for your senior mutt

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a fantastic webinar hosted by Jean Donaldson for the Academy for Dog Trainers on senior dog wellness and canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. With special thanks to Jean for bringing attention to the topic, the following is a guide on how to care for your senior mutt, and what to do if you notice signs of cognitive declines.

CDS: What is it?

CDS, or cognitive dysfunction syndrome, is progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects senior dogs (ages 7 and up). Researchers have found that the disorder, marked by Aβ protein deposits in the brain, is similar to the degeneration found in human brains affected by Alzheimer’s. Because of this, a significant amount of research is available.

According to Landsberg (2005), while CDS can affect dogs as young as 7 years of age, the disorder typically goes undetected until 11 years. He attributes this discrepancy to the fact that most owners do not suspect anything is amiss because they rely on more severe symptoms, such as house-soiling and disorientation, as opposed to tests of memory and learning.

A 2010 study published in The Veterinary Journal found that CDS affects 28 percent of 11-12 year-old dogs and 68 percent of 15-16 year-olds (Salvin, McGreevy, Sachdev, and Valenzuela). However, this same study also found that many dogs go undiagnosed. As with many progressive conditions, CDS prognosis is best if detected early.

The Symptoms

CDS has a specific clinical presentation, or criteria that must be met for a diagnosis. It is important to note that the disorder’s symptoms are not simply attributable to “old age” (again, this parallels cognitive decline diagnoses in humans), but are specifically linked to the disorder. The four main categories attributed to CDS are:

  • Disorientation: Dogs with this symptom get lost in familiar locations and often get “stuck” in narrow places of the house or yard. Their eyes may appear fixed on the horizon, and they may do things like go to the wrong side of the door or wander without an apparent purpose.
  • Disruption of sleep/wake cycles: Dogs with CDS often pace, walk or bark at night, and experience changes in sleeping time. They may show an altered daytime activity level due to nighttime restlessness.
  • Social interaction: The dog may have less frequent interactions with family members, or fail to recognize a family member. Greeting behavior decreases, as does responsiveness to stimuli (i.e., activity in the house, sounds, food).
  • Learning and house training: With the absence of an underlying medical condition, previously house trained dogs begin having accidents in the house. They may also appear unable to remember common obedience behaviors or tricks, referred to as learning and memory deficits.

Diane Frank, veterinary behaviorist at the University of Montreal, also lists the following symptoms that may occur in addition to the big four listed above: irritability, intolerance to exercise, increased vocalization, house destruction, increased attachment to owners, and the appearance of new fears or anxieties. 

As with any medical condition, it is important to thoroughly discuss your dog’s symptoms with a veterinarian before concluding that your dog has CDS. Senior dogs are susceptible to a variety of medical conditions that may show similar symptoms, therefore it is important to rule out any other causes of cognitive decline.

Your dog has CDS. What do you do?

If you research CDS on the web, you’ll discover a plethora of studies on the subject and an even wider swath of potential treatments. It can be overwhelming to say the least, especially when dealing with the emotional toll of caring for an aging dog. Before going overboard on supplements, new diets and homeopathic remedies, make sure you address three key health management areas. (I should add that these areas are beneficial to senior dogs regardless of a CDS diagnosis).

  • Maintain a healthy weight: How many times have you placed your dog on the vet’s scale and secretly hoped nobody would notice that your dog is leaning on the wall? I admit, I’m very guilty of this one! The fact is, being overweight puts immense stress on a dog, particular one of advancing age. The following is a chart taken from Jean’s webinar presentation that illustrates what a “healthy weight” looks like on a dog. For a bit of context, consider this fact: six pounds on a 45-pound dog is comparable to 20 pounds on a 150-pound dog. Just imagine the impact those six pounds have on a dog’s joints!
  • Keep those teeth clean: Brush your dog’s teeth daily. One of my colleagues at the Academy recently said that this is the number one routine that can maintain your dog’s health. If your dog is averse to having his mouth handled, check in with a trainer to receive advice on how to desensitize your dog to the process. Here are a few tips to get you started:
    • Go slowly, starting with introducing your dog to the tooth brush, working up toward touching your dog’s mouth and teeth with it.
    • Make sure to lavish lots of treats and praise every step of the way!
    • Once your dog is comfortable having his mouth handled and touched by the brush, gradually build up duration as well as comfort with light brushing motions.
    • If your dog shows any signs of discomfort, back up to the previous step. Never go quicker than your dog is comfortable.
  • Address orthopedic concerns: Make sure to talk to your vet about any pain your dog may be experiencing, as well as any assistance your dog might need navigating stairs or getting into the car.

Once you’ve covered these three areas, it’s time to make your home accessible for your dog’s aging body:

  • Place a mat over slippery surfaces to avoid injury from falls.
  • If your dog has difficulty with stairs, make sure to install ramps.
  • Provide your dog with ample bedding that will support aching joints – hard floors are not a senior dog’s friend!
  • Blocking off any narrow pathways in the house if your dog is getting “stuck” or disoriented.
  • A quiet space where your senior dog can retreat. This is especially important if you have children or younger dogs in the house.
  • Raise food and water bowls if your dog has difficulty bending over.
  • If your dog pulls on leash, make sure to fit him with a harness to protect the neck and trachea.
  • If your dog becomes disoriented easily, be careful when letting him off leash. Keep a watchful eye on him, or have him wear a 15-foot training lead in case he wanders.

Although their activity level is lower, senior dogs still need lots of attention and stimulation. Here are a few ways to keep your dog’s brain active:

  • Puzzle toys are a great way to stave off boredom and keep your dog’s mind active (like Sudoku for humans).
  • Don’t hesitate to do some basic training or teach your dog a few new tricks- training is a great way to mentally stimulate your dog and provides a fun activity for you both.
  • Spending time with them and exposing them to interesting stimuli, even if it’s just sitting outside in the yard. (If your dog has trouble walking and is small enough, you can put him in a stroller to take him for walks.)

Finally, it’s important to assess and treat any new fears or anxieties your dog may be developing. A trainer can help you develop procedures to ease these fears using classical conditioning techniques. In the meantime, provide structure, stimulation and comfort to your dog’s days to keep him feeling comfortable and secure, and be sensitive to any changes in behavior or anxieties.