When An Old Dog Stops Learning New Tricks. by Timothy Hodge, DVM

Aging is part of the cycle of life. We can’t escape it. And neither can our dogs. We are all very lucky if we are blessed with a long and happy life, but with age, can come many dis- eases. One of these, that is very unfortunate for both people and dogs, is dementia. In our dog population, we have many names for this con-

dition. Dementia, senility, cognitive dysfunction syndrome and canine cognitive dysfunction just to name a few. But what does it all really mean and how can we help our old pups? Canine dementia is a disorder of the brain of senior dogs noted by gradual mental decline and increasing brain disease.

Many dogs will also sleep the day away. lLastly, decreases in responsiveness. This can be seen as a

decrease in eating or appetite, not wanting to go for a walk or to play.

What is the cause of dementia or canine senility? With age, the brain atrophies or shrinks in size and weight.

The number of acting and working brain cells decreases and other cell types increase. As the brain shrinks, fluid fills the atro- phied spaces. There is an increase in the amount of protein called Beta Amyloid. This protein is toxic to the brain cells and its accumulation seems to compromise nerve function, increase brain cell loss, degenerate the junction between nerve cells and decrease of the chemical transmitters of the brain. lChanges occur to the blood flow that can be associated

with infarcts (clots, strokes, etc.) and areas of micro-brain bleed- ing. These changes can compromise the amount of glucose (sugar) that the brain receives. Glucose is the only energy source for the brain. Blood flow changes can also result in less oxygen getting to the vital brain cells. lAging changes the chemical transmitters of the brain.

Some chemicals are increased and others are decreased. This can cause an increase in free radicals which can damage the brain cell membranes and cause brain cell death. lOther chemical and cellular changes occur as well, that

lead to this old dog disorder and its comparison to human Alzheimers. This condition is diagnosed by identifying compatible

As Zoe Cooke aged, she showed signs of doggie dementia.

Her quality of life did not decline until she was 18 years old, when her system began shutting down. Having lived with her family since she was a puppy, they made the difficult decision to have her humanely euthanized at home in November 2015.

Older dogs have a harder time with certain tasks than younger dogs. Progression is very gradual and many dog owners may not recognize the dysfunction is happening. Numerous behavioral changes may be seen, such as: lDisorientation such as wandering, staring, getting stuck

in unusual places in the home (behind a door, or in the closet). lMemory loss of once known information such as house

soiling, lack of response to known commands (sit, stay, etc.). A decrease in performance can be seen in show dogs and working dogs.

lChanges in activity can be seen. These may be noted as

pacing, repetitive activity such as licking inanimate objects. In some dogs, a decline is activity can be seen. lAntisocial behavior may be noted. This could be seen as

decreased or altered interactions with family or other pets in the home and less responsiveness to members of the family. lChanges in the sleep-wake cycle. Many dogs with

dementia will have nighttime walking or increased anxiety, become irritable and show restlessness.


signs, elimination of other disorders that can cause those same clinical signs and demonstration of positive response to support and treatment. A complete physical examination, combined with the owner’s history, observation in the hospital and neuro- logical examination are all necessary. Having owner’s video their pet’s actions at home are a great tool to help the veterinarian see what the owner’s see. As part of ruling out other disorders or concomitant medical issues, a complete lab profile (blood and urine), blood pressure analysis, possible x-rays or radiographs will be needed. Based on initial evaluation, special testing may be warranted for hormonal disease, infections, and other brain related diseases (such as cancer or meningitis). Now that we have an idea of what the disease is and

why is may occur, what can we do about it? lThere is no known cure for canine dementia, but a

multifactoral approach is best to slow and control the disorder. lDiet – Providing a diet that is fortified with antioxidants,

fatty acids and ingredients that support the power-house of the cell. The only commercially made diet is Hill’s b/d. This diet has shown an improvement in brain tasks in about 2-8 weeks after it was started. lSelegiline (Anipryl) is an FDA approved medication for

treating canine dementia. Selegiline medication affects the changes to the chemical transmitters as we previously noted.

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