Cats and dogs are living longer lives, so it’s no surprise that age-related diseases are becoming more and more important in both clinical and research veterinary medicine. One of these related diseases is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD). It’s something we’re familiar with in humans, and is similar to dementia and Alzheimer’s. It has been reported that 28% of dogs aged 11 to 12 and 68% of dogs aged 15 to 16 show at least one sign associated with CCD.
What Is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD)?
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is deterioration in the brain, which causes dogs to not be able to think and function as they used do. It occurs when a protein called beta-amyloid accumulates, creating deposits called plaques. These collect around the nerve cells as the dog ages, causing inflammation and, finally, the cells to die. This leaves empty spaces in the brain causing physical interruptions for messages being sent, therefore altering the dog’s behaviour. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction predominately takes effect in older dogs, mostly after 10 years of age. However, there have been cases reported of dogs as young as seven showing signs of cognitive dysfunction. There is no known cause for CCD, however, genetics can play a role in the occurrence of the disease. Dogs can start off with just one symptom, but over time more symptoms can occur. This is known as ‘cognitive decline’. It has been found that 50 percent of dogs who are aged 11 show signs of at least one symptom.
What Are The Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?
It’s important to note that all dogs are different and will have different responses. If your dog experiences one of these signs, it doesn’t definitively mean that your dog has Canine Cognitive Dysfunction; it may just be a normal age-related change. However, early diagnosis and intervention of the disease is key to maximising quality of life, so a vet examination would always be worthwhile. Changes in sleep patterns, awareness, activity levels and response to stimuli in their normal surroundings are all common symptoms. When these signs are seen together, there is a much higher likelihood of CCD diagnosis.
It has been found that there are five main categories that dogs fit into when looking at their behaviour and cognitive dysfunction. The acronym DISHA is often used to describe the signs of cognitive dysfunction in dogs. These are:
- D Disorientation
- I Interactions
- S Sleep Patterns
- H House Training Breaks
- A Activity Level Changes
1. Disorientation - They can become disorientated in the home and when out.
Some dogs experience signs such as restlessness, being unable to settle and wandering aimlessly. Owners have reported that older dogs have showed signs of new fears, either in the home or outside while on walks, including objects, people or situations. Owners have also reported that they have become destructive where they haven’t been before, and changes in eating habits, usually a loss in appetite.
2. Interactions - Loss of recognition can be found as well as loss of cognition.
In some cases, it has been found that dogs no longer recognise other members of the family. Interactions can reduce and, in some cases, stop all together.
3. Sleep Patterns - Their sleep-awake cycles can change.
Dogs can be seen to sleep more in the day time and less at night, where they can become restless and keep owners awake by excessively barking, whining and pacing.
4. House Training - House training declines and in some cases, is lost all together.
Sometimes, their training can be ‘forgotten’. It’s common to see either urination or defecation in the house. The dog will urinate or defecate whether the owner is in or out of the house, and there is no specific location in which they do it in; it can be anywhere at any time.
5. Activity Levels Change – Their activity levels can decrease.
Dogs with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction can also show a decrease in activity levels or an interest in play. However, as they get older, some dogs become more active or develop repetitive behaviours such as licking.
Diagnosing Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
When diagnosing CCD, it’s important to rule out any other medical conditions that could be causing these symptoms. A trip to your local veterinary clinic could prove to be beneficial in helping owners get some answers, and help with managing these new behavioural issues. Your vet may also want to get a thorough behavioural history to try and classify the behavioural problems in more detail. So if you think your dog is suffering from one of these signs, one of the most helpful things you can do is video the behaviour to help the vet identify the problem correctly.
Treatment For Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. However, there are things that we can do to improve their symptoms and help to improve their quality of life. Keeping your pets physically and mentally stimulated by their surroundings, otherwise known as ‘Environmental Enrichment’, plays an important role in keeping the brain active. Another way to aid brain function is with nutritional supplements; specifically, supplements such as DHA and antioxidants.
It has been found that 50 percent of dogs who are aged 11 show signs of at least one symptom of CCD.
There are two commonly prescribed medications in the UK. These are Selegiline (Selgian) and Propentofylline (Vivitonin and Vitofyllin). Medications are shown in 75 percent of cases of CCD to improve the condition. The medication Selegiline works by affecting the firing of the nerves in the animal’s brain. The levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine are increased which can help to manage signs. The medication Propentofylline is prescribed to increase the blood flow to the animal’s brain. This medication can also have improvements on the dog’s concentration and energy levels can be seen to increase.
Prevention and Intervention
Although CCD is heavily influenced by genetics, there is increasing evidence to show that nutrition and Environmental Enrichment can keep a brain healthier for longer. Additionally, early intervention and treatment can also improve quality of life, so it’s recommended testing dogs twice a year from the age of seven, to make noticing the signs easier. This isn’t something done commonly in vet’s practices, but is something that owners can do at home to keep an eye on their dog’s mental functions. If this is something that you’re keen to try, Dognition is a good website to look at.
One of the biggest preventive treatments for CCD is Environmental Enrichment. This is the mental and physical stimulation from everything around them, including continuing with physical exercise, such as walks and play sessions, using their toys and even trying new training as well as reinforcing their old training. For example, teaching and re-training an older dog to go to the toilet outside again and giving them more access to the correct location to eliminate in. However, re-training a dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is very difficult, so other things such as more access to eliminate outside may decrease accidents in the house. Mental stimulation is also recommended, including play time using toys or puzzle feeders. Environmental Enrichment uses the concept of ‘use it or lose it’, so if we help them use their brain, they won’t lose it!
A well balanced diet can help maintain healthy brain activity. Recent research into nutritional support for CCD is very encouraging, and there is now plenty of information available on different supplements. We’ve written a whole article on nutritional support for ageing brains.
Due to dogs’ increased life span, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction will become increasingly recognised and diagnosed. It’s important to remember that just because you identify one of these signs with your dog it does not immediately conclude that your dog is suffering from CCD. Nonetheless, for ageing dogs and for those diagnosed with the condition, nutritional support, physical and mental stimulation and medication if needed means our pets can live a good life, even if their brain function is declining. There are varying degrees of this disease, and although there is no cure, there are things we can do to make sure our dogs have a great quality of life for as long as possible.