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Neurological Problems in Older Dogs

 
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. December 17, 2019
Neurological Problems in Older Dogs

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As with all living matter, the tissues which make up a dog's body will degrade over time. It is an unavoidable fact of aging. Since the brain is made up of living tissue, it is no exception. When leg muscles deteriorate, their physical ability to walk is affected. When brain tissue degenerates, it will affect the entire nervous system and the results can be painful to witness. While neurological problems can occur at any stage of a dog's life, senior dogs are the ones most commonly affected.

AnimalWised looks at neurological problems in older dogs to see what we as caregivers can do to help recognize them. By looking at the symptoms, causes and treatment of neurological disorders in dogs, we can also best help reduce the negative effects of the inevitable.

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Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD)

Unfortunately, as with many degenerative brain disorders in humans, canine cognitive dysfunction is not well-understood even within the scientific community. What we do know is that it mainly affects senior dogs, i.e those of 8 years of age or more. Up to 60% of older dogs will be affected, particularly those over 11 years of age[1].

While there is no link between CCD and specific breeds, we do know that larger breeds tend to live shorter lives. For this reason, CCD symptoms are more often observed in smaller dogs since they are more inclined to live long enough to develop the condition. Since the causes of cognitive canine dysfunction are not well-known, it can be difficult to categorize. There is some evidence to suggest there are some genetic links to neurodegenerative disorders in dogs[2].

The symptoms are similar to dementia symptoms in humans, although the limitations in human/canine communication mean early signs may be difficult to detect. Apart from old age, there are other reasons for neurological disorders in dogs. They include:

  • Trauma: whether being hit by a car, falling from height, injury caused by fighting or any type of trauma, if the brain is hit, irreparable damage can be caused.
  • Infection: certain viral infections may lead to neurological problems in dogs. Rabies will cause the brain to deteriorate to the point it causes the dog to become aggressive, bite at the air and lose control of their motor skills.
  • Infestation: certain internal parasites can affect the dog's brain and result in problems.
  • Poisoning: if the dog eats or inhales a certain toxic substance, it can cause brain damage as well as damage to other vital organs.

Although there are relatively high rates of neurological disorders in older dogs, not everyone is able to recognize the problem. Especially as our dogs age, we need to look out for behavioral and physiological changes which may imply neurological disorder or dementia. These changes include:

  • Disorientation
  • Disturbed sleeping pattern
  • Increased irritability
  • Trouble standing up
  • Barking at nothing
  • Fly-snapping syndrome
  • Aggression
  • Not answering when called
  • Forgetting training

However, these symptoms of CCD in dogs maybe also relate to other problems. Many of these, such as ataxia, are also more likely to occur in older dogs.

Visible symptoms of neurological problems in older dogs

Also known as Alzheimer's in dogs, canine cognitive dysfunction is even more difficult to diagnose. While both Alzheimer's disease and CCD cause memory loss[3], due to the inability to communicate verbally, it is not always easy to recognize this problem in dogs. To see memory loss in older dogs, we need to look at other symptom such as an inability to obey even basic orders or loss of grooming habits[4].

We recommend taking your dog every 6 to 12 months for a veterinary checkup, especially when the dog is reaching old age. However, even during checkups it can be difficult for a veterinarian to observe symptoms of neurological problems in older dogs. Instead, it is up to pet owners to detect initial signs of the problem.

We also may encounter disorientated dogs, lost in areas they had otherwise known for years. They will have reduced interaction with their environment, family members and other animals. They may start urinating inside the house, even though they have been trained for years. Their sleep may be disturbed and become more active at night. It is imperative we look for other signs as these may be symptoms like incontinence may also be related to other medical conditions.

The changes are progressive. They appear subtly at first and then increase over time. For example, they may urinate inside the house in a one-off manner. As it the degeneration progresses, this occurs more often. The degeneration is advanced when the dog urinates on themselves without even getting up. They may also be difficult to distinguish between other age related problems.

It is important to take the dog to a professional for an accurate diagnosis. A veterinarian will carry out various diagnostic tests to ensure there is no physical pathology causing the changes in behavior.

Neurological Problems in Older Dogs - Visible symptoms of neurological problems in older dogs

Treatment of neurological problems in dogs

It is important to first state that there is no cure for most neurological problems in older dogs. The reason is that we cannot regenerate brain matter. If the neurons are no longer working, we cannot get them back. The only circumstances where there may be treatment is when the damage is temporary. For example, trauma may cause the dog to have an aneurysm which can be removed by surgery. These are rare and in cases of canine cognitive dysfunction, there is no cure.

What needs to be done is to manage the symptoms. In some cases, there may be a medical intervention in the form of Anipryl (sold as Eldepryl or Emsam). This is a medication which is used to treat Alzheimer's disease in humans, but has also seen some positive trials in dogs also. This will not reverse the onset of CCD, but it will hopefully slow its progress.

Another way to improve the quality of life of dogs with CCD is to help stimulate their cognitive function. This includes using intelligence games, teaching (or reteaching) certain commands and ensuring they are kept active mentally. Physical exercise is also important. Take them out for long walks, but also be careful not to push them too hard due to their deteriorating physical health.

Preventing neurological problems in dogs

While we may want to manage symptoms of neurological problems or CCD, it is not something we should only do when we see symptoms appear in old age. By providing a healthy lifestyle for our dog in their youth, we can best prevent neurological degeneration when the dog is older.

All dogs are individuals and will have varying physical needs. However, no dog should be allowed to be obese. Ensure you provide a healthy balanced diet with quality feed. Do not overfeed them with treats and don't give them any food they cannot well stomach. Food with omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain development, so ensure their nutrition is complete.

Walk the dog when necessary and incorporate training early. This will help to keep their mind sharp later into old age. However, since we do not know the exact causes of canine cognitive dysfunction, also know that this is not something you may be able to avoid altogether. Don't blame yourself if it happens to your beloved dog.

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Neurological Problems in Older Dogs, we recommend you visit our Degenerative diseases category.

References

1. Mihevc, S. P., & Majdič, G. (2019). Canine Cognitive Dysfunction and Alzheimer’s Disease – Two Facets of the Same Disease? Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13(604).
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.00604/full

2. Kyöstilä, K., et al. (2015). A Missense Change in the ATG4D Gene Links Aberrant Autophagy to a Neurodegenerative Vacuolar Storage Disease. PLoS Genet., 11(4):e1005169.
https://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1005169

3. Frank, D. (n.d.) Cognitive Dysfunction in Dogs. Retrieved on December, 18, 2019, from
http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/Hills/brain/frank.pdf?LA=1..

4. Orozco Sanabria, C., Olea, F., & Rojas, M. (2013). Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in Senior Dogs. In Uday Kishore (ed.), Neurodegenerative Diseases (pp. 615-628). IntechOpen.
https://www.intechopen.com/books/neurodegenerative-diseases/cognitive-dysfunction-syndrome-in-senior-dogs

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