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
- 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.”
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.
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.
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson