Alzheimer’s in dogs: the Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Can elderly dogs suffer from canine Alzheimer’s? The answer is yes. In this article I am going to talk about Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome and senile dementia in dogs. It is very important to learn to recognize your symptoms in order to start palliative treatment as soon as possible.  

Is there Alzheimer’s in dogs?

Dogs do not live as many years as humans, but within their life cycle, they can be considered proportionally elderly (what in veterinary medicine is called geriatric dogsfrom 7 or 9 years.

Of course, that will vary greatly depending on the breed or the type of dog since small dogs are usually much older than large dogs.

When a dog is elderly, it usually experiences physical deterioration at various levels. But there is also a cerebral deterioration , less noticeable to the naked eye, which can generate a series of changes in the behavior of the dog that constitute what is called Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) .

About 20% of geriatric dogs develop the so-called Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, colloquially known as canine Alzheimer’s.

Talking about SDC would be very similar to talking about Alzheimer’s in dogs or canine senile dementia.

Does it affect small dogs more?

Although the small breeds are more long-lived, some studies show that this type of dogs is not more predisposed to suffering from canine Alzheimer’s.

A very sad and frustrating disease for the canine owner

The cerebral deterioration suffered by dogs with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome causes them to progressively lose their own character traits and behave very differently than they did all their lives. This situation causes a lot of sadness and, at the same time, it is frustrating for the human family of the dog: it is hard to witness the degeneration of a loved one, as it happens in Alzheimer’s cases in people.

That your dog does not recognize you when you enter the house, for example, can become very difficult to face … However, we must strive to understand this type of behavioral changes as part of a natural aging process. Luckily, not all dogs get Alzheimer’s or SDC.

What causes Alzheimer’s in dogs?

The Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is a neurodegenerative disorder, typical of older dogs and characterized by a gradual cognitive dysfunction. The degenerative process can last between 18 and 24 months, or even in some cases more.

Its basic causes are the following:

  • Accumulation of a protein called B-amyloid , which has neurotoxic properties that affect the function of dog neurons. The more of this protein, the greater the severity of the symptoms of canine senile dementia.
  • Increase in free radicals, which produce oxidative damage that causes the death of neurons.
  • Change in the expression of some genes .
  • Decreased blood flow.

Symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

It is important to learn to recognize the symptoms of Alzheimer’s in dogs because, in reality, the only solution for this neuronal aging process is palliative treatment. The sooner it starts, the better results are obtained and the greater the opportunity to stop the progression of the disease.

  1. Alteration of social interaction (even aggressiveness towards owners in some cases): the dog no longer behaves as before with people or with other dogs or other animals present in the environment or in the family nucleus. There are dogs that even go so far as not to recognize their owners or to be aggressive towards them. In some cases the interest in caresses and close contact diminishes, they greet with less emphasis than before, etc. At the other extreme are the dogs that can develop hyperagogue towards their owners when they had never shown it before.
  2. Disorientation: Some dogs suffering from canine Alzheimer’s behave as if they were disoriented and wander through familiar environments as if they felt lost. They can even try to enter the wrong side of the door, collide with objects in their path without being able to avoid them or stand in front of them.
  3. Loss of cognitive abilities: many of those affected by the Dog Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome stop responding to orders or signals that previously knew perfectly. They lose memory and ability to learn. Even so, it is necessary to continue offering them cognitively stimulating activities , precisely to stop this brain deterioration.
  4. Alterations of sleep and wake cycles : these dogs often do not sleep as they did before, following stable sleep patterns. It can happen, even, that they sleep during the day and then they are awake all night.
  5. Loss of hygienic habits: this is a characteristic symptom of Alzheimer’s in dogs. It is about the loss of habits when urinating or defecating. Dogs that always made their needs in the street, or in a specific place in the house or garden, begin to pee and poop in other places.
  6. Decreased activity, restlessness to explore new things or environments and the response to stimuli: the dog becomes more passive and shows no interest in the environment. However, in some dogs anxiety or restlessness can also appear that can manifest itself in different ways. Some dogs rest less, show anxiety when left alone at home , are more irritable, bark more, develop stereotyped behavior, destroy things at home, etc.

Exclusive diagnosis

The symptoms that we have just described are characteristic of Alzheimer’s in dogs but not exclusive of this disease. That means that all those behavior changes can also be due to other causes not related to neuronal deterioration. The Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is an exclusive diagnosis.

To be understood: an old dog that suddenly shows aggressiveness to its owners can be a dog that simply has a physical problem that causes pain (osteoarthritis, for example) and this makes him more irritable, or use the aggressiveness to avoid being touched where it hurts. It does not have to be a dog that suffers from CDS.

Alzheimer’s treatment in dogs

As we have already said, the sooner the treatment begins in dogs with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, the better the prognosis for this disease, since the important thing is to slow down its progress.

The treatment is based on the following fundamental points:

  1.  Modification of the environment: It is recommended to maintain a stable daily routine in all activities that revolve around the dog. The goal is to make the environment as predictable as possible because that generates less stress in the animal . If the dog always knows what will happen, where it will be, with whom, etc., it will feel more calm and stable. We must avoid sudden changes in every way. In addition, we must bear in mind that older dogs have reduced sensory abilities (see worse, hear worse, etc.), so another of the basic recommendations is to modify the family environment to make it suitable for the geriatric dog: try not to leave objects in the areas of passage, provide a pleasant and easily accessible place to sleep, etc.
  2. Cognitive stimulation: older dogs are canine grandparents who must be encouraged to avoid falling into inactivity and lose interest in the environment. It is good to offer them games of smell, make them look for hidden prizes, offer them interactive toys filled with food, etc. All this will keep your brain active and help to stop the neuronal degeneration. Short but frequent walks in which the animal can interact with the stimuli of the environment are also highly recommended.
  3. Avoid scolding or punishing the animal: it may be that many of the changes in behavior associated with Alzheimer’s in dogs are uncomfortable, unpleasant or problematic. Still, we must try to be understanding and not scold or punish the dog because it will generate more anxiety and could worsen the problem.
  4. Treatment with psychotropic drugs: the treatment with certain drugs can help to stop the oxidation and the neuronal aging process. It must always be the veterinarian who prescribes it and pays it.
  5. Nutritional treatment: fundamentally in those cases that are detected early, you can intervene at the nutritional level through food and nutraceuticals that provide antioxidants and protectors of cell membranes.

In fact, the treatment for Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in dogs is always palliative and never curative since there is no solution, for today, for this syndrome. However, it is essential to be attentive to the symptoms of the disease since, the earlier the treatment starts, the better the results and the better quality of life can be offered to the dog.

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