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Is Your Dog's Mind Going to the Dogs?

A typical morning for me consists of quickly feeding the dogs, pouring a cup of coffee in my commuter mug, hunting frantically for my keys and rushing out the door-without the coffee. I run back inside to collect what I forgot the first time. Now I'm not only late, but I'm convinced I am losing my mind.

If you have an older dog, you might notice similar "absent mindedness" as he gets older. And if your mornings are anything like mine, perhaps you can relate to what your dog may be going through. While your brain lapse is more likely induced by the three extra times that the alarm clock's snooze button was hit, for a senior dog, it's a biochemical change that occurs in his brain as he ages. For you and me, slowing down-and waking up earlier-should resolve that forgetfulness. And there's help for old Madeline too.

Similar to aging people, geriatric dogs-and maybe elderly cats-can suffer from a "memory" disorder called cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS. CDS has been compared with Alzheimer's disease in people because the changes that occur in the brain are similar and the signs-forgetfulness, disorientation, and not recognizing family members-are comparable.

In dogs with CDS, owners notice that their older animal seems more disoriented and confused. "Dogs may seem lost in their surroundings-get lost behind a couch, or stuck in a corner, or stand at the hinge side of the door," says Dr. Jo Ann Eurell, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana with an interest in behavior. "A senior pet may not recognize family members, or may sleep all day and be up pacing all night. The most notable sign is a deterioration in house training. A dog with CDS will have a lot of accidents."

The older a dog gets, the more likely cognitive dysfunction becomes. Because dogs, like people, are living longer, owners have to watch for age-related medical and behavioral disorders. "A lot of people write off signs of forgetfulness and disorientation in pets, thinking that it's just because they are old and nothing can be done," say Dr. Eurell. "But there is treatment available that may help dogs with CDS."

If your veterinarian suspects your senior canine is experiencing the effects of CDS, he will perform a thorough examination to look for an underlying medical problem that could be causing the behavior change. "As dogs age, their bodies undergo several different changes," says Dr. Eurell. "Aging dogs are particularly prone to problems with their hearing, smell, sight, and joints. They are also at a higher risk for heart problems and metabolic conditions."

Any of these problems can sometimes also cause signs similar to those in CDS, so a veterinarian will want to make sure a disoriented dog is not suffering from another systemic illness, hearing loss, or sight loss, before trying medication for CDS.

Annual exams, or bi-annual exams, are a very important part of keeping your best friend as healthy as possible so he can really enjoy his golden years. So the trick for owners, advises Dr. Eurell, is to be vigilant and to let your veterinarian know of any behavior changes, especially if your dog is entering the golden years. Don't just dismiss senile behavior as "old age." Your veterinarian may suggest medication that may solve the problem and have your old dog learning new tricks in no time.

For more information and if you suspect your senior canine may be showing signs of CDS, contact your local small animal veterinarian.

By Carrie Gustavson Information Specialist