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Pet Alzheimer’s Disease – Is Your Dog or Cat Showing Signs?

Story at-a-glance
  • As your pet ages, he can develop canine or feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome, which is a degenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s in humans. Studies show 40 percent of dogs at 15 have at least one symptom, as do 68 percent of geriatric dogs. About half of all cats 15 or older also show signs of cognitive decline.
  • Veterinary behaviorists are speaking out about the need for vets to monitor behavior in older pets just as they do other body systems. The earlier a cognitive problem is recognized, the earlier intervention can begin, giving pets more quality time with their families.
  • Cognitive dysfunction is not “normal aging.” Diagnosis of the disease is a diagnosis of exclusion, since many health conditions in older pets have symptoms that mimic those of cognitive decline.
  • A balanced, species-appropriate diet, exercise, mental stimulation and environmental enrichment are basic tools for pet owners who want to help their dog or cat stay mentally sharp.
  • There are also several supplements that can be beneficial for older pets, including SAMe, coconut oil, resveratrol, ginkgo biloba, and phosphatidylserine.

Aging Pet

By Dr. Becker

Unfortunately, just like people, dogs and cats also develop degenerative brain diseases known as canine or feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome. But unlike humans, often the signs a pet is in mental decline go unnoticed until the condition is so advanced there’s little that can be done to turn things around or at least slow the progression of the disease.

Often, even an animal’s veterinarian is unaware there’s a problem because he or she doesn’t see the pet that often and always in a clinical setting vs. at home. In addition, according to Dr. Jeff Nichol, a veterinary behavior specialist in Albuquerque, NM, many DVMs aren’t aware of just how common cognitive dysfunction syndrome is. Vets assume pet parents will tell them when an older dog or cat is experiencing behavior changes, while owners assume the changes are just a natural part of aging.

In a large Australian study published in 2011 on canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD),1 scientists at the University of Sydney reported that about 14 percent of dogs develop CCD, but less than 2 percent are diagnosed. In addition, the risk of CCD increases with age — over 40 percent of dogs at 15 will have at least one symptom. Researchers also estimate the prevalence of cognitive dysfunction in geriatric dogs at 68 percent.

In a study also published in 2011 on cognitive decline in cats,2 a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, Hospital for Small Animals estimated that a third of all cats between 11 and 14 years of age have age-related cognitive decline. That number increases to 50 percent for cats 15 years and older.

Are You Discussing Your Pet’s Behavior Changes with Your Vet?

Veterinary behaviorists are beginning to speak out about the need for vets to monitor behavior in older pets just as they do other body systems. According to Dr. Marsha Reich, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior:

“Just because he’s getting old doesn’t mean that we just stand on the sidelines and let him get old. There are things we can do to intervene and improve the dog’s ability to function and improve its quality of life.”

Dr. Gary Landsberg, a veterinary behaviorist in Ontario, Canada, agrees. "This is critical. Early recognition allows for early intervention,” he says.

One of the challenges for vets is that older pets often have multiple health conditions that must be managed, and behavior issues – when addressed at all — often take a back seat. This is especially true for DVMs who expect pet parents to make a separate appointment to discuss behavior changes they’ve noticed in their dog or cat. Typically by the time that happens, if it happens at all, it’s too late.

Animal behavior experts would like to see vet clinic staff give owners a behavioral questionnaire to complete before the dog or cat is taken to the examination room. (Questionnaires could even be emailed to pet owners a day or two before a scheduled appointment.) The vet can then quickly scan the questionnaire to see if there’s a need to discuss changes in an animal’s behavior with the owner.

The questionnaires, if done routinely, also provide a history both the vet and pet owner can refer to as the dog or cat ages.

At my practice, we have clients complete a “Catching Up” form every 6 months at their wellness exam, which covers any new behaviors that may have developed over the past months since their pet’s last exam.

Your Pet’s Mental Decline Has a Physical Cause

Cognitive dysfunction presents as a psychological problem, but the root cause is actually physical and is the result of age-related changes within the brain.

Dogs’ and cats’ brains age in a similar fashion and undergo oxidative damage, neuronal loss, atrophy and the development of beta-amyloid plaques. These ß-amyloid plaques are also seen in human Alzheimer’s sufferers.

