Old age or illness?

If you have a senior pet you have likely seen some behavioural changes which you may think are “just old age”. Normal aging does exist but many of the behavioural changes seen in older pets are actually due to an illness.

Canine or feline cognitive dysfunction (CCDS or FCDS) is a degenerative brain disease comparable to Alzheimer’s in humans. It is the result of age-related changes (oxidative damage, neuronal loss, atrophy and the development of beta-amyloid plaques) within the brain. It typically affects dogs over the age of 8 and cats over 11 and the symptoms can be distressing for both you and your pet.

Fortunately, there are ways to help slow down this degenerative process – the key is to start treatment very early on in the disease or even start before signs develop.

Clinical signs can include
• Inappropriate toileting e.g. a house trained pet may go outside then come back inside and toilet in-front of every one
• Disorientation or confusion e.g. getting stuck behind furniture , staring at a wall for no reason
• Excess vocalisation
• Changed activity levels e.g. pacing at night, sleeps all day
• Changes in amount of interaction with humans’ e.g. dislike pats more
• Increased anxiety
• Failure to recognise familiar humans

There are validated questionnaires for dogs available on line that help indicate whether CCDS is likely ( e.g. see http://www.katrinaward.com.au/literature_125714/cognitive_dysfunction_questions-dogs ) unfortunately there is not one available for cats yet .

The problem is many of these signs can also be caused by other disease such as kidney disease, vision problems, arthritis, heart disease, small seizures or pain.

Diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction in a pet is a diagnosis of exclusion. A full physical examination, blood tests, urine tests and sometimes imaging (x-rays, ultrasound) are needed to rule out other conditions that can mimic cognitive dysfunction.

If you suspect your pet has a cognitive dysfunction then early intervention is important as the more advanced the disease the less responsive to treatment it is. Treatment involves
• Treatment/managing concurrent medical conditions (e.g. renal disease, arthritis etc.)
• Medications e.g. propentofylline and selegiline
• Diet – high levels of antioxidants: vitamin E, vitamin C, SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine), omega fatty acids have been shown to make a difference. e.g. hills makes a diet called B/D diet for dogs . Make sure their diet isn’t low in thiamine or their food high in sulphur dioxide preservatives (see our article on the dangers of pet meat)
• Stimulating brain activity – Try to provide mental stimulation and environmental enrichment, such as toys and training. Pets with CD will be suffering from memory and learning impairments; it is important not to get angry with them as this can cause anxiety. Instead help your pet to relearn commands, use large visual or audio cues to aid navigation and discrimination.
Any training stimulation should be given in short bursts as pets with Cognitive dysfunction have a limited concentration span. Mixing stimulation such as above with consistent, moderate exercise and play can help enhance the quality of life for the pet.

Of course, none of these recommendations will be very successful for a pet in the advanced stages of cognitive decline, which is why it’s so important to diagnose and begin treating the problem as early as possible.

Simple changes can slow mental decline and offer your aging pet good quality of life. So take the approach “prevention is better than treatment” and start implementing these changes in all senior pets before any signs develop.

N.B. You might also be interested in our articles “celebrating seniors” and “bring back their wild side” .