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Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CCDS)

By Tracy Libby

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Did you know that many of the behavioral changes in your aging dog parallel those of some aging people? Like people, older dogs often display behavioral senility or what some jokingly refer to as "canine Alzheimer's." The official term is canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CCDS), and while it differs from Alzheimer's in that dogs lack neurofibrillary tangles, one of the classic markers of the disease, the behavioral impairments, are strikingly similar.

Most dogs naturally show aging symptoms, such as graying around the muzzle and decreased hearing and mobility, which are changes to their appearance. However, with CCDS—the dog's personality changes, with those changes being classified into four general categories:

  • Disorientation in the home or yard (becomes trapped behind familiar furniture or room corners, staring at walls or into space, going to the wrong door or the wrong side of the door)
  • Changes in social interactions with human family members (occasionally fails to recognize family members)
  • Loss of house training (accidents in the house)
  • Changes in the sleep-wake cycle (sleeps more during the day, paces or wanders aimlessly at night)

Symptoms vary but also can include intolerance to exercise, increased irritability, difficulty navigating up a flight of stairs, and new fears and phobias. Some owners also have reported excessive barking and/or vocalization, as well as “clinginess." These behaviors have a gradual onset and progress over time so you may not notice them right away.

If your dog is experiencing one or more of these behaviors, you're not alone. A 2001 published study by the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of California-Davis revealed:

  • 28 percent of dogs age 11 to 12 years showed impairments in 1 or more categories
  • 68 percent of dogs 15 to 16 years old had impairments in 1 or more categories

No specific test exists to diagnosis CCDS, but your veterinarian can rule in or out a CCDS diagnosis through a physical and neurological exam, a complete blood cell count (CBC), biochemistry profile, urinalysis and a detailed history of the behaviors—when they started, their trends, etc.—and by ruling out other ailments with similar symptoms. For example, advanced arthritis can result in decreased activity; acute hearing or vision loss can cause inattentiveness; and incontinence could stem from a serious kidney disease or urinary infection. Generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, fear- or pain-related aggression, and compulsive disorders also mimic CCDS symptoms.

Coping with CCDS

Unfortunately, no cure for CCDS exists. However, a prescription drug—Selegiline, or L-deprenyl—is available and studies have shown effectiveness toward improving your dog's quality of life. Dopamine is a chemical substance that transmits nerve impulses within the brain during normal function, with Selegline increasing the amount of dopamine in your dog's brain.

Experts say regular, moderate physical activity, mental stimulation with interactive toys, and a diet rich in antioxidants may help your aging dog's mental health. Be sure to know your dog's limitations, and always check with your veterinarian before beginning an exercise program or altering or supplementing your dog's diet.

You can also help your dog to cope with these tips:

  • remove clutter in the house to ease his mobility
  • place baby gates around the house to prevent him from wandering too far and possibly hurting himself by falling down stairs
  • fence your property or a section of the yard so he can’t wander off
  • maintain—as much as possible—his normal routine of feeding, eliminating, playing, and sleeping

Most importantly, remember that cognitive impairment is likely to increase as your dog ages. Your dog has no control over these behaviors and is not willfully being naughty or disobedient. Never isolate or punish your dog, which can cause fear, anxiety and possibly injury. Love, compassion, and a lot of patience will go a long way in helping your dog negotiate his senior years.

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