According to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor and program director of animal behavior at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, “normal aging” does exist. Some features of cognitive function do decrease with age, but cognitive dysfunction of the type seen in Alzheimer’s disease is not normal.

While canine dementia isn’t exactly the same disease as Alzheimer’s in people, the development of ß-amyloid plaques in pets results in confusion, memory loss, and other symptoms related to mental function. And the condition can come on and progress very rapidly.

Diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction in a pet is a diagnosis of exclusion. There are many conditions older animals acquire that mimic the signs of cognitive decline, so it’s important to rule out all other physical reasons for a change in behavior. For example, a small seizure can cause a pet to stand still and stare. If your pet seems detached, he could be in pain. Inappropriate elimination can be due to kidney disease. These disorders and many others can result in a change in behavior unrelated to cognitive decline. That’s why it’s so important to rule out all possible alternative reasons, especially in aging pets.

It’s also important for your vet to review any medications your dog or cat is taking. Older animals metabolize drugs differently than younger pets, and if a dog or cat has been on a certain medication for years, it’s possible it is having a different effect as he gets older.

And keep in mind your aging kitty may need a more accessible litter box, and an older dog may need more trips outside to relieve herself.

How to Help Your Aging Pet Stay Mentally Sharp

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help your aging pet maintain good mental function for as long as possible, and delay the onset and progression of cognitive decline.

  • The foundation for good health and vitality for pets of any age is a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet. Your pet’s diet should include omega-3 essential fats, such as krill oil, which are critical for cognitive health. Your pet’s body needs an ideal energy source to promote the processes of metabolism, growth and healing. That perfect fuel — especially for aging pets — is a healthy variety of fresh, living food suitable for your carnivorous cat or dog.
  • Keep your pet’s body and mind active with regular exercise appropriate for your pet’s age and physical condition, and mental stimulation (puzzles and treat-release toys can be beneficial). Make sure your dog has opportunities to socialize with other pets and people. Think of creative ways to enrich your cat’s indoor environment.
  • Provide your pet with a SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) supplement as a safe and effective way to stall or improve mental decline. Consult your pet’s veterinarian for the right dose size for your dog or cat. There are also commercial cognitive support products available.
  • Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have been shown to improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the amyloid protein buildup that results in brain lesions in older pets. Coconut oil is a rich source of MCTs. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of body weight twice daily for basic MCT support.
  • Other supplements to consider are resveratrol (Japanese knotweed), which protects against free radical damage and beta-amyloid deposits, ginkgo biloba, gotu kola and phosphatidylserine – a nutritional supplement that can inhibit age-related cognitive deficits. Consult a holistic veterinarian for dosing guidance.
  • Cats are often nocturnal throughout their lives, but older dogs can develop problems sleeping at night. They tend to sleep all day and stay awake all night, pacing, making noise, and feeling anxious and uncomfortable. Behaviorists recommend melatonin, which is not only a sedative with a calming effect, but also an antioxidant. I also use Rhodiola, chamomile and l-theanine in both cats and dogs with excellent results.
  • Keep your pet at a healthy size – overweight dogs and cats are at significant increased risk for disease as they age.
  • Maintain your pet’s dental health.
  • I recommend twice-yearly vet visits for pets no matter the age, but this becomes even more important for animals getting up in years. Keeping abreast of your dog’s or cat’s physical and mental changes as she ages is the best way to catch any disease process early. Ask your vet to perform a blood test to check your dog’s internal organ health to make sure you are identifying possible issues early on.

When your pet begins to respond to therapy designed to improve cognitive function, in the case of a dog, you can begin re-training him using the same techniques you used when he was a puppy – positive reinforcement behavior training involving lots of treats and praise.

Of course, none of these recommendations will be terribly helpful for a pet in the advanced stages of cognitive decline, which is why it’s so important to diagnose and begin treating the problem as early as possible.

Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive disease that can’t be cured, but early diagnosis and intervention can slow mental decline and offer your aging pet good quality of life.

