Pets who age gracefully bring comfort to their doting pet parents. But not all of them do well in their golden years. Some get dementia that their families mistake for normal aging. Alzheimer’s disease is pretty common in older people. The symptoms of dementia and the unhealthy brain changes seen in some older dogs are similar. In dogs it’s called cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Like nearly all physical and behavioral problems we can make a bigger difference with early diagnosis and treatment.

This helpful video shows examples of different older dogs with mild, moderate, and severe signs of cognitive dysfunction. All canine seniors, including those who seem to be doing just fine, need special monitoring so we can take good care of them. If your dog is over age 9 or 10 you need to know what to watch for:

  • Dogs with CDS tend to stand and stare.
  • When they’re confused they might go to the hinge side of a door or no longer recognize their family.
  • Some lose interest in play and petting.
  • They can get clingy or aloof.
  • A few elderly dogs, who had been pretty sweet, can get irritable and might react aggressively when they’re handled.
  • They may under-react or over-react to sounds and movements.
  • Pacing and restlessness, especially at night, are common symptoms.
  • House soiling is a common part of CDS.
  • Memory problems are a big part of CDS. It’s common for this disorder to cause its sufferers to forget their obedience and house training skills.

CDS is more common than you might think. It affects 28% of 11-to 12-year-old dogs and 68% of 15- to 16-year-old dogs. This is a debilitating problem but a lot can be done to improve an older dog’s well-being. Dogs with early CDS are likely to respond to treatment much better because they still have a lot more functional brain tissue for us to protect. Dogs with any signs of CDS, even mild symptoms, need to see their doctor. We have good, safe treatments that can help.

For dogs over 9 or 10, who are still sharp, there are some fun and easy ways for their people to nurture their brains.

Your veterinarian can prescribe a special diet called Purina Neuro Care. A couple of brisk walks every day improve brain function. And you can share interactive food puzzles that will challenge your dog’s executive function.

There are supplements that can also help:

  • Fish oil
  • SAMe – Denosyl is available from your veterinarian. It’s made just for dogs
  • For dogs with a reversed day-night sleep-wake cycle, melatonin can be given about 2 hours ahead of bedtime.

You can teach an old dog new tricks. All you need is a healthy brain to work with. CDS, like Alzheimer’s in people, does ultimately steal its victim’s personalities. None of us lives forever. We just want to share the joy and love and kindness every day. Dogs are good at that.

I invite you to share this video vignette with anybody you know who loves their dog. They’re welcome to pass it along too. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.