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Dealing with dementia in older dogs

Vet Jon Bowen shares his advice on how to cope with your older pet's doggy dementia.

As dogs get older, they suffer from many of the age-related problems that we do, including arthritis, deafness and blindness. They can also suffer from a form of dementia that is very similar to Alzheimer's disease in people.

Dog lying on the floor (© Elke Vogelsang, Flickr, Getty Images)

Until recently we thought that less than 2% of older dogs suffered with dementia, but a recent study showed that the true rate was more likely to be 14%. We tend to expect older dogs to slow down and become less responsive, and we may not see this as a sign of ill health. As a result, only one-in-10 dog owners notice the behavioural changes that take place in doggy dementia. This means that there are tens of thousands of dogs in the UK that have undiagnosed, untreated dementia.

Does my dog have dementia?

The risk of developing dementia increases with age, and we rarely see signs of the disease in dogs that are younger than eight years old. However, if your dog is acting oddly you should talk to your vet. As dementia progresses, it becomes harder for the dog's brain to process information. So your dog may seem to ignore commands, and find it difficult to adapt to new situations. These changes in behaviour will appear worse if the dog also has hearing or visual loss. Eventually we see severe signs such as disorientation, sleeplessness and house-soiling.

The good news is that dementia in dogs is relatively treatable. In most cases the signs of dementia can be reduced, and the progress of the disease can be slowed down. My own dog, Ronnie, started to show signs of dementia when he was 11-years-old, but with treatment he lived on for a further four happy years and died of an unrelated illness.

It is important to spot the signs of dementia as early as possible, because early treatment is cheaper and more effective. Fortunately, a research group in Australia has developed a simple questionnaire that can be used to aid in the diagnosis of dementia in dogs that are eight years or older. I've put a version of this questionnaire online so that you can use it to evaluate your dog.

If the questionnaire indicates that your dog has a problem, you should print the results and contact your vet. I've included a link to the original research so that you can show this to your vet if he or she is not familiar with the test.

What can be done?

There are four cornerstones of treatment of doggy dementia: diet, environment, stimulation and medication. For most dogs, a special diet, or dietary supplement, will produce a significant improvement within three to four weeks. There are plenty of products, such as Hill's b/d and VetPlus Aktivait, on the market that have been tested and shown to be effective, and your vet can advise which is the best for your dog.

Woman and old dog (© Thomas Northcut, Digital Vision, Getty Images)

For older dogs that have dementia, visual or hearing impairment there are some simple changes you can make to improve the accessibility of your home. One of the most important is to put a water bowl close to where your dog rests. Senile or visually impaired dogs can quickly become dehydrated if they cannot find water, and this can aggravate dementia and health problems. I experienced this with my dog when he became senile. Dogs understand their environment through sound, scent and vision. The more information they have, the easier they will find it to navigate their surroundings. So, try to give each room its own scent and sound 'signature' so that your dog finds it easier to know where it is. For example, an air freshener in one room and a radio in another.

Older dogs often become withdrawn and less interactive. If they are arthritic or have heart disease they may not be able to tolerate exercise. However, even a slight increase in mental stimulation can really bring an older dog out of its shell. Don't let your dog sleep all day; play short games with your dog, take it for a walk around the garden, and take it to interesting places in the car. Above all, you will have to be the one who takes the initiative, because your dog may not ask for attention.

In the most severe cases, when dogs are very confused or sleepless at night, then medication can help. For example, a mild sedative will help the dog, and you, to get a good night's sleep. There is only one UK-licensed drug for treating dementia in dogs, which is called Selgian. This can help to boost mental performance as well as making dogs more confident and less nervous. It can be very effective in dementia, especially when signs are severe or other treatments have not worked.

Dogs are now being used to help people with Alzheimer's, and with a little effort we can return the favour!

The views and opinions stated in this article are the author's own and are for the information of the public only. They do not imply or constitute the involvement, support or endorsement of More Than, More Than Pets Insurance or any other insurer or specific insurance product.