Wild and wary
Stealth and cunning.
Then we noticed you had couches.
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Our Canine Companions Are Living Longer—and Facing the Same Challenges as Humans
Zeigfield waddled, rather than walked, into my examination room. I had been seeing this obese Dachshund at my veterinary hospital for most of his 17 years, treating many of the common ailments of the breed: back problems, mild skin disease, and regular episodes of what veterinarians tactfully refer to as “dietary indiscretion” (in Zeigfield’s case, eating a batch of chocolate chip cookies, part of an old sock, and a half bottle of his owner’s Prozac). But today’s visit was different. “He just hasn’t been himself for the past several months,” his owner Carol reported. “He seems restless at night, but mostly he just lays around. He doesn’t play his old games anymore. There isn’t any single issue, but he just isn’t right.”
Further questioning revealed that there actually was a single issue that prompted the visit: Zeigfield had been urinating and defecating indoors, despite being well house-trained since puppyhood. After ruling out most of the possible physical causes, I told Carol that her dog was likely developing cognitive dysfunction syndrome, the most common type of dementia in dogs.
Pets’ lives are different now than when I started my veterinary practice 40 years ago. Dogs are no longer allowed to run freely outside to be hit by cars, fight with other animals, or eat out of garbage cans. The quality of our dog foods is considerably better, and we have controlled the mostly deadly infectious diseases. Dogs’ lifestyles are safe but sedentary, leading to longer lives and more chronic conditions like obesity, arthritis, and cognitive dysfunction—which I find myself diagnosing almost daily at the Southern California veterinary hospitals where I practice.
The cellular changes of canine cognitive dysfunction would be recognizable under the microscope to any human brain pathologist: Plaques of beta amyloid—protein fragments believed to be the result of “oxidative stress”—lead to distinctive “neurofibrillary tangles” within the damaged nerve cells, and shrinkage of the brain appears in areas where memories are made and behaviors are shaped.
Some things are different between our species, of course. Fido doesn’t forget where he put his car keys. But he may not remember which door he uses to go out to the yard. The same inability to evaluate behavioral appropriateness may prompt a person with dementia to disrobe in public, or a dog with dementia to eliminate in the house without hesitation. Many dogs with cognitive dysfunction wander restlessly all evening in a manner reminiscent of the “sundown syndrome” of Alzheimer’s patients. And most significantly, finding familiar surroundings strangely unfamiliar often triggers anxiety and agitation.
When I explain such anxiety to owners of senile dogs, I often refer to a scene in the movie On Golden Pond, in which Henry Fonda’s character leaves the house to pick strawberries and returns a few minutes later, shaking and distraught. “Nothing was familiar, not one damn tree,” he says. “I was scared half to death.”
As with many of the dogs I treat, Sterling, a 14-year-old Labrador retriever from El Cajon, was dealing with dementia along with other health problems. He had recently lost most of his hearing, and arthritic hips made it difficult for him to rise from his favorite sleeping spot. Sterling spent hours every night panting and whining. Once he got to his feet, he could move fairly well. But as soon as he left the house for a walk around the neighborhood, he pulled nervously at the leash to get back into the house, where he would pant and tremble for the next hour. Sterling’s owners felt that he was suffering, and they had started to consider euthanasia.
Once a dog’s cognition deteriorates, it loses the ability to compensate for discomfort, and the dog’s suffering becomes compounded by anxiety. This is the point at which most compassionate owners I’ve dealt with have made the difficult decision to euthanize their long-time companion. Although dementia is almost never fatal on its own, cognitive dysfunction and physical health problems are a debilitating combination.
I told Sterling’s owners we could treat the low thyroid condition that was diminishing his hearing and potentially find more effective treatments for his hip arthritis. We could lessen his distress with the same antidepressant medications given to humans. But I couldn’t offer any honest reassurance of dramatic improvement.
Treatments for canine dementia are most effective when they are started before the signs of cognitive dysfunction start to show. This is equally true in humans, which is why researchers are working on tests to predict Alzheimer’s long before symptoms appear. A number of nutritional supplements (particularly DHA, one of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) and various antioxidants have been shown to slow the progression of mental decline. S-Adenosyl methionine (SAMe) is an over-the-counter supplement that provides mild help for old brains. There is even an FDA-approved medication to treat canine cognitive dysfunction: Selegiline is a derivative of a drug used in human Parkinson’s Disease. In my personal experience I have not seen dramatic results with this medication, but it is usually prescribed in the later stages of dementia, when it may be “too little, too late”.
