What is it?
Many dogs become progressively less able to cope with change as they get older. This isn't always a problem, but often it's a marker for Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome - better known as dog dementia. It can be just a matter of them becoming forgetful or being a bit fixed in their ways, but it usually deteriorates with time. In this factsheet, we'll look at this condition, its symptoms, and how it can be managed.
What causes it?
The vast majority of cases are due to simple old age. As the dog gets older, many of their organ systems become less efficient, including their brains. This is compounded by cell death (which is why head injuries MAY predispose a dog to dementia) and, possibly, poor nutrition. There are also genetic factors at work, in that some family lines do seem more prone to developing significant dementia.
What dogs are at risk?
Any older dog! One study showed that 50% of 11 year old dogs, and 68% of 15 year olds, were showing symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
There are a range of possible symptoms, but the most common include confusion or disorientation, struggling to learn new tasks or routines, and loss of their normal sense of routine. As the condition progresses, dogs often start to lose learned behaviours (such as toilet training), and may undergo personality changes - typically, becoming grumpy and irritable. Eventually, their sleep-wake cycle is disrupted, and they start to roam the house at odd hours of the day or night. This can also cause anxiety (it looks almost as if they're trying to find something), which makes them even more restless and upset.
How is it diagnosed?
To be honest, the presence of two or more of these symptoms in an older dog would normally be considered diagnostic. At the moment, there is no specific diagnostic test for the condition.
How can it be treated or managed?
Although there is as yet no cure, the condition can be managed and (often) treated. Management revolves around maintaining a regular routine, with plenty of opportunity for mentally stimulating play. A good quality diet will often help as well, and there are some supplements (such as Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants such as selenium and vitamin E) which may help a little. There are also some medications licensed to help relieve the symptoms and slow down the progression of the condition. Most contain propentofylline, which works to improve blood flow to the brain and does seem to delay the onset of more serious symptoms in most dogs.
Can it be prevented?
In theory, keeping your dog's mind active with creative play and activity should reduce the risk of them developing dementia - or at least slow it down. Although there isn't any definite evidence to say that it works, we think it's a good policy anyway.