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September 23, 2013 Posted by | animal behavior, Animal Related Education, Dogs, Dogs, Holistic Pet Health, Just One More Pet, Pet Health, Pet Nutrition, responsible pet ownership | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

8 Out of 10 Pet Owners Didn’t Recognize These Signs of Illness – Will You?

Story at-a-glance
  • In a study of senior dogs and their owners, it was discovered that parents of older dogs often don’t recognize the signs of age-related illness, or don’t consider them to be serious. Eighty percent of owners involved in the study were unaware of at least one significant health concern with their pet. The dogs in the study averaged about eight health issues each.
  • Most traditional veterinarians wait for their patients to become ill before they intervene. This is very likely the reason owners of aging pets fear visiting the vet, and as a result, many older companion animals don’t get regular check-ups.
  • Proactive wellness-oriented veterinarians like Dr. Becker take an entirely different approach. Their goal is to see pets for wellness exams on a regular basis so they can maintain their patients in good health, and catch developing diseases before they become full-blown.
  • Ideally pet owners can team up with a local veterinarian who takes a proactive approach to the health of animals. When your pet’s health is carefully monitored throughout his or her life, it makes vet exams much less daunting as your furry companion gets up in years.
  • There are also many things you can do at home to help your aging pet remain comfortable and in good health.

Aging Pet

By Dr. Becker

Many veterinarians rely entirely on the owners of senior pets to report signs of age-related illness. (I’m not one of them, because my approach is proactive rather than reactive, and my focus is on preventing illness — not waiting until it occurs.) Unfortunately, many pet parents don’t recognize the signs, or consider changes in their dog’s or cat’s health normal if the symptoms seem related to the animal’s advancing age.

In fact, in a study published recently in the Journal of Small Animal Practice1, it was revealed that the vast majority (80 percent) of owners of dogs older than nine years of age were not aware of at least one significant health problem with their pet.

Study Suggests Most Older Dogs Have Unaddressed Health Problems

The study involved veterinary consultations with the owners of 45 senior dogs. The vet sessions consisted of taking a history of the dog’s health and lifestyle, a full physical examination, and urinalysis.

The history taking was standardized so that the owners were asked the same questions about changes they had noticed as their pet aged. A prompted history taking was also completed using open questions, followed by appropriate closed questions. The physical exam evaluated all organ systems, and the urinalysis included a dipstick urine test and specific gravity.

The 45 dogs in the study were discovered to have an average of about eight health issues each, including ear infections, respiratory distress, arthritis, abdominal masses, heart murmurs or arrhythmias, and lung cancer. According to study authors, the dogs’ owners frequently did not recognize or report serious signs of disease, however, they did report symptoms like increased sleeping, hearing or vision loss, stiffness or lameness, “slowing down,” increased cloudiness of the lens of the eye, increased thirst and urination, pain, signs of osteoarthritis, and dental disease.

As a result of the screenings, 29 further diagnostic procedures were ordered including 10 dental procedures, seven medical treatments, two surgeries, and sadly, the euthanasia of two dogs.

How to Conquer Your Fear of Vet Exams for Your Aging Pet

I think it’s normal for owners of beloved older pets to grow more fearful of vet appointments as their dog, cat, or other animal companion ages. The more years on the pet, the more likely a serious health problem will be diagnosed during a veterinary exam. But I think this view is much more prevalent in clients of traditional vet practices, because the conventional veterinary community is trained to wait for full-blown illness before intervening in an animal’s health.

In my proactive wellness-oriented practice and others like it, long-term clients are less fearful when they bring their elderly companions in for checkups because we (the pet parent and I) have worked as a team throughout the animal’s life to address potential health issues as soon as they arise.

My most vibrant, longest-lived patients are those whose owners not only provide a healthy lifestyle for their pets, but also bring them to my clinic for regular wellness exams – especially as they get up in years or if we are managing current medical issues. The frequency and regularity of their visits allows us to get to work on a developing disorder early in its progression, when there is the best chance for an excellent outcome.

We also review the animal’s nutritional, supplement and medication protocols at each visit and make adjustments as necessary. This allows us to, for example, know when the time is right to begin specific supplementation to prevent or slow the progress of age-related changes like loss of vision, osteoarthritis, and mental decline.

