Senior Bulldog
Does your old dog seem to be increasingly forgetful? Does he come into a room and then act as though he doesn’t know why he’s there? Or, worse, has he started having accidents in the house, as though he has forgotten that he has a dog door to the yard? If your veterinarian can find no organic reason for your dog’s behavior, such as vision loss or a urinary tract infection, he may have cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) — what most of us refer to as senility.

Our dogs and cats are living a lot longer than they used to, so it’s not surprising that we are starting to see them develop old-age problems such as CDS. It’s not too unusual these days for a dog to reach extreme old age — 14 years or more — and still be in relatively good physical condition, but sometimes the mind can get a little cloudy. Many dogs 15 or older show at least one sign of CDS.

Can you and your dog still have a quality relationship if he has CDS? The good news is that the answer is yes.

Diagnosing CDS

The acronym DISH spells out the behaviors often seen in dogs with CDS and cats with CDS

Disorientation is common, such as walking aimlessly, staring at walls, getting “stuck” in corners or losing balance and falling.

Interactions with people change. The dog who once greeted you at the door and loved getting a head scratch now ignores you or hides in the closet.

Sleep patterns alter. Dogs who once snored through the night may pace relentlessly.

Housetraining goes out the door — not literally, unfortunately. Dogs with CDS seem to forget that they are supposed to potty outdoors or how to use the pet door to go outside.

If your dog exhibits one or more of these unusual behaviors, the first step is to take him to the veterinarian. Some highly treatable health problems can cause similar behaviors.

For instance, high blood pressure (or hypertension) is common in senior pets, especially if they have conditions such as Cushing’s disease. Hypertension takes a toll on blood vessels in the brain, so chronic high blood pressure might be causing some of his cognitive misfires. A dog with achy hips might be reluctant to go through a dog door if he knows it’s going to bang against his butt and cause pain. An underlying urinary tract infection (UTI) can also lead to loss of housetraining. Urine can be difficult to analyze under a microscope, so unless a cystocentesis sample — acquired by drawing urine directly out of the bladder via a fine needle — is obtained and then cultured, a UTI could be missed.

If your veterinarian rules out a medical cause, you can take steps to lessen the signs of CDS. Diet and medication, as well as control of underlying conditions that contribute to CDS, can often help slow the progress of CDS and improve your dog's quality of life.

Managing CDS

Consider switching your dog to a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other antioxidants. Some good studies have demonstrated that antioxidants may enhance brain health.

Your veterinarian may prescribe a medication that affects attentiveness and the sleep-wake cycle. The drug can alter concentrations of brain chemicals, changing behavior for the better. If you are alert to changes in behavior and get your dog started on medication early, he may respond better to it than if it is started after the changes are established.

Give medication time to work. You may not see results until your dog has been on it for five or six weeks. If you don’t see any changes after two months, however, it’s probably not helping. My colleague Nicholas Dodman, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and professor of animal behavior at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass., says that one-third of dogs respond extremely well to selegiline, one-third respond usefully well, and one-third don’t show any improvement.

Ask your veterinarian about pain relief if your dog has arthritis.

Exercise your old dog’s brain with play and training. One study has shown that CDS progresses more slowly in dogs who receive obedience training in combination with a diet fortified with antioxidants than it does in dogs who receive neither.

Maintain a routine so your dog eats or goes for walks at the same times every day. Create a new, interactive routine by giving him a treat at specific times of the day so he learns to anticipate it.

Quality of Life

As your dog ages, your relationship with him will change, and you may even find that caring for him in his golden years strengthens the bond between you. When you understand the changes that accompany aging and work with your veterinarian to manage them, your dog’s senior years can be rewarding for both of you.

Your dog can have good quality of life with CDS, but it is a progressive disease. Until you start seeing signs that your dog is simply existing and no longer interacting or responding, no longer recognizes you or other family members, loses his appetite, or is so confused that his well-being is at risk, treasure your time together.