Thanks to advances in pet nutrition and veterinary medicine, many dogs now live to be 15 or older. Historically, the purpose of veterinary medicine has been to manage a dog’s health in its senior years by managing their weight, treating arthritis, and focusing on preventing organ failure. Not much thought was given to cognitive issues, because dogs seldom lived long enough for them to become problematic. Now, veterinarians and pet owners alike are equally concerned with preserving cognitive function.
People have strong emotional bonds with their pets, and naturally want to preserve that bond for as long as possible. What this means is caring for an aging dog’s emotional and mental health, the same as you would for any other aging family member. So, how do you tell if your dog’s brain is working less efficiently than it once did, and what can you do about it?
Mental deterioration in elderly dogs is known as canine cognitive dysfunction, or cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Most vets simply call it CD. The most common signs are:
Approximately 25% of dogs age 10 and older will display at least some of these symptoms. By age 15, that increases to 60%.
Dogs can even display signs of mental deterioration by the age of six. In a young dog, though, don’t assume that it’s CD – there could be a disease or another condition causing the decline.
One of the main factors responsible for cognitive dysfunction is oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals are no longer effectively neutralized. These free radicals are molecules that have an uneven number of electrons, and are therefore unstable. They try to bond to stable molecules – essentially, they are trying to steal electrons in a futile attempt to become stable. What actually happens is that they create even more unstable molecules, and oxidative stress results. All tissues in the body can be damaged by oxidative stress, but the brain is particularly vulnerable.
Brain lesions can also be a consequence of the aging process. These lesions are deposits of abnormal tissue caused by beta amyloid accumulating on the brain. This is a protein that forms plaque that can damage nerves, and prevent the brain from effectively transmitting signals to the body.
So, now that you know the signs of CD, and the causes, what can you do to prevent or treat it?
The most important thing you can do for the health of a dog of any age is to make sure he enjoys a healthy, well balanced diet. This means food that provides the energy needed to encourage a healthy metabolism, and facilitate cell growth and healing. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to buy the most expensive food on the market, but it does mean that what you feed should be rich in antioxidants to inhibit the growth of free radicals. A vet who is knowledgeable about holistic medicine can recommend the best diet for your aging dog.
You should also make sure that your dog is exercised regularly, and gets a lot of mental stimulation. Research has shown that dogs who are exposed to stimulating toys and plenty of interaction with humans and other dogs enjoy better cognitive function than dogs that are less active.
MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) are also known to boost brain metabolism, and also to reduce the buildup of amyloid proteins that can cause brain lesions in senior dogs. MCTs are as close as a jar of coconut oil – it is one of the richest sources available. Give a dose of one-quarter teaspoon for every ten pounds of your dog’s weight twice a day.
Other supplements that can be beneficial in treating CD are gingko biloba and phosphatidylserine to improve brain function, and resveratrol for free radical and amyloid protein protection. A holistic vet can help you to determine the correct dosage.
You probably know that you should take your dog to the vet twice a year for a checkup regardless of his or her age, but this becomes that much more important during the senior years. You will want to make sure your dog maintains an optimum weight and enjoys good dental health. Regular blood tests are also a good idea to make sure that any issues with the internal organs can be identified and treated in the early stages. Regular checkups are the best way to catch both physical and mental changes as they begin to occur.
You want to benefit from the love and companionship of your dog for as long as you can. There are few things sadder than seeing confusion in an old dog’s eyes, so make sure to care for your best friend with regular checkups, a good diet and plenty of exercise. Take advantage of all the advances modern veterinary science has to offer, including the use of supplements when warranted, and enjoy the golden years.