Part 2 in our series on senior pets focuses on Canine Cognitive Disorder, a frustrating and sometimes devastating affliction of our older dogs.
She is stiff getting out of bed and stumbles down the hall to grab a drink of water. She’s not quite sure why she got out of bed when it’s still dark out but goes to pee anyway. Forgets where she is for a moment and cries out " Hey, anyone there?!". She hears John's voice saying "Come back to bed!", then realizes where she is and goes back to bed. Is this John's wife who has dementia or his dog Lucy who has Canine Cognitive Disorder? It could be either!
When a dog has CCD, they exhibit changes in the brain both structurally and behaviorally. A protein in the brain called beta-amyloid accumulates and causes plaques to form; a process very similar to human dementia and Alzheimer's disease. When these plaques form, they cause cells in the brain to die. This can result in “empty” spaces in the brain which fill with cerebral spinal fluid. So, what does this mean for a dog's behaviour? Symptoms can include loss of memory and some motor function. Often, they will forget training that occurred earlier in life such as house training. It can be comparable to living with a young puppy again. Some dogs will develop incontinence with urine or bowel movements as well.
Think of these old dogs as reverting to the puppy stage again. If we change our expectations of them, it can improve life with our senior companions. Be patient with possible “accidents” on the floor and be prepared for getting up in the middle of the night again just like when Rover was a puppy. Also be aware that your senior dog may start to roam if they get disorientated so having Rover close by you is also important. The senses like vision and hearing also may be deteriorating so your doggo may need help getting around, especially at night, and just having someone closer by in general sometimes for reassurance. She may also need you to be next to her when using the stairs.
A predictable routine, proper exercise and cognitive stimulation can also help slow the progression of CCD. Exposing dogs to new smells is an excellent way to stimulate their brain as it can allow them to learn more effectively.
Dogs with CCD can get disoriented and wander off, eliminate on the floor, and vocalize like puppies would. If we can start to see dogs with CCD as puppies again, I think we would have more patience and understanding as we do with puppies.
So, Lucy's owner John treats her with the understanding he does his wife who has a similar set of behaviours. With knowledge comes understanding and patience which is exactly what Lucy needs right now.
Dr. Juanita Ashton, BSc, DVM, ACDBC-IAABC is a certified Canine Behavioural Consultant, and one of the owners of the Elmsdale Animal Hospital