The Dog's Equivalent to Alzheimer's: Navigating Canine Cognitive Decline

You know the saying: you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Well, the saying might be true, but you can help an old dog remember her old tricks. We look after our human loved ones as they get older, and our furry family members deserve care and appreciation in their twilight years as well. Now, with the increasing availability of holistic and modern treatment methods, older dogs stand a better chance than ever before of turning back the clock and fighting cognitive decline.

Canine Cognition

According to a recent National Geographic article, the average short-term memory of an animal is only 27 seconds. A dog's long-term memory is only about two minutes long, which seems relatively miniscule compared to a dolphin whose memory is 20 years. With a memory equaling only one-thirtieth of an hour, it's a wonder our four-legged companions can remember even basic commands.

The basis of a canine's memory is association and reinforcement. While primitive, associative memory answers the question, “Where is my (food/praise/toy)?” which is why positive reinforcement is so important.

A dog who goes on frequent walks will begin to identify her leash with exercise. The same applies if her owner only takes her on car rides to the vet. Eventually, she will associate the object (leash or car) with the action (walk or ride to the vet). The associations will be positive or negative depending on the repeated experience.

However, the connection may begin to diminish as a dog ages and her mental processes (perception, awareness, learning, memory, and decision making) decline.

The Dangers of CCD

Clinical presentation of Canine Cognitive Decline (CCD) can be defined by outward behavioral expressions of inward change simplified by the acronym CRASH: confusion and disorientation, recognition decrease, activity change, sleep-wake cycle disturbances, and house-training lapses.

Your pooch may forget basic commands, or even who you are when you walk through the door. She may not be as active, and may sleep more during a 24-hour period. Other symptoms include increased vocalization (barking and whining), separation anxiety, and chewing. She might forget that it's okay to chew on his duck, but not those new leather shoes you left by the door.

What's really tricky about CCD, is that the presence of any or all of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that the disorder is present.

Any of these symptoms can be caused by other health issues that affect our geriatric dogs, such as arthritis, hypothyroidism, or cancer. About a quarter of  dogs over the age of 10 exhibit some form of brain aging, and by the time they reach 15, 60 percent of dogs will show symptoms.

CCD can only be tentatively diagnosed in a laboratory setting, and it can only be confirmed using a necropsy after our furry friends have passed. CCD is difficult to discern from the natural aging process. Most owners don't have access to a lab or the testing equipment required to diagnose CCD, so it's best to talk to a veterinarian in lieu of self-diagnosis.

There are two main causes of cognitive dysfunction in canines.

The first is free radical damage, which occurs when unstable molecules attach themselves to healthy ones in order to become more stable. In turn, the unstable molecules combine with stable ones. This cyclical mutation causes a change in the availability of oxygen, affecting the brain and putting stress on the parts of the brain responsible for cognition.

The second cause of dysfunction is similar to human dementia and Alzheimer's. What's interesting is that both dogs and humans will develop the same amino acid plaque, amyloid beta, in the same areas of the brain. Most experts see an improvement in geriatric dogs in just two weeks, using the only treatment available: selegiline.

Coping with Canine Cognitive Decline

Along with pharmacological treatment, experts recommend some behavioral enrichment, along with nutraceuticals (products derived from food sources with extra nutritional benefits), and a good diet. Some supplements that veterinarians suggest for all dogs, but especially in the case of canines suffering from CCD, include glucosamine, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.

Some behavioral enrichment ideas include target games and interactive puzzles. Other exercises that might be helpful are object discrimination and “find it” games. “Find it” is similar to hide-and-seek using an object, like a favorite ball or chew toy.

Start out by hiding the object somewhere obvious (behind your back or in the opposite hand) and make the hiding spot progressively more difficult, like under a blanket or around a corner. Then, try it with objects the dog isn't as familiar with. Object discrimination is a great way to test a dog's natural associative memory. She may associate her favorite ball or chew toy with a treat, while an unfamiliar object won't have the same value for her, since she won't have previous experiences to tie to the object.

Although some symptoms may be common to the natural aging process, owners who suspect their dogs may be suffering from CCD should consult a veterinarian as soon as possible. Regardless of the presence of CCD, a holistic approach, pharmacological intervention (as prescribed by a veterinarian), behavioral enrichment, and a lot of love seem to be the best methods for treating senior canines. With the right approach and some sound guidance from your vet, you can preserve the mind of your senior dog and significantly improve the quality of life she experiences in her golden years.

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