It’s hard to watch our furry friends get old, especially when the changes are such that we begin to lose sight of the friend we’ve known for so many years. One of the conditions that commonly afflicts our older dogs is known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.
There is a simple acronym we in the veterinary world can use to help diagnose this syndrome; DISH.
D- disorientation. This can often be confused with impaired vision because the dog will seem lost in familiar environments or simply seem unable to navigate an everyday obstacle like a door. We make fun of our pets sometimes, but I would encourage you to step back when Fido runs into the door jam instead of going through it and try to think about his recent months and if he’s been a little “confused” lately.
I- Interactions. Dogs are social creatures and this is why we love them. If your pooch is normally very social with humans or other animals and there is an alteration in that behavior, this may be a warning sign of CCD. You may also notice an increased need for affection as a change in interaction for a previously standoffish pet.
S- Sleep-Wake Cycle alterations. This is a big one that people complain about and I believe that’s because it is so glaringly obvious to us (and probably to our friends and family; I don’t know about you, but I’m crabby if anyone keeps me up all night!). These dogs with CCD will usually be awake and active (pacing, panting) at night and commonly vocalize. In turn, they’ll sleep more during the day.
H- House soiling. Apparent loss of house training is another common presentation for our geriatric dogs because its, again, so noticeable! If I had a dime for every time I heard “this dog hasn’t pooped in the house in 10 years!” I’d be… well, not rich… but I’d have a few dollars!
As a general finding, CCD will often also manifest as a general restlessness or increased agitation that worsens gradually over time
Before all of my dog owners with dogs over 8 years (that’s the cut off!) start diagnosing their friends with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, I want to give you a few exclusionary criteria. Of course, I always recommend a full work-up (physical exam, blood test and urine evaluation) to make sure there isn’t another medical issue causing one or more of these symptoms. Pain, alone, can contribute at least to the “ISH” portion of the syndrome.
Another feature that may rule-out CCD is a rapid onset and fast progression. This is typically a very slow course and there is likely a medical issue that would explain symptoms that appear over a week or so.
If Fido is only displaying the DISH signs sometimes, in specific environments or situations, they may be better classified as a “displacement” behavior that is serving to distract him from the stress of the situation he’s in. Alternatively, the expression “scared the you-know-what out of” didn’t come from lack of experience…stress or fear can manifest as some of these signs as well.
If your old friend is starting to seem like a different animal and displaying some or all of the DISH signs, I encourage you to talk to your friendly veterinarian. There isn’t a cure for this syndrome but there are medications that can help improve their “cognitive” function as well as environmental modifications we can suggest to help make the life of our old friend more predictable and less distressing. We want to help your friends age with grace.