Is Your Dog Losing His Marbles? (Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome Warning)

Last Updated on: January 30, 2024

Dogs are living a heck of a lot longer than they used to. Just as for humans, medical and surgical interventions for pets are advancing every day.  As our understanding of disease processes and our access to newer, better medications improve, we are able to not only lengthen the duration of our pets’ lives, but maintain a better quality of life, huzzah!

One of the consequences of this, however, is that there are a lot of geriatric canines around!

“When I was your age we had to walk 10 miles to school in the snow. We didn’t have no fancy coats or hilarious squeaky chew toys… And I slept in a cardboard box!”

As a small aside, I am always fascinated and a little bewildered when people point out that “dogs wouldn’t eat that diet/need dental work/get treatment for blah blah blah in the wild.” Yes sir, that is correct! However unless you wish for your dog to live 6 years, which is the average life expectancy of a grey wolf in the wild, I would not recommend you treat him like one (face palm).

Can you guess what the life expectancy of a pet dog is? Of course it depends on the breed, with smaller dogs living longer than giant breeds, but the average these days is 13.4 years.

Our domesticated dogs come in an amazing array of shapes and sizes and are pretty different from their ancestors!

So you thought your dog was just ‘getting old,’ but is there more to it?

Many of the behavioral changes we see in older animals have a medical cause.  Geriatric dogs probably won’t want to walk as far and may start to have toilet accidents inside the house.  Some become more vocal, less tolerant of being handled, less obedient or just more irritable in general.

Many people think these things are just a normal part of the aging process, and assume nothing can be done, so they don’t seek veterinary help. They either live with the situation until the behavior becomes completely intolerable or euthanize the pet because it is ‘getting old’. It’s important for all the loving, kind owners out there to be aware that there may be other options for their furry friends!

A dog with arthritis might be seriously grumpy about being touched, or a dog that has developed cataracts and can no longer see may understandably be quite anxious.  As dogs (and cats, and people!) age physically, there is also going to be a deterioration of their other senses, such as hearing.

A dog that can’t hear very well may seem to be ignoring you, or may become increasingly reactive and anxious.  Just as with little old ladies (sorry little old ladies!) senior doggies may have troubles with incontinence that result in little puddles around the house.

Anything that causes chronic pain or discomfort is going to affect behavior.  I know I’d growl at someone if they tried to pick me up for a cuddle when my back was hurting! So keep in mind that there are many different options with medications and procedures that mean we can do more for these pets than you might think.

“You’ll have to shout in my good ear! Now where did I leave those darn car keys…”

So what is canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), and why am I writing an article on it? Well it has similarities to Alzheimer’s disease in humans.  Changes happen in the brain that affect thinking, recognition, memory and learned behavior.

A huge fifty percent of dogs over the age of 10 years will show one or more symptoms of CDS, and it is progressive.  Many owners don’t recognize the signs and so don’t do anything about it.

Signs that your dog may have Cognitive dysfunction syndrome

  •  Disorientation is a big one.  These dogs may wander around the house aimlessly, stare into space, seem to get stuck in corners, or just look a little lost in a familiar environment. They might have trouble recognizing family members.
  • Altered sleep-wake cycles often go unnoticed unless they are disrupting the owner’s sleep.  These dogs may sleep more during the day and be restless or pace about during the night.  They may whine and bark at 2am only to look at you blankly when you let them outside.
  • Loss of learned behaviors such as house training, resulting in little accidents inside.
  • Compulsive behaviors such as vocalization for no apparent reason, or walking in circles.
  • Reduced social interaction with family members might be noticed as less enthusiastic greetings, or a disinterest in being petted.  Decreased responsiveness to commands may be mistaken for stubbornness.  Some dogs will do the opposite and become super clingy to their owners.
  • Changes in appetite, which may be increased or decreased.
  • Aggression

This is not a dog.  It is a shaved cat.  Although it IS a tad confused.  Just wanted to see if you’re paying attention!

So how can we help?

First and foremost, a thorough medical workup is essential for all behavioral problems.  This may seem unnecessary and frustrating, but as mentioned above, it isn’t uncommon for medical disorders to mimic behavioral problems.  It is also not uncommon for people who cut corners to end up treating the wrong thing!

I think this is MUCH more frustrating than taking the extra time to get it right.  We all have the same goal, after all.

Complete blood work including a biochemistry panel should be done prior to starting long-term medication regardless of the pet’s age.  As well as picking up potential problems, this gives us a baseline, particularly for liver and kidney parameters.  Many pets with behavioral problems do require medication for a prolonged period, with 6-12 months generally being the minimum.

Just as for people with mental illness, the medications used often take a number of weeks while to start helping, and need to be withdrawn slowly if the decision is made to stop them.

Things you can do at home

CDS is a medical condition, and pharmacological intervention (ie drugs!) certainly has it’s place.  There is, however, more you can do to help than just popping a pill into his kibble every morning.  Research has indicated that keeping older dogs mentally active can help prevent or slow down cognitive decline.

Most dogs can’t learn a new language or a musical instrument, and I’ve yet to meet one that can finish a cryptic crossword, but we sure can teach an old dog new tricks!

“You did my sudoku! And you took the cartoons section! I’m so gonna pee on the rug later…”

You just might need to use delicious tempting rewards and strong, unambiguous hand signals, but have a go, it’s a lot of fun.  Keep in mind that the value of any given reward depends totally on the personal preferences of the dog.  Some are big fat greedy pigs, some just adore one particular toy, and others will do anything for a cuddle.

I said DOGS can’t learn a new instrument. Cats simply choose not to.

It’s also a good idea to keep a nice consistent routine to reduce confusion, and try not to move the furniture.  Get out and about every day (hey, it’s good for both of you).  Play some games that provide social interaction and mental stimulation for your dog.

Dietary options

There are commercial diets available from vet clinics that are designed to improve alertness, increase attentiveness, and increase enthusiasm in older dogs.  They work mainly through the use of antioxidants.

You need to feed them pretty exclusively for a few weeks to determine if your dog is benefiting, but they are a great option for those not wanting to rush down the medication road.  I’m more than happy to give more specific recommendations for anyone that wants to drop me an email or message me on my Facebook page.

Medication options

Many different medications have been used to treat CDS in dogs (and cats) with varying degrees of success.  Although it always depends on the details of the individual case, the medication I usually reach for first is called Vivitonin (propentofylline).  It helps improve dullness, lethargy and overall demeanor in dogs by improving blood flow to the brain, heart and muscles.

It’s a dog.  Taking some medicine. I was going to write something witty about giving the wrong little blue pills and google image searched viagra.  Never, ever, google image search viagra…

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome: take home message

As far as I’m concerned, it all comes down to quality of life.  If we as vets and loving owners can work together to do something that not necessarily lengthens an animal’s life, but improves it’s quality, then in my opinion it’s worthwhile.

If your dog is experiencing any of the symptoms discussed here, please have a chat with your vet about the options available to you.

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