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Dementia (Senility, Cognitive Dysfunction)

By: Dr. John McDonnell

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Dementia is also known as senility or cognitive dysfunction and may be a normal aging change in older pets. There appears to be a substantially accelerated form of dementia seen in some dogs. Dementia is a clinical state seen in older pets where their cognitive function declines.

The diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction generally requires the presence of two or more of the following behavioral changes in the absence of any physical causes:

  • Decreased interaction with the pet's owners
  • Increased irritability
  • Slowness in obeying commands
  • Alterations in sleep-wake cycle
  • Decreased responsiveness to sensory input problems performing previously learned behaviors

    The two most common complaints of owners with senile dogs are loss of housetraining and wandering during normal sleep time.

    Cognitive dysfunction is not associated with seizure activity or other neurologic problems. It is seen in male and female dogs of all breeds that are at least 10 years old or older. The problem is progressive and the cause is unknown.

    Dogs with cognitive dysfunction can disrupt their family's routine with the house soiling, vocalization, wandering, and diminished family interaction.

    Other diseases that may have symptoms of dementia or decreased cognitive ability include:

  • Brain and spinal cord tumors
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Encephalitis
  • Meningoencephalomyelitis
  • Hypertension
  • Heart failure
  • Renal failure/urethral incompetence
  • Urinary infections
  • Lumbosacral disease
  • Endocrine dysfunctions (hypothyroidism or hyperadrenocorticism are the most common)

    Diagnosis

    Diagnostic tests are needed to recognize dementia and differentiate it from other diseases that may cause similar signs. In addition to obtaining a complete medical history and performing a thorough general physical examination, your veterinarian will likely perform the following tests:

  • Neurological examination
  • CBC (hemogram or complete blood count)
  • Serum chemistry analysis
  • Urinalysis
  • Urine culture and sensitivity
  • Blood pressure
  • Endocrine testing including thyroid and adrenocortical testing
  • Brain imaging utilizing MRI or CT scans
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis
  • Chest radiographs

    Treatment

    Treatment of dementia may include one or more of the following:

  • Specific treatment of any concurrent illness
  • Behavior modification exercises
  • Specific exercise recommendation
  • Drug therapy, which may require one to two months before improvement is noted

    Home Care

    Follow your veterinarian's treatment recommendations for the initial treatment period. Keep a log of the abnormal behavior that your pet shows and notify your veterinarian immediately if you notice any deterioration in your pet's condition.

    If your pet suffers from dementia, you should prevent him from wandering away from the house by keeping him in a fenced-in area, always watching him or using a bell on his collar.

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