By John Andersen, DVM
“Mindy” used to be the canine picture of health. As a middle-aged mixed breed dog, she was super fit and was a great family dog. Like many dogs she had made the transition from being the “baby” of a young married couple with no kids, to being the older dog whose human pack had grown by three. At 14 years of age, Mindy’s physical body is still in surprisingly great shape. Her blood work is perfect, no arthritis, and even her teeth are still in good shape. Her mind, however, is another thing.
Mindy’s owners report that she has definitely been “getting old” over the past year. Her hearing is gone and her eyes look cloudy and they are not sure how well she sees. She still eats like a champ, devouring her food in seconds, yet she is just not the same dog anymore.
Over the past two months, Mindy has started waking up in the middle of the night, panting and pacing. They let her outside, but she doesn’t have to go to the bathroom. It takes her about an hour to get back to sleep. This now happens every night. She is also very anxious, constantly following her owners everywhere they go in the house. She usually sleeps all day, and in the evenings she seems to be restless and anxious. She pants all the time, even when she’s not been exercising. She doesn’t want to stay in the backyard anymore. She has started having accidents in one of the bedrooms lately, and every once in a while they will see her standing in a corner panting, as if she can’t figure out to just turn around.
Mindy’s signs are classic of canine cognitive dysfunction, also known as senility! Just like people, older dogs can definitely have senility or dementia. Although there are probably many different specific causes of these disorders, we can generally say that the brain as an organ can succumb to age-related degeneration, just like kidneys or the heart. Memory loss, confusion, changes in behavior, anxiety and restlessness are some of the common signs we see in dogs that we believe are having senility/dementia problems.
My grandmother lived to be 101 years old and was fortunate to live at home with my mother. However, those last few years were quite difficult on my mom because my grandmother definitely had dementia, and who would be surprised given her age? She would often start talking about things that didn’t make sense, such as asking my mom to please drive her home so that her parents (who had been gone for 40 years!) wouldn’t be worried. She also became very scared, even terrified, if my mom simply left the room. She had pretty much no short-term memory and the long-term memory seemed very difficult to access.
In people, we can easily identify when an elderly person is starting to get senility/dementia issues. However, in dogs, it can be difficult to see these signs coming since they don’t talk, and testing their memory is difficult. Further, as they get older we most often measure their “wellness” based on their appetite and lack of pain, puking, etc., as opposed to noticing their mental health.
One of the most common instigators I see for dementia in dogs and cats is loss of hearing and/or vision. Dogs and cats lack the deep logic and rationalizing ability of humans. They truly live in the moment based on their senses and their animal instincts. If they lose their ability to sense their environment, their cognitive function, as we know it, starts to decline rapidly.
Senility/dementia is very common in older dogs. Often times it is just a fact of life that is readily manageable. For example, Spot doesn’t see or hear well any more, but he eats well, does his business outside, sleeps well and just requires a little help getting outside. Most people will care for their elderly dogs with great compassion and patience. However many dogs’ dementia is so severe that their overall quality of life and/or ability to function are greatly compromised.
A complicating factor is that senile behavior can be incompatible with an owner’s quality of life. Some dogs with significant senility wake and vocalize for hours on end every night. Some dogs become very moody and suddenly start snapping at their owners or children. Some dogs seem to have totally lost all urinary and bowel control and not only urinate and defecate in the house daily, but also do it in their bed and sleep in it. These are really tough situations.
For dogs with senility/dementia, we first like to check what other diseases may be occurring that may be contributing to their anxiety or behavioral changes. Then we usually discuss some changes to the home and dog’s routine that may help to manage some problems. After years of living freely in the home, many geriatric dogs find themselves being confined during the day or at night in order to prevent disruptive behaviors. It is often similar to raising a puppy again.
For more significant cases, there are anti-anxiety medications, and I will say that we use these frequently. For the geriatric dog with dementia, medications can often decrease the anxiety that often comes with less cognitive function and improve both the dog’s life, as well as the owner’s.
Then there are the dogs that seem beyond help. It is hard to watch these dogs; they seem like a ship without a pilot, an anxious, demented mess. These are the cases where we sadly do discuss euthanasia, though again it is so complex when these dogs are still eating. Measuring quality of life is complex! Poor quality of life can occur without pain. Unfortunately, end-of-life care is a decision that you as the owner have to make, hopefully along with the trust of your veterinarian. Loving them to the end is never easy, but with careful thought and love, your decision is usually the right one.