“How long does he have?”
This is one of the first questions we usually ask when we start to recover from the shock that our dog has something akin to Alzheimer’s.
The good news is that there is some evidence that dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction live just as long, on average, as dogs without it. You read that right. There is a study that showed that CCD does not reduce dogs’ life expectancy.
Statistical Life Expectancy of Dogs with Dementia
A group of researchers studied the life expectancy of senior dogs with and without canine cognitive dysfunction (Fast, Schütt, et al, 2013). In the study of 98 dogs, they found no negative effect on the longevity of the dogs who had the disease. The dogs lived normal life spans. Actually, the group of dogs with dementia had slightly longer life spans on average. The researchers theorized that this could have been because of the high quality of medical care they got due to their condition.
These were senior dogs, and 74 had died or had been euthanized at the time of the final follow-up. But only six of these dogs were euthanized primarily because of dementia.
So some good news is that CCD may not shorten your dog’s life. But it can affect your dog’s quality of life. My book on CCD describes the steps you can take to enhance your dog’s life and possibly his longevity.
But What About My Dog? How Fast Will the Dementia Progress?
Average life span is one thing. The factors that affect our individual dogs are another. Researchers have recently identified stages in the course of canine cognitive dysfunction. Identifying the stage of your dog’s dementia can give you an idea of the possible progression of the disease.
In this observational study, the researchers detected three stages of the disease (Madari, Farbakova, 2015). The stages were determined by taking data on the occurrences of 17 different behavioral symptoms in a large group of senior dogs.
The researchers grouped the symptoms into four categories:
• Spatial orientation
• Social interactions
• Sleep-wake cycles
• House soiling
They recorded the frequency and time of onset of symptoms in the different categories. With this information, they were able to divide the progress of CCD into three stages.
Dogs in the mild stage had generally not been identified by their owners as having any problems. (This finding implies that most dogs with mild CCD do not get diagnosed at that stage.) The main perceptible problems in the mild stage were slightly changed social interactions with their owners and changes in sleep patterns (e.g. sleeping more in the daytime). My own Cricket’s first symptom was a change in social interaction with one of her best human friends. At the time, we couldn’t figure out why Cricket suddenly acted afraid of her.
Dogs in the moderate stage tended to show obvious loss of house training and often were hyperactive during the night. Their owners definitely noticed behavior changes, and the dogs needed more care.
Dogs in the severe stage had problems in all four of the categories, and their owners reported severe behavior problems. These included things like aimless wandering, barking through much of the night, lack of responsiveness to their family members, and house soiling.
The study also found that progress from mild to moderate cognitive dysfunction was fairly rapid. About a quarter of the dogs who had initially been diagnosed with mild cognitive dysfunction had progressed to moderate dysfunction in six months. This portion rose to half the dogs at the one-year mark. This is roughly five times faster than the progression of human Alzheimer’s. The scientists remarked that that might be related to the fact that dogs’ life spans are about one-fifth of ours.
The upshot is that the symptoms of cognitive dysfunction typically worsen, and often pretty quickly. But there are interventions that will slow down the progression or help the dogs’ quality of life.
Words From a Veterinary Behaviorist About the Progression of Dementia
In the U.S., board-certified veterinary behaviorists are vets who undergo years of structured training in animal behavior after veterinary school and must pass a rigorous examination before being certified. They are trained to treat behavior problems as well as underlying medical problems and often work in tandem with a general vet and a credentialed dog trainer. They are the specialists best qualified to diagnose and treat canine cognitive dysfunction.
Board certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. E’Lise Christensen, DVM DACVB was kind enough to answer some questions about the life expectancy of dogs with CCD in her practice and experience.
Is canine cognitive dysfunction a fatal disease like Alzheimer’s?
I haven’t seen information on that and I haven’t seen dogs die on their own of CCD. The reality is that families seeking help from veterinarians aren’t likely to have their pets die at home from this disease, but rather they will be euthanized due to the disturbing symptoms or due to another medical co-morbidity in my experience.
What’s the longest you’ve known a dog to live after a diagnosis of CCD?
Approximately two years, but since it’s a diagnosis of exclusion, it’s always possible that cognitive dysfunction is both under-diagnosed and over-diagnosed. For instance, some dogs with symptoms of cognitive dysfunction will improve markedly with great dental work and pain medication. This suggests that perhaps pain is complicating their behavioral profile. Some diagnosed with CCD may die quickly because they actually have quickly progressing brain tumors.
Can medical, nutritional, and lifestyle changes positively affect the life expectancy of an individual dog?
I believe interventions can improve longevity/life expectancy because they may calm the symptoms and improve quality of life for both families and their pets. I see it in my practice as a veterinary behaviorist as well as in the general practitioner side. If the veterinary clinician is astute and practiced with early intervention and proactive treatment, a patient who was scheduled to be euthanized for this disorder could be saved for potentially several months, if not longer.
However, really proactive treatment of cognitive dysfunction is still hard to find for clients. It can be difficult to find a veterinarian who knows all of the treatments for this disorder, unless he/she is a veterinary behaviorist. Knowledgeable clients who passionately advocate for their pets will likely have the best outcomes.
How early do you recommend medical or other interventions for a senior dog?
I think it’s reasonable to consider starting cognitive protection on every patient as early as age seven. And that’s when we often implement supplementation, etc., in our practice, even if the patient has no clinical signs.
Focus on Early Intervention
Dr. Karen Overall (also a veterinary behaviorist) covers the title question in her book, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats.
Q: How long will the dog have left if he or she is treated?”
A: We cannot know the answer to this question, but the earlier intervention is attempted, the greater the likelihood of a longer and happier life. Overall, the amount of life left will increase [with treatment], but the Quality of Life will increase even more.
Some board certified veterinary behaviorists will do long distance consults via telephone or video conferencing with you and your local veterinarian. You can search the directory of members of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists to find some help for your dog and your family.
The two studies I cited almost seem to contradict each other. One says that dogs with dementia may have the same life expectancy as those without. The other describes the fast progression of the disease. More research will surely be done on both of these fronts. But the results aren’t really contradictory. What they do tell us, though, is that if our dog shows any signs of cognitive abnormality, medical help is in order. This can even be done as a preventative measure as Dr. Christensen describes.
In the end, none of us knows our dog’s exact life expectancy. But what we can do is be proactive about enriching his life and staying in close contact with a knowledgeable veterinarian or vet behaviorist for possible medical interventions. Dementia will present different problems to you, your dog and your family as it progresses. But there is help out there for many of those problems.
Fast, R., Schütt, T., Toft, N., Møller, A., & Berendt, M. (2013). An observational study with long‐term follow‐up of canine cognitive dysfunction: Clinical characteristics, survival, and risk factors. Journal of veterinary internal medicine, 27(4), 822-829.
Madari, A., Farbakova, J., Katina, S., Smolek, T., Novak, P., Weissova, T., & Zilka, N. (2015). Assessment of severity and progression of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome using the CAnine DEmentia Scale (CADES). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 171, 138-145.
Photo of Zani and all text copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson.
Photo of Hazel copyright 2014 Blanche Axton.