No matter how hard we wish, there’s no turning back the hands of time. Aging is a natural progression of life. Better choices in nutrition, understanding the benefits of exercise for the body and mind, and advances in medicine give humans,dogs, and cats increased chances of living a longer and healthier life. But, the aging process creeps up on pets much sooner than it does for us. With dogs and cats living longer, there’s a good possibility some will develop cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), what we call senility.
It’s normal for an older dog to have graying around the muzzle, and move a bit slower. You might notice white hairs mixing in a pet’s coat. Seeing a change in your dog or cat’s appearance is just one aspect of the aging process. Hearing loss can explain why your pet ignores you when you talk to him, but if you see a change in personality he could be dealing with cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Similar to Alzheimer’s, CDS affects the region of the brain that controls learning, memory, and awareness, which is the same region affected by Alzheimer’s. We have the same types of chemicals in the brain dogs and cats have. Pets with CDS and Alzheimer’s patients both have lower levels of acetylcholine; the main chemical responsible for memory recall, concentration, and focus. It also plays a very important role in muscle coordination. So decreased levels of this chemical has a direct impact on pets with CDS, as well as people with Alzheimer’s.
The average lifespan of most mixed breed dogs is 11-12 years, and mixed breeds over 90 pounds only live to around 8 years. Purebred dogs under 30 pounds have a longer life expectancy of 12-15 years depending on the breed, while the giant purebred dogs only reach 6-8 years. Breeds mature and age at different rates. The average lifespan of cats depends on if they are inside or outside. Felines allowed to roam outside are more apt to die at an early age, but inside cats can easily live 15 years, and it’s not uncommon to find cats living 18-20 years. I had an inside kitty who was 22 when she died. However, with higher quality pet food and medical care more pets are living past the average life expectancy. Studies have found 28 percent of dogs 11-12 years and 68 percent of those 15-16 years have one or more signs of mental impairment, and 28 percent of cats 11-14 years show signs of CDS, and jumps to 50 percent in cats 15 years and older.
Symptoms of cognitive dysfunction syndrome in dogs and cats:
Disoriented/Confusion – An older dog may stop responding to commands he’s always known. A pet can appear lost or confused in familiar surroundings. You might find him stuck in a corner or behind furniture unsure how to find his way out. The doggy/cat door suddenly becomes a challenge to navigate through. He paces or wanders around aimlessly as if he’s lost, or forgets what he’s outside for. Some pets forget their regular routine. Normally friendly pets might be easily irritated, and a dog may bark at nothing. You may notice compulsive behaviors like excessive licking, circling, or staring at a wall. A change in routine can upset a senior pet or he might forget it, and some become picky eaters.
Change in sleep patterns – Normal sleep patterns are disturbed and he may sleep more during the day, and become active at night while you’re trying to sleep. An older cat may wander the house at night meowing loudly as if he’s lost, or in a different voice you’ve never heard.
Problems with house training – Other medical reasons beside cognitive dysfunction syndrome could be why cats stop using the litter box, and dogs have accidents inside. You should have him checked out by your vet to rule out other conditions. However, a change in bathroom behavior is cause for concern. Some pets forget where the proper place to eliminate is, or can’t control themselves when they need to go.
Change in social behavior – Some pets turn away from family members, other people they know, or other pets and act as if they don’t remember. A dog or cat may not interact as much as he once did, while some may want more attention than usual. He may walk away in the middle of being petted, not greet you in his normal way, or stop all together. Grooming is no longer a priority. Learning new things are harder to grasp, and some may not even try to learn.
Diagnose and Treatment:
Physical changes in the brain causes CDS and is the reason why pets affected by this disease have memory loss, can be slow to learn new things, have muscle weakness, and a change in behavior. Diagnose is basically to eliminate other possible medical conditions like arthritis or other joint problems, brain tumors, liver or kidney disease, hearing or vision loss, high blood pressure, Cushing’s disease, urinary tract infection or other underlying medical problems that have gone unnoticed. If your pet shows any of the above symptoms, your first action should be a check up with your vet to rule out possible medical conditions. Selegiline is a prescription medication that can help some dogs, but it isn’t effective for all and hasn’t been approved for use in cats at this time. It can take 5 to 6 weeks before results are seen, if it has any affect at all. CDS is a progressive disease and there is no cure for it.
Not all older pets will develop Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, just like not all seniors experience Alzheimer’s. You can help keep your pet maintain a healthy mind with daily exercise, social interactions with people and other dogs, talking to him, providing interactive toys and puzzle games to stimulate his mind, and teaching him simple tricks and the names of different things – like his toys, furniture, or other family members. A quality diet high in antioxidants may help some dogs, but check with your vet before giving cats higher levels of antioxidants. A mind that is kept stimulated is more likely to remain healthy and allow your dog or cat to ease into his senior years with grace and dignity.
Pictured: Gordon Setters – 15 week old puppy and a 22 year old.
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