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Diagnosing and caring for a pet with “Doggie Alzheimer’s”

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Paige is a researcher and writer who enjoys delving into the remarkable lives of history's forgotten characters.


What's wrong with my dog?

When our beloved family pet started acting strangely, my husband mentioned that she was acting a lot like his uncle who'd suffered from Alzheimer's Disease.

Imagine my surprise when our vet announced that she did, in fact, have Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome- the canine equivalent of Alzheimer's. Thanks to better nutrition and veterinary care, our pets are living much longer lives, and CDS is estimated to affect 60% of dogs 11 and older.

The good news is that what was once a death sentence is now much more manageable, allowing our pets to enjoy a better quality of life than was possible even a few years ago!

(all photos are taken & owned by the author)


The perfect puppy comes into our lives

Kassie, a Heinz mix puppy of something beagle-ish with something fuzzy-ish was adopted from the pound the week my daughter started kindergarten.

She was easy, easy, easy: broken to the crate in 48 hours and fully house trained within a week, nothing made her happier than being told what a good girl she was.

Her guilty conscience told on her long before I could discover any misdeeds. Even kids who were deathly afraid of dogs came running up to her, and although she wasn’t big on giving kisses she would accept/endure their attentions forever and with the patience of a saint.

Kassie and my daughter were attached at the hip, even when she had no idea what the kiddo was doing…like when she dressed as a punk for Halloween. Turns out that there’s just no way for a pre-teen punk to look “tough,” although she tried her hardest.


Signs of Change

At one annual visit, Kassie’s doctor noted with that she was in great shape for being 15! How on earth had that happened? How could so much time passed?

Kassie was still so full of life- my daughter had just brought home a dachshund puppy, and she was playing and running around the yard with him. It seemed impossible that she was a senior citizen already.

But the announcement became foreshadowing. Within a few months, she started waking me up twice a night to go outside, but other than not being able to “hold it” as long, she seemed fine, going up and down the stairs steadily and without hesitation, eating, playing, and doing everything she normally did.

Just before her 16th birthday, I brought her back to the vet for tremors. We switched her diet, put her on an anti-Parkinson’s medication, and things improved for about six months.

Until she was diagnosed with CDS and the clock really started ticking.

Have you dealt with CDS?

Signs of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Do any of these sound familiar?

The signs of the disorder closely mirror Alzheimer's symptoms in humans, and particularly in the beginning many of these behaviors can be taken as simple signs of aging:

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  • Loss of interest in family members- no longer greeting you when you come home, for example, or wandering off when you're petting or interacting with them
  • Sleeping most of the day, but being restless in the evening
  • Aimless pacing, particularly at night, often for hours at a time
  • Aggression or snapping in situations that should be familiar
  • Going to the wrong side of the door (hinged side) to go out
  • Going to the bathroom inside, even when they've just been outside- even right in front of you, as if not realizing they're doing something they shouldn't be.
  • Getting lost in the yard; not being able to find the door without assistance
  • Standing braced with their head against the wall

Whatever else slipped her mind...

...she never forgot to keep her bone nearby.

...she never forgot to keep her bone nearby.

What Canine Cognitive Dysfunction can look like

Canine Alzheimer's Treatment

Steps you can take

Things have changed significantly over the last decade, and where doctors used to advise euthanasia with the diagnosis there are now many avenues to explore.

Not all of these apply to every case, and some of them are more "alternative" than others, but they're all worth talking to your vet about.

  1. Consider changing your dog's diet. This is the most important thing and should be done as soon as you suspect a problem- or earlier. Aluminum has been shown to be a big cause of Alzheimer's in both animals and humans, and most dry kibble-type dog foods use large amounts of aluminum to keep the pellets dry.
  2. Exercise & Play Time The brain is a muscle, and working it along with the rest of the body helps to slow the disease. If your pet will tolerate it, you can even try to teach your old dog a new trick or two!
  3. Ask your vet about Anipryl (Generic form: Selegiline) Originally a Parkinson's medication, it has been modified for pets, and will run between $1.50- 2.25 per pill, a little less if you can buy in bulk. You will need a prescription for this medication, and it is technically an MAOI inhibitor, so if your dog is on other medications he may not tolerate Anipryl.
  4. Add SAMe to your dog's diet S-adenosylmethionine is a common over-the-counter supplement many people take for a variety of reasons, including improving their cognitive abilities. Although not FDA-certified for any of these conditions, millions of people swear by it. Talk to your vet about dosage based on your dog's size if you want to try using SAMe
  5. Consider seeing a Holistic Veterinarian Most areas of the country now have access to vets who take a different approach to their craft. These doctors may suggest acupuncture, massage therapy, or herbal alternatives. Even if you're not sure if this is a route you're ready to take, your local vet may offer to consult with you at little-or-no cost to give you an idea of what they can do for your pet.

Kassie's Battle Ends

My line in the sand had been whether or not she was in pain;her body was strong, she still ate like a horse, and if she wasn’t hurting, I wasn’t going to let her go.

Our vet’s advice was kind. “You’ll know when it’s time,” she said. “Kassie will tell you. Whatever you decide, whenever you decide it, it will be the right time and the right thing to do.”

On January 30 it became clear that time had come.

She had what seemed like a stroke the night before, but was up and walking by morning.

While I waited impatiently for the vet to open so she could be checked, Kassie sat at my feet, soundlessly looking up at me, bone weary. And I knew that what I'd dreaded had come; making it drag out would be for my benefit, not hers.

I made the appointment for the end of the day, spending the hours in between stroking her, telling her what a good girl she'd been, and thanking her for 17 wonderful years. I stuffed her full of her favorite treats and took her for a drive through the park, though she couldn't manage a walk, she did stick her head through the window one last time before laying down on the seat for a snooze.

The blessing of it all was that it was painless; at no point did she suffer major physical pain, not even arthritis. Her personality had faded away over the last year, and saying goodbye felt like taking leave of a ghost. My sweet, silly girl was tired, and as she fell into her final sleep, I took comfort in knowing we'd done our best to care for each other, Kassie and I.

In the end, I think that's the best we can hope for.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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