By Dr. Becker
As dogs age, most pet parents and veterinarians have traditionally focused only on keeping them healthy from the neck down, with things like weight control, management of arthritis and other mobility issues and support of major organ systems.
In fact, it wasn't all that long ago that many people accepted euthanasia as the only option for an elderly animal showing signs of mental decline. Thankfully, today's pet parents want to care for their animal's physical and mental health into old age, just as they would a parent or other elderly family member. We want to help our companion animals maintain good brain function throughout their senior and geriatric years.
Causes of Geriatric Dementia
Cognitive dysfunction looks a lot like a mental or behavioral problem, but the root cause is actually physical, due to age-related changes within your dog's brain. There are three main contributors to changes in an aging brain that cause gradual impairment in cognitive functioning:
- Oxidative stress from free radical damage
- Formation of lesions on the brain
- Alterations in oxygen and energy availability
Oxidative stress is physiological stress on the body caused by the cumulative damage of free radicals associated with aging. The brain is thought to be more sensitive to the effects of oxidation than other tissues of the body.
The damage to your dog's brain caused by oxidative stress can result in decreased cognitive function as well as degenerative nerve disease similar to, for example, Alzheimer's disease in humans. The aging process also involves the accumulation of beta amyloid deposits in the brain. These deposits consist of nerve-damaging proteins that form plaque. This "senile plaque" buildup interferes with the transmission of signals from the brain.
Brain energy availability can also decline over time due to environmental stressors and toxins, including diet. It can negatively alter cellular metabolism in the brain, leading to cognitive decline.
Symptoms of Geriatric Dementia
Dementia or senility in dogs is referred to as canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, cognitive decline or simply CD. Signs of CD are seen in about half of dogs over the age of 11. By the age of 15, almost 70 percent of dogs have at least one sign of an aging brain.
Because large and giant breed dogs age more rapidly than smaller breeds, dogs as young as 6 can begin to experience mental decline. If your pet is around that age, is a large or giant breed and is showing one or more symptoms of CD, don't rule out an age-related problem.
However, in a relatively young dog, it's important to investigate for an underlying illness or diseases before making an assumption that he or she has an age-related cognitive issue. There are five classic signs of cognitive decline in dogs, including:
- Increased total amount of sleep during a 24-hour period
- Decreased attention to surroundings, disinterest, apathy
- Decreased purposeful activity
- Loss of formerly acquired knowledge, which includes housetraining
- Intermittent anxiety expressed through apprehension, panting, moaning or shivering
Other signs of mental decline include failure to respond to commands and/or difficulty hearing, inability to recognize familiar people and difficulty navigating the environment. Additional physical manifestations of CD can include excessive licking, lack of grooming, fecal and urinary incontinence and loss of appetite.
Diagnosis of canine cognitive dysfunction is a diagnosis of exclusion. There are many conditions older dogs acquire that can mimic the signs of cognitive decline, so it's important to rule out all other physical reasons for a change in behavior. For example, a small seizure can cause a pet to stand still and stare.
If your dog seems detached, he could be in pain. Inappropriate elimination can be due to kidney disease. These disorders and many others can result in a change in behavior unrelated to cognitive decline. That's why it's so important to rule out all possible alternative reasons, especially in aging pets.
It's also important for your veterinarian to review any medications your dog is taking. Older animals metabolize drugs differently than younger pets, and if a dog has been on a certain medication for years, it's possible it is having a different effect as he gets older.
Helping Dogs Maintain Cognitive Function as They Age
Several studies have been conducted with older Beagles to test various methods of preventing, slowing or even reversing age-related cognitive decline. One study showed that mental decline can be improved by offering an antioxidant-fortified diet, plus a program of cognitive and environmental enrichment, plus extra exercise.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help your aging canine companion maintain good cognitive health for as long as possible, and delay the onset and progression of geriatric dementia.
Feed a species-appropriate, balanced diet that is rich in healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids such as krill oil. Krill oil and other healthy fats, including MCT oil, are very important for cognitive health.
The perfect fuel for an aging dog is a variety of living, whole foods suitable for a carnivore. Eliminate all refined carbohydrates, which are just unnecessary sugar. No grains, potatoes or legumes. Replace those unnecessary carbs with extra high-quality protein. Eliminate extruded diets (kibble) to avoid the toxic byproducts of the manufacturing process.
Dog foods are manufactured in a way that creates byproducts that can affect cognitive health, including heterocyclic amines, acrylamides and advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. Fresh, biologically appropriate foods provide the whole food nutrients an aging brain requires. The right diet will also enhance the microbiome, which has been linked to improved cognitive health in humans, and I've seen an improvement in dogs as well.
Studies of nutraceuticals show that memory is significantly improved in supplemented dogs, and the effects are long-lasting. Studies of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as coconut oil show they can significantly improve cognitive function in older dogs.
MCTs provide an alternative energy source for the brain in the form of ketone bodies versus glucose, which can dramatically improve brain metabolism and cellular energy within the central nervous system. Supplementing with MCTs is a great way to offer an instant fuel source for your pet's brain.
Ketone bodies cross the blood brain barrier to efficiently nourish aging brains. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon per every 10 pounds of your pet's body weight, added daily to his food. Your dog's brain is about 60 percent fat, and that fat needs to be appropriately fueled as he ages.
I also recommend providing a source of SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine). Other supplements to consider are jellyfish extracts and resveratrol, which is Japanese knotweed. Japanese knotweed has been proven to help reduce free radical damage and beta-amyloid deposits.
Ginkgo biloba may improve blood flow to the brain. Phosphatidylserine and ubiquinol, which is the reduced form of CoQ10, feeds your pet's mitochondria and improves cellular energy.
Stop them. Over-vaccinating is something older animals do not need. You can replace the vaccines with titers. A titer is a blood test that measures protective immunity. Chances are your dog is very well-protected. Switch to titering to help reduce her toxic load.
Keep your dog's body and mind active with regular exercise appropriate for her age and physical condition, and mental stimulation (puzzles and treat-release toys can be beneficial). Provide her with regular opportunities to socialize with other pets and people. Also keep your dog at a healthy size. Overweight pets are at significantly higher risk for developing age-related diseases.
Senior wellness exams
I recommend twice-yearly veterinary visits for pets no matter the age, but this becomes even more important for dogs getting up in years. Keeping abreast of your animal companion's physical and mental changes as he ages is the best way to catch any disease process early.
Ask your vet to perform a blood test to check your pet's internal organ health to make sure you are identifying possible issues early on. Keeping abreast of your pet's physical and mental changes as he ages is really the very best way to catch any disease process early.
When your dog begins to respond to therapy designed to improve cognitive function, if necessary, you can begin re-training him using the same techniques you used when he was a puppy — positive reinforcement behavior training involving lots of treats and praise.
Unfortunately, these recommendations won't be tremendously helpful for a dog already in the advanced stages of cognitive decline, which is why it's so important to diagnose and begin treating the problem as early as possible. Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive disease that can't be cured, but early diagnosis and intervention can slow mental decline and offer your aging dog good quality of life.