Canine dementia may sound like a reach, but it may surprise you to find out that it is much more common than you thought. In fact, about 28 percent of dogs aged 11—12 years and 68 percent of dogs 15 or older may show signs of cognitive impairment.
Like their human counterparts, dogs can have distinct changes in brain function as they age that may result in memory loss and recognizable differences in behavior. For owners it's important to understand that this is not just random bad behavior but has an underlying medical cause.
Like human dementia, canine cognitive dysfunction or CCD is generally linked to a build-up of plaque on the brain, likely from an accumulation of abnormal proteins. The resulting plaque can damage nerves, resulting in a loss of brain function, impaired motor skills, memory loss, and loss of learned behaviors. Unfortunately, as most of these symptoms occur gradually over time it may be easy for owners to overlook them or assume they are unrelated.
Also inhibiting a diagnosis of canine dementia is the fact that it can often overlap with other age related illnesses including arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and kidney disorders. The only way to accurately pinpoint dementia is with a full exam by your vet that may include x-rays, blood tests and urinalysis, among other tests. Once your vet has determined that your dog is indeed suffering from CCD, he can recommend the proper steps to take for care and treatment.
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While it may be difficult for a pet owner to recognize the signs of canine cognitive dysfunction, there are certain specifics you should be on the lookout for. These include disorientation, altered interactions with family members or other pets, changes in the sleep/wake cycle, house soiling and changes in activity level. Any one of these can occur on its own as part of the normal aging process but if you notice several happening together chances are good that your dog is suffering from dementia.
If your dog appears confused or disoriented, has problems finding things that he drops, no longer reacts to his favorite toys or begins to have 'accidents', it is likely that the cause is canine dementia. In such cases, you should try to keep track of all of the differences in your dog's behavior and bring them to your vet's attention. This can help to aid with diagnosis.
Unfortunately, as with human dementia, there is little that can be done to treat canine cognitive dysfunction, although some dietary changes may help. There are certain dog foods formulated specifically for seniors, with extra antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids included to help improve brain function. While some medications may be able to help normalize neurological responses, it is important to check with your vet as they can often interact badly with medications used for other conditions such as arthritis.
Aside from these steps there are things you can do to help stimulate your dog's brain function and fight canine dementia. Dog bowls or food puzzles that make your dog work for his food are good for neural stimulation and having regular play time can help to improve your dog's socialization skills as an active brain is a healthy brain.
Seeing your dog's quality of life decline can be difficult for any owner, but it is especially painful with normally energetic breeds like the Australian Shepherd. While you can't prevent cognitive impairment the important thing to remember is to be patient with your older dog and make sure he sees the vet regularly. Remember that he needs you now more than ever.