Normal ageing, senility or disease Print E-mail
News - Rubrieke
Friday, 26 March 2010 16:54
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In this column veterinarian Dr Liesel van der Merwe provides practical assistance for common problems in companion animals. She is a specialist physician at the Onderstepoort animal teaching hospital and a senior lecturer in the section of small animal medicine. Send your questions to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

As veterinary care and nutrition of our pets improve, agerelated illnesses become more important. Canine dementia or senility, properly called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), is a syndrome in older dogs characterised by deficits in learning, memory and spatial awareness as well as altered social interactions and sleeping patterns.

As owners we often just label these changes as normal ageing, when in fact they can, to some degree, be managed. The prevalence of CCD increases with age regardless of the weight of the dog and is also more prevalent in females. Additionally certain diseases may also affect the central nervous system causing behavioural changes. These should obviously be diagnosed and managed accordingly.

Behavioural changes associated with CCD fall mainly into five groups, namely altered social interaction, loss of house training, disorientation, loss of the sleep-wake cycle and changes in physical activity levels.

These can manifest as pacing, circling or aimless wandering, staring at the wall or blankly into space, walking into furniture or walls, getting stuck in corners or behind furniture, going to the hinge side of the door, barking for no reason, failure to recognise people and other pets, difficulty in finding dropped food, standing over the water bowl but not drinking, to mention just a few.

Medical causes of the above symptoms may include brain tumours, hormonal diseases such as an underactive thyroid (usually in large breed dogs) and a pituitary gland tumour which is usually small and only causes Cushing’s Disease, but in some dogs the pituitary tumour is large and presents as a brain tumour.

CCD is characterised by deposits of proteins within the nerves and nerve pathways which is similar to the plaques deposited in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Normal cell metabolism produces harmful substances called free oxygen radicals. In healthy animals antioxidants neutralise these radicals.

As animals age they produce more free radicals and less anti-oxidant, leading to cell damage caused by the free radicals. This cell damage causes inflammation and, in the brain, the deposition of the amyloid protein responsible for impairment of function.

Although there is no successful treatment for CCD, signs can be delayed with diet, behavioural and pharmacological treatment. Mental stimulation in the early stages is essential (Sudoku for dogs!) and may delay clinical progression. Punishment for lapses in normal behaviour is contra-indicated as this will cause more anxiety for the pet.

Specialised diets rich in anti-oxidants may decrease the rate of progression and even improve cognitive function and may also have a protective effect. The premium diets senior care range has added anti-oxidants but only Hills B/D (“brain diet”) is specifically formulated to attempt to manage CCD.

Neutraceutals containing anti-oxidants have also shown a benefit, although the specific veterinary product (Aktivait®) is not sold in SA. Anipryl® has also been shown to improve patients with CCD, but is also not licensed for sale in SA. Special permission needs to be obtained for its use.

Certain drugs (Karsivan®) have also been prescribed in an attempt to improve dullness, lethargy and overall demeanour and may increase willingness to exercise and exercise tolerance.

So, before you think that Cuddles is senile and you have to live with it, have her checked out and discuss the above-mentioned options with your veterinarian. You may still get a few happy normal years out of her.


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