Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker and comments by Diane Weinmann
Not many years ago, people with aging dogs focused only on keeping their pets healthy from the neck down, forgetting that such issues as weight control, possible arthritis and major organ support only go so far if their dog’s brain health is overlooked. Including your dog’s brain health in the overall picture is even more important as they get older, especially since more and more reports are emerging that show a “startling” number of older dogs starting to show signs of dementia.
According to veterinarian Melissa Bain, professor of Clinical Animal Behavior at UC Davis, canine cognitive dysfunction, or CCD, usually starts when the animals reach 9 or 10 years of age, and there are five typical signs that point to a dog’s cognitive decline:
- Loss of house training or other previously acquired knowledge
- Changes in sleep habits and reversed sleep cycles, e.g. sleeping all day
- Failure to recognize their owners or other pets in the household
- Anxiety in the form of excess panting, shivering, moaning and/or nervousness
- A decrease in purposeful activity
Dog owners should also know about other signs to watch for. Witnessing certain behaviors may help you recognize something is happening with your dog’s cognitive abilities, especially if you’ve never seen them before. Examples that may indicate CCD, otherwise known as geriatric dementia, include:
- Getting lost in the house
- Getting stuck behind furniture
- Becoming overly aggressive
Vetstreet1 notes other signs that indicate something might be wrong; such as noticing your dog staring at walls for long periods of time, repetitive behaviors like walking in a circle or pacing, changes in hearing and vision, and/or vocalizing at inappropriate times. My ancient Boston terrier, Rosco (over 18 years old in this picture), would often get “stuck” in the narrow space between the toilet and the wall and was unable to navigate himself out without assistance, a common sign of CCD in older dogs.
One of my friends has a 14 year old golden retriever who is just beginning to show signs of geriatric dementia. He normally doesn’t leave her side—no need for a leash but just recently he wondered down the drive way and started walking down the sidewalk seemingly confused. She called him and asked where he was going. He seemed to come out of a fog, looked at her and realized he was leaving the yard then came back to her. This is an example of the type of behavior you can experience when your dog begins geriatric dementia.
What Causes Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?
Helping your companion animals maintain bright, strong brain function throughout their senior years is even more important as you start noticing changes. If changes look as if they’re a mental or behavioral problem, it may actually be physical. Three main signs of age-related changes in dogs that cause gradual impairment stem from three main contributors:
- Oxidative stress from free radical damage is physiological and impacts your dog’s brain tissue more than any other parts of their body, and can be evidenced both by decreased cognitive function as well as nerve disease, similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
- The formation of lesions on the brain may include nerve-damaging beta amyloid deposits, proteins that form “senile plaque” buildup that interferes with the transmission of brain signals.
- Alterations in brain metabolism can diminish due to decreased availability of oxygen and energy, at least in part due to environmental stressors, including your dog’s diet.
Although human and canine brains are significantly different, they have remarkably striking similarities both anatomically and physiologically, and the way the diseases manifest themselves appear “almost identical,” Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital explains further:
“More, dogs’ brains react to dementia treatments exactly as human brains do, making them ideal human dementia testbeds. As with human dementia, causes of CCD are not well known.
But accumulations of sticky proteins called beta-amyloid plaques around neurons, and the breakdown of neurons resulting in so-called neurofibrillary tangles, are considered leading causes. As in humans, both phenomena impact the brain by interrupting nerve impulse transmission.”2
Studies estimate that more than 60 percent of dogs between age 15 and 16 can show at least one symptom of CCD, but according to Bain, one reason more dogs have been showing signs of mental aging in recent years is simply because dogs are living longer due to advances in veterinary medicine.3
Danish Study: ‘Support’ Is Key for Dogs With CCD
A Danish study during which 94 dogs 8 years of age were investigated with a CCD questionnaire and observational sleep studies, subsequently published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, notes that vitamin E was investigated as a potential marker of CCD. The researchers reported:
“Four key clinical signs dominated in dogs with CCD: sleeping during the day and restless at night, decreased interaction, disorientation at home, and anxiety … CCD did not influence survival negatively. Small breeds did not show better survival than large breeds and there was no difference between sexes.
A few key questions addressing sleep-wake cycle, interaction, and signs of confusion and anxiety can be used as a clinical marker of CCD. Special attention should be paid to anxiety in dogs with CCD because it may be especially stressful to both dog and owner. Dogs with CCD seem to have a good chance of living a full lifespan if supported by the veterinarian and the owner.”4
Significantly, most veterinarians are becoming more aware of CCD and asking questions earlier rather than later in the lives of the dogs they treat, but some experts maintain that as many as 80 percent of older dogs have CCD that is both unrecognized and undiagnosed.5
How a Dog’s Diet Influences His or Her Health, Including Cognitive Health
Rather than assuming it’s an age-related cognitive issue, investigating the underlying cause of what appears to be CCD with the help of a professional veterinarian is important, especially if the dog in question is young, such as 5 or 6 years old.
To view the overall picture of your dog’s health, Bain says taking a look at their diet may be a significant key. I couldn’t agree more. She also notes, “There could be anything from hypothyroidism to urinary tract infections to blindness to deafness that all can mimic the signs of canine cognitive dysfunction.”6
These and other physical problems can be addressed to the greatest degree by providing a balanced, fresh food diet that includes “brain food” coming from omega-3 fatty acids, such as krill oil, MCTs coming from coconut oil and plenty of food-based antioxidants (only found in fresh fruits and vegetables), which are crucial for cognitive health.
You may also be surprised to learn that aging dogs require more rather than less protein, but it should come from quality sources and include a variety of living, whole, easily-digestible, moisture-rich fresh meats that are suitable for a carnivore. Animal meat should be the foundation of your healthy dog’s diet throughout his life.
In some cases, a species-appropriate diet for your dog is also about what should be eliminated. Unfortunately, many commercial dog foods are loaded with processed ingredients, such as refined carbohydrates that turn to sugar.
Also, eliminate grains, potatoes and legumes in your aging dog’s diet and pay attention to the amount of fiber your dog consumes, as it’s often just unnecessary filler, displacing crucial meat-based protein your aging dog requires. Additionally, the byproducts of high heat processing, known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, negatively impact the aging process and may play into premature cognitive decline.7
Needless to say, exercise and lots of time outside is also important for dogs of any age. It not only keeps their blood pumping, but keeps them limber and enhances detoxification. Additionally, one of the most important aspects of maintaining cognitive health in aging humans is social interaction, but it’s also true for dogs.
Exposure to other humans besides his or her immediate family is helpful, and being around other animals is beneficial for them, as well. Continuing mentally engaging exercises on a daily basis is also important, including fun nose work games and treat release puzzles.
One of the most important things for dog owners to do is work with an integrative or functional medicine veterinarian early on in the disease process. I was able to manage my dog’s age-related dementia very well because I addressed it immediately, as soon as symptoms became noticeable.
Proactive vets have been using nootropic supplements for pets (used to enhance memory and brain health) for years, including specific B vitamins, rhodiola, phosphatidylserine, lion’s mane mushroom and a variety of specific brain-supportive herbs.