We can also borrow from the extensive research that has been done in humans and laboratory animals, which find that eating a healthy diet (high in omega-3), staying mentally active, and getting lots of aerobic exercise can delay the onset of senile dementia. The exact amount of exercise that is required to delay senility in dogs has yet to be studied, but my personal experience has been that when I see one of my canine patients who is still alert and happy at 15 years old, the dog’s owner invariably tell me, “He has always gotten out on his walks every day, no matter what.”
When we are in the middle of our busy lives, old age seems far away, and taking steps to delay senile dementia (for our dogs or ourselves) isn’t a priority. There is even a certain unspoken acknowledgment that old age and a weak mind are inexorably linked. It isn’t until your graying canine companion is anxiously pacing the house at midnight or your mother forgets your name that you think you’d do anything possible to bring back the memory and comprehension that has been lost. Something to think about while you take a long walk with your dog.
From CARE2: Alex A. Kecskes
If your dog is in his “senior years,” he’ll have special needs. Like people, old dogs want to be treated with dignity and respect when they get old. It’s no secret that older dogs will undergo physical and mental signs of aging. Their memory, their ability to learn and their sense of sight and hearing will slowly decline. So it’s up to you to show compassion and care for the loved companion that has stuck with you through good times and bad.
Signs of Aging Dogs
Older dogs need patience and understanding, for unlike us, they don’t understand the limitations that will affect their lives as they age. Some dogs suffer from insomnia and will become restless at night and sluggish or sleepy during the day. Most older dogs will slow down, often just staring at inanimate objects for long periods. Others will exhibit a reduced appetite for food and prefer to just wander from room to room or in the yard without any apparent rhyme or reason. And some will just whine and grunt more often than usual. As their mental abilities gradually decline, aging dogs may not remember all the hand and verbal cues they were taught as “youngsters.” Their social behaviors will change and they may begin to act differently around their owners, family members and especially other dogs. Dogs that were affectionate and who liked being petted and groomed will prefer these activities less and less in their senior years. These behavioral changes will often go hand in hand with a tendency to grow more clingy and overly dependent on their owners.
Symptoms of Aging Dogs
Your aging dog may lose his desire to exercise. Don’t write this off as simply a sign of old age. He may be suffering from osteoarthritis or hip dysplasia and may actually try to conceal the fact that he’s in pain. Older dogs that appear lethargic may be suffering from such serious diseases as Cushing’s disease, Addison’s disease, or other ailments. As dogs age, they may have problems urinating, a symptom of bladder stones and a urinary tract infection. Like humans, older dogs can also become disoriented and suffer from Cognitive dysfunction, a condition that affects over half of dogs 10 years of age. So be on the lookout for insomnia, tremors, pacing and restlessness. In general, you should look for the following symptoms experienced by dogs as they age:
There are things you can do to ease your dog’s entry into old age. To keep your dog’s bones and joints from stiffening, feed him a senior formula with joint supplements. Consider Glucosamine and Chondroitin. These joint supplements are available as treats, tablets, powder and paste. You may also ask your vet about Adequan injections, which can protect the cartilage inside joints, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can quickly reduce pain and symptoms of arthritis. Keep your dog’s weight in check, and put him on a diet if he gains too much weight.
He May Need Professional Help
As we age, we tend to see our doctor with increasing frequency. The same should hold true for dogs. So take your aging dog to the vet when he begins to show signs of aging mentioned above. There are often things a vet can do to facilitate a dog’s transition into old age. A number of behavioral changes are often the result of medical disorders that a vet can treat to make older dogs more comfortable. This includes therapies that can keep dogs comfortable and manage their symptoms. In some cases, it may be prudent to seek the advice of a professional animal behavior expert — like a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist — who can help with certain age-related behavior issues.
Attentive, Less Demanding Play
Elderly people don’t want to be ignored and prefer to stay as active as they can. It’s the same with old dogs. So keep your older dog healthy by playing with him—just slow it down and make it less demanding. This continued activity will keep your dog mentally and physically healthy.