Is There Such a Thing As Doggie Alzheimer’s?

Dog owners sometimes refer to their senior dogs as having “doggie Alzheimer’s” but it’s more accurate than most people know.

Veterinarians have known about a similar condition, canine cognitive dysfunction, for several decades. A study in 1996 established a relationship between certain behavioral changes in senior dogs with physical brain changes.

Some of the behavioral changes include

  • disorientation
  • changes in social interactions (usually getting shy with or forgetting their humans, or drawing away from their former animal friends)
  • sleep disorders
  • loss of house training
  • changes in activity level
  • memory loss, and more.

Some of the more common observable behaviors are

  • the dog forgets how to go through doors
  • stands around seeming dazed
  • goes to the bathroom just after coming inside the house
  • wanders haphazardly
  • walks in circles (see the video at the bottom of this post)
  • faces walls
  • or gets stuck in corners.

But is canine cognitive dysfunction really doggie Alzheimer’s? Is it the same as Alzheimer’s in humans? The answer is a cautious “yes.”

dogs with cognitive dysfunction and humans with Alzheimer's both get beta amyloid plaques in the brain

Beta amyloid plaques in the brain–image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Human Alzheimer’s and Doggie Alzheimer’s

The image above is beautiful but the subject is not. It is an image of the microscopic “plaques” that form in the brains of humans with Alzheimer’s and dogs with cognitive dysfunction. That’s right. The same thing happens in the brains of both our species. This particular image is from a human brain. Plaques are not a good thing. They mix up normal cognition.

Cognitive dysfunction in dogs is so close to human Alzheimer’s that dogs are used as test subjects to learn more about the disease. This is a double-edged sword. Most of us don’t want dogs to be experimented on. But because the conditions are so similar, the advances in research on human Alzheimer’s may help us learn more about canine cognitive dysfunction and work towards a cure.

And much of the research isn’t so bad. There are many survey-type studies and studies with pet dogs to gather data. And there is the hopeful work at the University of Sydney that may actually be reversing the symptoms of dementia in dogs using stem cell transplants. This is coming from a joint research team on both dog dementia and Alzheimer’s. The subjects are beloved pet dogs who are healthy enough for anesthesia and get a second chance through the stem cell transplant.

Humans with Alzheimer’s get another common brain abnormality: neurofibrillary tangles. It was formerly thought that dogs with cognitive dysfunction didn’t get these. But they are now being found in some autopsies of dogs. They are less common than the plaques. Some scientists believe that the disease doesn’t get as advanced in dogs as it does in humans because they don’t live as long as we do. That would be an explanation for their not getting the full range of physical brain changes that humans get.

dog with Alzheimers resting on a bed

Luckily, Cricket never had severe sleep disturbances. That can be one of the hardest things for dogs, people with Alzheimer’s, and caregivers to deal with.

So yes, our dogs do get something like Alzheimer’s. But we can’t diagnose it ourselves. Too many other conditions can share the same symptoms. If you notice changes in your senior dog’s behavior, please take her to your vet for a checkup. And keep in mind the actual name of the condition: canine cognitive dysfunction.

Wandering: A Symptom Humans and Dogs Have in Common

In this video, my dog Cricket has moderate cognitive dysfunction. She still shows a little bit of intent when she walks. She stops to sniff things and she comes back to me for a treat and when she is startled. So it’s not completely aimless, but it’s getting there.  You can see her do some circling and wandering. (A year later when she was in the yard she would just always go downhill, where gravity took her.) She had severe hearing loss at the time of this video. This is probably why Zani’s barking startled her. She was used to a fairly silent world, but she could hear that sudden bark. She came to me and I carried her up the steps into the house. She had lost the ability to navigate steps, and mine are steep.

Link to the video for e-mail subscribers.

New Facebook page! Follow Dog Dementia: Help and Support on Facebook!

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Stem Cell Procedure Tested as Treatment for Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

An elderly golden retriever gazing into the distance. Senior dogs with dementia may be candidates for canine cognitive dysfunction treatment

Research at the University of Sydney has already helped two senior dogs with dementia and may eventually aid humans with Alzheimer’s disease as well. This novel approach is not based on medication, supplements, or activities. It consists of the following steps:

  • Assessing the dog as a good candidate and pre-testing the dog’s cognition;
  • Taking a skin sample from the dog in a surgical procedure;
  • Converting the retrieved adult skin stem cells to neural stem cells;
  • Injecting them into the dog’s brain;
  • Performing medical follow-up and retesting the dog’s cognition.

The procedure is not to be undertaken lightly since it involves anesthetizing the dog twice and, well, brain surgery. Anesthesia can be tricky in senior dogs, but blood work can help determine its safety. The good news is that two dogs with dementia have successfully undergone the procedure. Researchers accepted these dogs into the trial because they had clinically demonstrated dementia but were otherwise in good physical health. Laboratory measures of their cognitive skills before and after the procedure show greatly improved cognition. The owners are pleased with the results as well.

I think the best way to learn about this is from the mouths of the researchers involved. The following video is a TV interview with two of the team members at the University of Sydney. Timmy, one of the dogs who underwent the procedure, and his owner are there as well. You can’t get a real sense of Timmy under the bright lights of a television set, though. A little farther down is a link to a video that shows Timmy active in his own yard.

Link to the TV interview for email subscribers. 

The following article features a video of Timmy. He underwent the procedure in late 2015:  The Unlikely Symbol of Hope for Dementia Sufferers.

Here is another article that tells more about how Timmy’s owners made the decision to try the surgery: Dementia Researchers Look to Dogs for Breakthroughs.

Another dog had the procedure in March 2016 and is also doing well. The research team and the dogs’ owners are very excited about the results so far.

Finally, here is more technical information about the procedure. It includes the researchers’ contact information for folks who want to investigate enrolling their dog in the clinical trial: Dogs + Cells Trial: Cell Therapy for the Reversal of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. If you are in the Sydney area and are at all interested, don’t hesitate to contact the researchers through the form on the page. Through my interest in dementia in dogs, I have gotten long-distance acquainted with team members. I’m impressed with their sincerity and careful work.

It’s rare that dog lovers can get behind any form of clinical study that involves animals. And of course, anyone considering it for their dog would have complex decisions to make. But this is potentially a triple-win situation. The procedure has a chance of helping the dog who undergoes it. As the research yields more data, it will advance the knowledge of canine cognitive dysfunction besides being an available treatment for more dogs. Finally, scientists’ work may eventually help humans in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

When I first published my book in 2015, I wrote that there was no cure for canine cognitive dysfunction. That is still the case, but this fascinating research offers some hope.