A few weeks ago, I fielded a call from a good client in Rock Hall. She said her elderly dog was acting oddly and wasn’t sure what the problem was. Her dog panted and paced through the house all day, seemingly unable to settle and be comfortable. My client was unsure if her dog was in pain, was anxious or if something else was going wrong. I was pretty sure I knew what was happening-senile dementia or cognitive dysfunction. It goes by many names, but the bottom line is an older dog who is confused and approaching the last stage of his life. This is a subject close to my heart as my dear Bosun is exhibiting this same behavior. He pants, he paces, he pants, he paces. All day long.
The problem started first at night and initially I thought he needed to go out. I’d let him out, and instead of urinating or defecating, he’d just wander off. He also started barking for no apparent reason. Again, I thought he’d seen some varmint in the yard and was warning it off. But this behavior continued nightly, even when it was obvious that there was no justifiable reason. Then the daytime peregrinations around the house started. Constantly panting and pacing. My husband decided a long ocean voyage would be preferable to listening to Bosun. Rex, Bosun and I are not alone. There are lots of families struggling with older dogs and similar behaviors. As our pets live longer, dementia has become increasingly common.
What’s the cause of this behavior and what to do about it? One explanation is that certain areas of the brain receive less oxygen over time, and that neurotransmitters (chemicals which bridge the gap between brain cells), are not present in sufficient quantities to transmit the signal. Also, if brain cells lose their power source, the mitochondria, then the cells die. It is difficult to prove these microscopic cerebral changes, but the cognitive decline is obvious. Altered sleep patterns, loss of housebreaking, staring at walls, inability to get out of corners, all these demonstrate a decrease in ability to reason. Sadly, cognitive dysfunction is progressive so as practitioners and owners, we must be mindful of factors which worsen disorientation. Medications like tranquilizers, older antihistamines, and anesthetic agents contribute to confusion. That’s because drugs like Benadryl, valium and propofol cross the blood brain barrier where they cause depression
of the nervous system.
Owners can mitigate cognitive decline by providing greater exercise which increases blood flow to the brain, and ensuring more sensory input such as interactive play or taking a pet to new places. In brachycephalic breeds (think pushed-in faces), we know that sleep apnea caused by an overlong soft palate, leads to disturbed sleep patterns and a resulting risk for senility. Hi fat diets, obesity, and vitamin B12 or magnesium deficiency all contribute to an increased chance of cognitive dysfunction.
Having said that, it seems obvious that to slow the progression of nerve degeneration, exercise, thiamine (B12), antioxidant supplements and restricted calorie diets are all important. There are veterinary specific product dedicated to increasing the nerve cell’s mitochondrial function and replacing the transmitters between nerve cells. Routine antioxidants such as vitamin E, sam-e and ginkgo biloba may also help. Ask your vet for advice if your dog is suffering from the confusion and behavioral changes associated with cognitive dysfunction.