As a rule, senior dogs tend to sleep for longer and slow things down in comparison to their younger or middle-aged years. However, some older dogs also start displaying changes in their behaviour that appear abnormal. Until recently such changes had been attributed to the aging process, for which little could be done. More recent thinking, however, attributes these changes to a disorder called Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS).
CDS can be identified from a number of clinical signs. The diagnosis is made when dogs exhibit behavioural changes with no physical cause, and the syndrome has been compared to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
Examples of behavioural changes include; appearing disorientated or lost in familiar surroundings such as their own homes, wandering around aimlessly and perhaps appearing to 'forget' to back out of corners.
Those that were flawlessly housetrained throughout their lives may start to have 'accidents'. They may no longer greet their owners at the door, bring them balls to throw, or appear to care about being petted. Often although they sleep throughout the day, the night may bring restlessness and increased wandering, as though their biological clocks were reversed. Vocalising at night can also occur.
Because older dogs are increasingly susceptible to medical problems, regular examinations by a vet are important. Only a vet can determine whether your dog's behaviour changes are due to CDS rather than another condition such as a central nervous system (brain) disease, liver, heart, or kidney disease. A thorough physical examination and neurological examination should be performed, before blood tests and other investigations as indicated. The dog’s blood pressure should also be checked. If no abnormalities are detected then a presumptive diagnosis of CDS is made.
Behaviour changes in aging dogs can be responsive to treatment. Treatments may include dietary changes, medications and behavioural therapy. Other tips to help the older dog in general as well as those with CDS include:
- Always make sure your house and garden are safe with no risk of falling down steps for example
- Keep to a routine. Older dogs and dogs with CDS hate changes in familiar schedules
- Keep to an exercise regime if there is no medical reason not to, as regular walks help improve mental and physical health
- Avoid stressful situations e.g. kenneling, find a house sitter to minimise change in environment, avoid visitors with dogs etc
- House training issues can be difficult to resolve. Make sure your dog has every opportunity by taking out frequently and as with puppies, reward good behaviour
- Discuss with your vet if medication would be of benefit for your dog
Whatever happens, after a lifetime of unconditional love and companionship, our older dogs deserve all the care and consideration we can give them.