No matter your companion animal’s age, I strongly encourage you to find a wellness-oriented holistic or integrative veterinarian in your area (or at least within driving distance) – a DVM who practices a proactive approach to caring for your pet’s health. The two of you, as a team, can then set about taking steps to keep your furry friend healthy, rather than simply waiting in fear for a dreadful diagnosis.

Tips for Helping Your Pet Age Well

No matter your pet’s age, certainly the foundation for good health and vitality is a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet. The food your dog eats either builds up or tears down his health. His body needs an ideal energy source to promote the processes of metabolism, growth and healing. That perfect fuel is a healthy variety of fresh, living food suitable for your carnivorous canine. And pets’ nutritional needs change as they age.

To help with failing eyesight:

  • Bilberries are a rich source of flavonoids with antioxidant properties. When taken in capsule form combined with Vitamin E, they protect the eye tissue of humans and halt lens clouding in 97 percent of people with early-stage cataracts. This herb is safe for dogs, so it’s certainly something that might help and won’t harm your pet.
  • Leave a radio, television or other background noise on when your pet will be home alone. This will give her a reference point, and should also help mute noises that may startle her.
  • Avoid moving furniture around, keep household ‘travel lanes’ clear, and minimize clutter. The easier it is for your pet to navigate through the house, the less likely it is she’ll become disoriented or injure herself. Cover up slippery floors so your pet will feel secure walking on them.
  • Use natural scents like aromatherapy products (I use lavender oil) to ‘mark’ special spots in the house, for example your pet’s water dish.
  • Don’t move your pet’s feeding station around, and if your companion is a cat, don’t move the litter box from place to place. A familiar environment and daily routine are especially important to elderly pets with diminished faculties.

For arthritic pets:

  • Maintaining your dog at a healthy weight and insuring he’s physically active throughout his life will help control arthritis and degenerative joint disease in his later years.
  • Cover slick floors (most tile, linoleum, hard wood) with non-skid rugs or runners to prevent dogs from slipping.
  • Chiropractic adjustments, massage, stretching, aquatic therapy, laser therapy and acupuncture are therapies that can make a world of difference in the mobility of your pet as he ages. Talk with your holistic/integrative vet about supplements you can add to your dog’s diet to help maintain healthy tendons, ligaments, joints and cartilage. Some of these might include:
    • Glucosamine sulfate with MSM and eggshell membrane
    • Omega-3 fats (krill oil)
    • Ubiquinol
    • Supergreen foods like spirulina and astaxanthin
    • Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals)
    • Adequan injections, which can stimulate joint fluid very rapidly in pets with arthritis

To keep your dog mentally sharp:

  • Enrich your dog’s environment with regular exercise, mental stimulation and socialization with other pets and people. In a two-year study of senior beagles, researchers found dogs that engaged in regular physical exercise, playtime with other pups and stimulating toys, did better on cognitive tests and learning new tasks than their less active counterparts.
  • Give your dog a SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) supplement. SAMe is a safe and very effective way to stall or improve mental decline. In one recent study, dogs with age-related cognitive decline given a SAMe supplement for eight weeks showed a 50 percent reduction in mental impairment. Consult your pet’s veterinarian for the right dose size for your dog.
  • Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have been shown to improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the amyloid protein buildup that results in brain lesions in older dogs. Coconut oil is a rich source of MCTs. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of body weight twice daily for basic MCT support.
  • Other supplements to consider are resveratrol (Japanese Knotweed), which protects against free radical damage and beta-amyloid deposits, ginkgo biloba, and phosphatidylserine – a nutritional supplement that can inhibit age-related cognitive deficits. Again, I recommend you consult a holistic veterinarian for dosing guidance.

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Book: Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs

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Part 2 of Dr. Becker’s Interview with Bestselling Author Ted Kerasote: The Seven Factors that Determine How Long Your Dog Will Live

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, by Bestselling Author Ted Kerasote – Available in Bookstores This Week!

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March 1, 2013 Posted by | Adopt Just One More Pet, Animal or Pet Related Stories, Animal Related Education, animals, Dogs, Dogs, Holistic Pet Health, Just One More Pet, Man's Best Friend, Pet Friendship and Love, Pet Health, Pet Nutrition, Pets, responsible pet ownership, We Are All God's Creatures | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments