Five years ago, parents of Bruno, a 13-year-old Labrador, complained to me that he was randomly howling at night while staring at a wall. A young and inexperienced vet back then, I did a complete health checkup only to realise that Bruno did not suffer from any medical condition that could explain this strange behaviour. I also put him on painkillers, suspecting arthritis associated with his age. But that did not help either. As these howling episodes continued, I decided to dig deeper and research more. I was finally able to diagnose Bruno with senile cognitive dysfunction, also known as canine dementia.
Canine dementia is associated with geriatric dogs and is very similar to human Alzheimer’s. While there is enough research to suggest that dogs can also suffer from this illness, it often goes undiagnosed. Veterinary education and awareness is still lacking about the behavioural changes experienced by the ageing canine.
After my experience with Bruno, I was interested in learning more about this illness among my geriatric patients. Now, I often ask questions related to the behaviour of older dogs so that I do not miss out on this. I have noticed that early diagnosis can help slow down the process of cognitive dysfunction associated with the ageing canine brain.
Dr Hrishikesh Karkare, a specialist in veterinary internal medicine, asserts that canine dementia often goes undiagnosed not just because of lack of awareness. “The other problem is that the pet parents are often unaccepting of the fact that their pet has grown old. They seem to be in denial that their pet is losing parts of their memory. A lot of stigma exists around canine dementia. The under-diagnosing, coupled with non-acceptance. causes more and more pets to be left struggling with this illness,” he says.
While it is difficult on the pets, cognitive dysfunction can be difficult for the parents too. It starts with subtle changes in behaviour, which can aggravate over time. The pets’ sleep cycle gets disturbed, causing them to be awake in the night and sleepy during the day. There can be changes in mood and aggression where none is expected. Restlessness and pacing may be experienced as a symptom by some pets, while others may seem a little non-responsive and aloof. Some of them tend to lose spatial orientation and appear lost in their own home. Vocalisation, staring at one spot in the house, appearing agitated while there is no evident trigger are all different symptoms that have been associated with canine dementia. Watching a pet lose its personality slowly can be very difficult on the parents.
“There is no reversing senile cognitive dysfunction, so there is no treatment as such”, states Dr. Karkare. However, he maintains that there are allopathic and homeopathic treatments that can help reduce the severity of certain symptoms and slow down progression. These can be tailored to suit the needs of each individual patient. His advice is to keep the older pets mentally active. To achieve this, puzzle games, which are readily available, can be used. Physical activity must not be curbed during their older years. Also, keep feeding into the curiosity of a dog even as it grows older. They can be introduced to new scents, food can be hidden in different parts of the house as a part of keeping them mentally fit. For dogs that suffer from a change in their sleep cycle, keeping them occupied in the day, ensuring adequate outdoor time and exposure to sufficient sunlight may help them.
Good nutrition also plays a big role in keeping senile cognitive dysfunction at bay. Omega 3, vitamin E, antioxidants are said to have beneficial effects and must be a part of an ageing dog’s diet. Since it may be difficult for a vet to be able to diagnose the illness in its early stages, pet parents can help by reporting any changes in behaviour that they find strange or concerning during their annual vet visits. This may provide the vet with enough information to make an early diagnosis.
While old age comes with its own set of illnesses, the behavioural changes associated with canine dementia must be addressed and not swept under the carpet as just something that old dogs do. Helping them cope, is to provide them with the best quality of life in their older years.