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Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Treatment

Dogmentia? Dogzheimers? Is it true? Unfortunately, yes, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) is a form of dementia that has been found to affect up to 14% of dogs over 10 years of age, with the risk significantly increasing with age. Dogs with CCD share a similar pattern of symptoms as human patients with Alzheimer’s disease, develop similar brain changes, and react to new drugs in a similar way.

What is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

CCD is a specific medical condition caused by physical and chemical changes in the brain. Structural changes include a reduction in brain size, a loss of functional neurons and the deposition of Alzheimer-type plaques in the brain tissue. Chemical changes also occur such as a reduction in essential neurotransmitters. Blood vessels to the brain are constricted, cutting down its supply of oxygen, making the problem worse.

While dogs do decline physically with age and their hearing and eyesight deteriorate like ours, not all behaviour changes can be attributed to just old age. Medical conditions need to be ruled out first, such as cardiac disease, arthritis, incontinence, cataracts, dental disease and chronic pain.

Not all aging dogs will develop CCD but it is essential to recognise the behavioural signs of cognitive decline early as there are treatments available to manage the disease and improve the dog’s quality of life. Just like with human Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms can be very distressing and it can be extremely difficult for an owner to cope with a beloved pet that no longer recognises or interacts with them as it used to.

12 Behaviour Changes to watch out for in Senior Dogs

The signs to watch out for in older dogs’ with CCD typically include one or more of these behavioural signs:

1. confusion and disorientation

2. decreased interest in food (anorexia) or not being able to find food

3. staring at the wall or floor

4. getting stuck behind objects, walking into walls or doors

5. decreased ability to recognise places and people

6. disruption of the normal sleep/wake cycle

7.  excessive licking

8. repetitive pacing, circling or wandering

9. persistent barking or whining, especially at night

10. loss of learned behaviours, such as toilet training

11. irritability and aggression

12. reduced interaction with the owner, general apathy

Diagnosis of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
These changes in behaviour are usually readily recognised however, whilst 75% of the owners of aged pets notice at least one of the above signs, regretfully, most don't realise the problem is often treatable and that's unfortunate because the condition is progressive. Once the signs are seen, dogs get worse without treatment.

Before diagnosing CCD, a thorough physical and neurological examination of the dog is performed to ensure that there are no other likely 'old age' causes of the changes, such as arthritis, a reduction in vision and hearing, diabetes, liver disease, cardio-vascular disease, neoplasia or anxiety disorders. There is no specific test for CCD: it is a diagnosis of exclusion based on the clinical signs and excluding other diseases.

7 Treatment Options for Canine Cognitive Dysfunctions

While there is yet no cure for CCD, treatment options currently available for CCD include medications, dietary changes, behaviour modification as well as changes to the pet's environment.

#1. Medications

Medications are available for treatment of some forms of cognitive dysfunction in dogs. These drugs help to normalise neurotransmitter levels, increase blood supply and protect against nerve cell deterioration. If you recognise any of the above problems in your dog, it is worth trying treatment as many dogs show marked improvement and become more attentive, playful and interactive. Seleginine, which is a derivative of a medication used in people to treat Parkinson's disease, is approved by the FDA to treat canine cognitive dysfunction.

#2. Synthetic Pheromones

The synthetic pheromone analogue Dog Appeasing Pheromone (Adaptil) - available as a plug-in diffuser or collar - can also be useful in decreasing concurrent anxiety.

#3. Behaviour Treament

Sometimes drug therapy needs to be combined with behavioural treatment, for example, urinating indoors may have become a habit which will require rehouse-training. 

Like in humans, our dogs need to 'Use it or Lose it' - so provide a rich environment designed to stimulate their brain. This can be achieved by using enrichment toys, simple brain challenges and brain games involving simple training routines (e.g. sit, drop, fetch) are ideal because many older dogs are chronically bored.

#4. Environmental Changes
Changing the pet's environment may also help. Because many old dogs are arthritic, please ensure that your dog has comfortable soft bedding and that the stairs they have to climb are not too steep or slippery.

Ensure he/she can easily negotiate the back door and the steps so that when the call of nature beckons, your dog can easily get to the garden to relieve itself. Don't forget a 'wee' walk before bed time. Keep household furniture changes to a minimum, though, so as not to confuse your dog and stick to his or her normal routine.

#5. Prescription Diets

A prescription brain diet is available specifically for CCD which contains increased levels of antioxidants to reduce the free radicals produced in ageing brains. Antioxidants used include Vitamins E and C, also a special mix of fruit and vegetables that gives increased levels of the antioxidants known as Carotenoids and Flavenoids

Other ingredients are included to promote cell function and durability. Research has shown that this form of dietary management improved the learning ability of older dogs by 58%.
#6. Nutraceuticals

There are a number of Nutraceuticals and other complementary therapies available in the marketplace.

The formulations are based on the addition of Antioxidants, B Vitamin complex, Choline and essential fatty acids, all of which have attributions which may help with signs of brain ageing
It is best to speak with your veterinarian first to ensure there is some data to support their use and they aren’t harmful in combination with other medications your dog may be taking.

#7. Stem Cell Therapy 

Due to the similarity between CCD and human dementia, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction has been a major research focus of the Regenerative Neuroscience Group of the University of Sydney's Brain & Mind Centre

Researchers set out to discover whether brain engraftment of the dog’s own skin-derived neural stem-like cells can help cure dogs of CCD. Recently, RNG researchers had a world-first breakthrough by successfully reversing the signs of dementia in a 13-year-old dog called Timmy by injecting him with his own stem cells. 

                  Video credit: VETtalk TV (2015)

This is only one documented case, but it paves the way for further clinical trials in dogs and potentially in humans with dementia.

In conclusion, your dog’s prognosis will depend on how early the disease is caught. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and implementing a strict treatment program can slow the decline and extend your dog’s life.

About our writer

Pets on the Couch
's Dr Julia Adams, BVSc, is a veterinarian and animal behaviour consultant in Cootamundra, NSW.

She is passionate about educating pet owners and helping them overcome behaviour issues that negatively affect their lives and the relationships they have with their pets.

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