Don’t just accept behavioural changes in your dog as a sign of age

Vets CornerIf you’ve started noticing some strange behavioural changes in your dog don’t just put this down to old age, there may be something you can do about it. Paul Boland looks at what action owners may be able can take.

Symptoms like howling at night and messing in the home can be classic signs of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, a condition we see quite regularly now.

Cognitive dysfunction used to be just thought of as old dogs syndrome and its only recently been accepted as an actual disease, partly due to the fact that we are managing to keep our pets living longer.

But it’s not something that just happens to dogs either as its also seen in cats.

Cognition is essentially a function of the brain which allows us to acquire knowledge and understanding through experience and sense. Cognitive ability in animals and humans declines as we age, however if the rate of decline is greater than expected it is known as cognitive dysfunction.

What are the signs of cognitive dysfunction?

This condition can be very distressing for owners as we see animals that we know and love behaving differently. The changes can happen very slowly so aren’t always immediately obvious. The condition can be seen as acting generally bewildered and lost but more specific signs are as below. Pet owners often describe their dogs as less responsive, forgetful or confused.

The most obvious signs can be;

– Becoming lost or trapped – Especially in familiar places around the home or backyard

– Has trouble finding and using doors and negotiating stairways

– Does not respond to her name or familiar commands

– Is withdrawn and unwilling to play, go for walks, or even go outside

– Does not recognize or is startled by family members, toys, etc.

– Frequently trembles or shakes, either while standing or lying down

– Paces or wanders aimlessly throughout the house

– Has difficulty learning new tasks, commands, or routes

– Frequently soils in the house, regardless of the frequency she is brought outside

– Sleeps more during the day, less during the night

– Stares at walls or into space and is startled by interior lighting, the television, etc.

– Seeks less and less of your attention, praise, and play

– Is hesitant to take treats, drink fresh water, or eat fresh food

What causes cognitive dysfunction?

Age is a clear reason for cognitive dysfunction and it would appear that 50% of dogs over the age of 10 will exhibit signs. In one study at the University of California-Davis, 62% of 11- to 16-year-old dogs showed signs in at least one category of CDS. And in a recent pet owner survey, nearly half of dogs aged eight and older showed at least one sign associated with CDS.

In general, giant breed dogs age much faster than the large breed dogs, which in turn, age much faster than the small breed dogs. A Great Dane or a Mastiff can enter into the older phase of life at  just five or six years of age.

The medium-sized dogs, like Cocker Spaniels or Corgis, we start considering them older at about age eight. Then for the smaller dogs, your Shih Tzus, the toy Toy Ooodles, it’s about eight to 10 years.

It is still unclear about what exactly is happening in the brain but research seems to reveal a number of pathogenic processes. Analysis of brains that have suffered from cognitive dysfunction show that there is a laying down of a protein called Beta amyloid, which creates a plaque that can result in cell death and disrupt neurotransmitters. Oxidative damage by free radicals appears to occur whilst glucose metabolism is impaired and decreases in frontal lobe volume are seen.

How to tell if your dog has cognitive dysfunction

There aren’t any specific tests for this dysfunction. Diagnosis tends to be made on the amount and severity of signs the animal exhibits. Routine blood tests, ultrasounds, and X-rays are also employed to rule out other diseases that may lead to behavioural changes associated with cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

How you can help your animal

There is no cure for cognitive dysfunction but with a little effort you should be able to reduce some of the signs and help and extend your dogs quality of life.

Behavioural support

Although it sounds counter-intuitive its important to stimulate animals showing signs of cognitive dysfunction. This can enhance brain function and decrease brain pathology.

Try not to get angry with your dog or cause further anxiety but try to re-teach it some simple commands. This can be achieved by using large visual cues or simple commands. Don’t extend this new training for very long and only do it in short bursts.

Keep activity levels high and a good way of stimulating your dog is to do puzzles or treat-release games. Ensuring your dog has the opportunity to socialise with people and other animals is also a great way to maintain mental health.


There is a drug called selegilline which has been found to improve many of the signs of cognitive dysfunction. It is an inhibitor of monoamine oxidase B which is responsible for the metabolism of dopamine. Selegiline increases dopamine concentrations, reduce glial cell damage and reduce free radical damage.

As with most pharmaceuticals this has side effects which can range from dizziness, nausea to heart arrhythmia and respiratory issues.

Natural options



DHA is contained in fish oil and can be found in high concentration in the brain. It can reduce neuronal inflammation and apoptosis whilst increasing neuronal levels of phosphatidylserine. Although there are tablets claiming to contain DHA the best source is fish oil. I would suggest at least 360mg for every 10kg of bodyweight per day.

Flaxseed Oil

Flaxseed omega natural oil is beneficial for older dogs as it is an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids, the “good fats” that have anti-inflammatory properties and can reduce cholesterol and prevent blood clots. My preference would be a fish oil high in DHA however if you prefer to use flaxseed I’d recommend 500mg per 10kg of bodyweight.


Phosphatidylserine is a fat soluble phospholipid and is the most abundant phospholipid in the brain. It is important in neuronal membrane function such as the maintenance of the cells internal environment, signal transduction, cell to cell communication and cell growth regulation. Phosphatidylserine has been shown to improve attention, memory and reduce cognitive deterioration. I would suggest 100mg of phosphatidylserine per day.


Coenzyme Q10

Coenzyme Q10 is a vitamin like compound present in virtually every cell. It helps maintain antioxidant defences as its primary function includes activity as an antioxidant and as a cofactor in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

I also reccomend StemPets, which supports the natural release of adult stem cells from your pet’s bone marrow. Scientific studies have shown that increasing the number of circulating adult stem cells in the body is an important aspect maintaining optimal health.