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Senior Moment or Canine Dementia? What to know about Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

By Lea Jaratz

Dementia in dogs

Recently, my husband was testing the carbon monoxide detector in our home and the device emitted a jarring alarm. What happened next was quite surprising. Lyger came running toward the sound and climbed into my husband’s lap, trembling, visibly upset. See, this would be a normal reaction for most dogs, to be startled by a loud, strange sound. But Lyger has never been afraid of any noise. He regularly sits by my side and watches thunderstorms from the porch, or relaxes happily as we watch neighborhood fireworks. Our normally unfazed dog looked as though he’d just escaped a war zone. Both of us noted this as “not like him.” The look in his eyes stuck with me, and I realize now that it was the first sign of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), otherwise known as dementia.

Dogs, like people, can be expected to slow down as they age. (Most dogs are considered to be seniors over the age of 10, though that varies by breed and size.) But a number of senior dogs will develop amyloid protein deposits in their brains, just as Alzheimer’s sufferers do. The transition from “just slowing down” into dementia can be gradual, but pet parents should look for the following signs or symptoms of CCD.

  • Becomes lost or disoriented in the home or familiar surroundings
  • Is unable to maneuver doorways or stairs, and may become stuck behind furniture
  • Paces or seems restless
  • Doesn’t greet loved ones or respond when called
  • Stares into corners or at blank walls.
  • Is uninterested in play, walks, food or affection
  • Trembles without any physical cause
  • Has accidents or housebreaking regression, even when let outside regularly
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Decreased pain tolerance or increased aggression

Since the alarm incident, Lyger’s been urinating in the living room, regardless of how often he’s let out. I’d chalked it up to our closing the dog door with the colder weather, but I see now that he’s relieving himself even an hour after going outside. But I wasn’t certain about his mental state until last week, during a visit to his friends at Embrace HQ. Dog whisperer (and call center rep) Darcy offered Lyger peanut butter, and he turned away, looking quite uneasy. That summed it up. He no longer felt comfortable in a place that had once been like a second home.

So how do we help our dogs with CCD?

  • Work with a vet closely to rule out any physical concerns. Certainly arthritis, infection, deafness, or blindness could cause behaviors similar to those listed above. But chances are, if your dog is exhibiting several of the signs above, CCD is at play.
  • Create a structured routine with set feeding, walk, and play times. The schedule will help them to feel more at ease, while short, low-intensity play sessions can boost brain activity, helping keep cognitive function at its best. Walks can be slow and short, but the routine exercise will be beneficial.
  • Make a secure, stable space for your dog. Avoid moving furniture or changing the room as small adjustments can cause major confusion. Consider installing ramps or laying out grippy flooring to help with mobility. (Yoga mats offer cheap traction on hardwood and tile.) Crate the dog when necessary to avoid accidents or trauma.
  • Medications are available to increase the dopamine in your dog’s brain, helping him to become more focused and remember more. However, cost can be prohibitive, and results can take six months or more to appear. While these meds may or may not be able to help your dog, it’s certainly worth a discussion with your vet.
  • Be sure that your dog’s diet is rich in antioxidants and Omega3 Fatty Acids. These nutrients are key to brain function.

When your dog is starting to slow down, take this as a reminder to slow down with him, even just a few minutes every day. Look for those moments when your dog is alert and attentive, and cherish the opportunity to give him an extra-long belly rub or scratch behind the ears. After all, this old soul is still the soul of the troublemaking puppy you once knew and shared many good years with. When you take a little extra time to rub his face and stroke his fur, you’ll know this familiar kindness means even more to him now than it did before.

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Pet health insurance is administered by Embrace Pet Insurance Agency, LLC and underwritten by one of the licensed insurers of American Modern Insurance Group, Inc., including American Modern Home Insurance Company d/b/a in CA as American Modern Insurance Company (Lic. No 2222-8), and American Southern Home Insurance Company. Coverage is subject to policy terms, conditions, limitations, exclusions, underwriting review, and approval, and may not be available for all risks or in all states. Rates and discounts vary, are determined by many factors, and are subject to change. Wellness Rewards is offered as a supplementary, non-insurance benefit administered by Embrace Pet Insurance Agency in the United States. © 2020 American Modern Insurance Group, Inc.  Wellness Rewards not available in Rhode Island.