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As we age, our cognitive abilities tend to become impaired. Why, is not well understood. It may be due to errors in DNA copying as cells reproduce over time, damage to neural cells from environmental exposures such as radiation and pollution, or due to chemical changes from metabolic waste accumulation. In humans, deterioration in cognitive abilities associated with old age results in Alzheimer's disease, a chronic neurodegenerative disease that robs its victims of the ability to remember, think clearly, and interact with loved ones. In humans, this condition is very traumatic as cognitive impairment progresses and loss of motor and body functions occurs.
Can Dogs Get Alzheimer’s?
While a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease may not be made, a similar disorder occurs in dogs that is referred to as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, CCDS. Characterized by a decline in cognitive and physical functioning, occurring as your dog ages, it also has many of the same neurological markers as Alzheimer's in humans, including chemical changes and neural lesions. However, this disease often goes undiagnosed as many pet owners are not aware that a canine equivalent to Alzheimer's exists and since your dog does not communicate verbally.
Due to differences in how dogs and people interact, symptoms of the disease may not be as apparent. For instance, how do yo know your dog does not remember a person or place, or is confused by what is happening around them? Until dramatic behavioral symptoms manifest, CCDS may not be diagnosed. Fortunately, as more is being uncovered about CCDS, more dogs are being diagnosed and receiving treatment which can improve their quality of life, much as is the case in human patients.
Does My Dog Have Alzheimer’s?
As dogs do not communicate verbally, picking up on cognitive deficits in your dog may take longer than it does in humans. Initial symptoms of CCDS, the canine equivalent of Alzheimer's, include:
Disorientation: your dog may walk in circles, stare at the wall, not respond to commands, hide under furniture, be unaware of surroundings, and experience anxiety and fearfulness.
Changes in mood including aggression, loss of interest in family members or other pets may occur.
Breaking house training: defecating or urinating in the home, which is not associated with physical incontinence, but seems more like they are just unaware of where they are.
The cause of canine cognitive dysfunction is not well understood. It tends to manifest in older dogs and may be due to aging, environmental factors, and chemical changes. As many as 28% of dogs, 11-12 years old, may exhibit signs of CCDS and 60% of dogs aged 15-16 may have the condition.
There is no way to test for CCDS in dogs. Veterinarians rely on the pet owner providing a history and description of recent behaviors. Your veterinarian will also perform a comprehensive physical examination and may conduct tests to rule out other medical conditions that may account for symptoms such as diabetes, Cushing's disease, arthritis, vision loss, and hypothyroidism.
To learn more, visit our Canine Cognitive Dysfunction guide.
How Do I Treat My Dog’s Alzheimer’s?
Sadly, as with human Alzheimer's, there is currently no cure for CCDS. However, there are things you and your veterinarian can do to support your CCDS dog and make them more comfortable.
Your veterinarian can prescribe medication that can control many CCDS symptoms. As well, antidepressants, and antianxiety medications, may address fearfulness, withdrawal, and anxiety in your dog and help them sleep better.
You can provide your dog with a diet high in antioxidants and fatty acids that may improve your dog's cognitive functioning. This is most useful before profound symptoms of CCDS appear.
Pet owners can also provide stimulating play and exercise to preserve cognitive functioning and stimulate their senior dogs. Some modifications to your environment may be helpful in supporting and minimizing disruption of behavioral changes associated with CCDS, including allowing more frequent bathroom breaks, installing a dog door to allow your dog to access outside more often, and maintaining regular exercise, feeding and sleep routines.
There are many natural remedies and homeopathic treatments that may help aid in supporting cognitive function in older dogs. A homeopathic veterinarian practitioner can provide suggestions on supplements and treatments that may be helpful.
Behavior modification techniques appropriate to senior dogs or using similar training techniques you used when your dog was a puppy to establish desirable behaviors, may be more successful than introducing new techniques, or techniques that require advanced cognitive functioning in your dog.
Because CCDS is progressive, and there is no cure, treatment focuses on being supportive, minimizing symptoms and making your dog as comfortable as possible.
You can read more and get advice from an experienced veterinarian at our Canine Cognitive Dysfunction guide.
How is Alzheimer's Similar in Dogs and Humans?
There are several similarities between human Alzheimer's and Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome:
Autopsies in dogs With CCDS and humans with Alzheimer's show similar degenerative brain anomalies and chemical changes.
Both diseases are degenerative and are characterized by memory loss and disorientation.
Alzheimer's and CCDS usually manifest in older humans and dogs.
How is Alzheimer's Different in Dogs, Humans, and Other Pets?
There are some differences between the condition in humans as opposed to cats and dogs.
In cats and dogs, the condition is referred to as canine or feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
Signs of the disorder may go unnoticed in pets as they get older, as pets are nonverbal and express themselves with behavioral cues that may be missed.
The condition is more difficult to assess and diagnose in pets, and there is a lack of definitive tests for cognitive disorder in pets.
As with humans, dementia and cognitive deterioration in an older pet is heartbreaking for their loved ones and caregivers. There are several excellent descriptions pet owners have shared of their experiences dealing with their pets decline. One author and pet owner describes her terrier, Cricket’s, deterioration as she became more and more disoriented, pacing, circling and standing in corners. Cricket would forget what she was doing and lose and find her owner repeatedly. Near the end of her life she forgot basic functions such as how to drink water. Eventually, many pet owners consider euthanization as their dog becomes more distressed and suffers from their symptoms and caring for them becomes too difficult.