Life changes for dogs as they age. They have more dental problems, clouding of the lenses of their eyes, wear and tear of their kidneys and heart valves, and arthritic joints. Some lose their mental sharpness. Noticed in its early stages as subtle behavior changes, brain aging has physical causes.

“Cognitive dysfunction” of dogs has striking parallels with Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

  • Deposits of senile plaque containing amyloid appear to cause the most injury to brain tissue.
  • An essential part of this advancing process is oxidative damage and inflammation.
  • Treatments that include antioxidants and anti-inflammatories foster the most improvement.

It’s hard for these older dogs and their families. Early clues can be a loss of interest in old habits, good or bad.

  • No longer chasing the cat, or simply not being afraid of thunderstorms anymore are not problems that normally improve with age.
  • Some dogs forget basic obedience, lose their house training, become irritable, or just don’t interact as much with their people.
  • Others get more active rather than less.
  • Changes in appetite and sleep/wake cycles are also common.
  • I have known many older dogs to bark for no apparent reason or walk into a corner and seem to feel lost. A once vibrant dog gone senile is a tough thing to watch but there are good treatments.

If this list of maladies is starting to sound like your canine senior you’ll want to be sure he has a decent shot at a better life.

  • Before a diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction is made it will be important to rule out other neurologic problems as well as internal diseases like liver failure.
  • A history of head trauma or smoldering infection can be factors.
  • Behavior problems must also be considered.
  • A thorough neurologic exam, blood and urine profile plus a careful history will be necessary.

A lot of these discouraging symptoms are reversible for many older dogs.

  • Antioxidants significantly improve learning and memory in geriatric dogs; prescription diet b/d from Hills is loaded with them.
  • A medication called Anipryl (selegiline) makes a big difference in many cases because it improves nerve function and has antioxidant activity.
  • A supplement called Senilife has a protective effect on nerve tissue, helps regulate the chemicals involved in message transmission between nerves in the brain, and has antioxidants to help slow the advancement of degenerative changes.

There are ways of personally helping your canine senior enjoy a better life. Just like older people she needs mental stimulation to keep her brain sharp.

  • Give her a chance to investigate new places on leash walks.
  • Get her a couple of food puzzles so she has to fiddle around with them to get the treats.
  • Try teaching her a simple new command.
  • Play chess, send her to college, nominate her for mayor or city council. Trust me, we’ve done worse.

Download senior pet behavior questionnaire here. (Word document)