When your dog forgets the “high-five”

It may be normal for old dogs to have trouble learning new tricks, but what’s up when they start to forget the old ones? It could be a sign of senility or “cognitive dysfunction”.

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is the veterinary term for a condition much like Alzheimer’s disease in people. There is no cure, there are few effective treatments and it can be challenging to diagnose, perhaps even more so than its human counterpart.

People suspected of having Alzheimer’s are routinely assessed through tests that measure problem-solving, memory and spatial abilities. It’s a sure bet our doggy patients would consistently fail to draw clocks or recall words if asked. So rather than putting our own sanity at question, vets have developed a list of common CDS symptoms to help with the diagnosis.

The most common of these are increased sleeping, reduced responsiveness to commands or apparent deafness, lack of interest in surroundings or events, disorientation, inability to recognize familiar people, increased thirst, and excessive panting. We also often see difficulty eating or reduced interest in food, loss of bladder or bowel control, problems navigating the environment – getting stuck under tables or on stairs – vocalization and reduced daily activity.

The symptoms apply to cats too, but I challenge you to determine if your kitty is sleeping any more than normal, ignoring commands or failing to recognize Aunt Sarah when she comes for dinner.
Many of the suspect symptoms can also be caused by illness or age-related disabilities such as arthritis, so tests are needed to rule out medical causes. Although it is an option, few pets get the benefit of technology such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to look at what’s happening to their brains.

There are only a handful of drugs – although the hand is getting larger – considered worth trying for CDS patients. These include selegiline, phenserine and S-adenosylmethionine. A drug similar to an old medication called pentoxyphylline is being used in Europe and Australia with some success. There is also a lot of hope for a group of dietary supplements. The list includes vitamins E and C, fish oils, ginkgo and something called apoaequorin, a substance found in jelly fish.

Talk to your vet about behaviour concerns early as treatments tend to be most useful in mild cases. A combination of several drugs and supplements, along with a diet rich in antioxidants may be recommended. There is one prescription diet – Hill’s b/d – that has been shown to be beneficial. Good sources of antioxidants include blueberries, cranberries and apples.

It can also be helpful to increase meaningful play for older pets. Maybe you can’t teach them new tricks, but repeating and reinforcing the old ones may keep CDS at bay just a bit.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital – Trenton Ontario
October 2012