The Pet Corner: Do dogs get Alzheimer’s disease?

As a kid growing up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, it was not unusual for older people to stay at home once they became ill or disabled. I can remember my grandmother losing her mental capacities several years before she passed away at the age of 82.

I often wondered why and how someone becomes senile. At that time, no one really talked about such illnesses or conditions.

Sometimes the only explanation given was “she is just getting old.” I was exposed to many “senile old people” living at home with no hope of a better way of life. I just could not believe that medical research had not come up with a better explanation and treatment for such a common illness.

I just needed to wait 30 some years to receive a more accurate explanation of Alzheimer’s disease. At least some individuals with mental health issues have a distinct diagnosis with a real medical name. Then, the question became “Do pets get Alzheimer’s disease?” If so, is this a new disease or have we just began to recognize the illness?

Pets no longer live primarily outdoors. Pets live inside with us and subsequently get much more attention and observation.

Just like people, I believe the same mental conditions have been around for a very long time. Medical research has been able to prove the lack of specific brain functions.

Alzheimer’s disease in people causes memory loss and it is impossible to test pets for long-term versus short-term memory loss. Pets do not get Alzheimer’s disease. However, pets certainly suffer from mental illness when they get older.

One mental illness dogs may develop as they age is called canine cognitive dysfunction. This condition is the one most studied and most known about in animals. It is a very common condition that often goes unrecognized simply because pet owners are not aware of the symptoms and warning signs.

With more research, I’m sure that many more specific conditions will be discovered instead of getting lumped into the present illnesses such as Alzheimer’s for people and cognitive dysfunction for dogs. In the meantime, it is important to watch for signs of these conditions and establish a treatment protocol early. There are several different medications which can be useful, depending on the individual and the severity of the symptoms.

I believe the symptoms for canine cognitive dysfunction are countless since every dog’s personality is different and their behavior is affected by this condition.

The classic symptoms include getting lost in the yard or house, wandering aimlessly, starring motionless into a wall or corner and any behavior different from their normal routine.

Some dogs’ personalities will change from calm to aggressive or vice versa. It is not uncommon for a dog with this condition to bite their owner or no longer be obedient. It is truly awful to watch your furry family member begin to deteriorate mentally to the point of not recognizing their personality anymore.

Fortunately, there are several medications which can help tremendously with canine cognitive dysfunction. They don’t always alleviate all of their symptoms, but it certainly can’t hurt to try.

If your older dog begins to show any signs of canine cognitive dysfunction, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure your dog lives a long, healthy and happy life.

Dr. Jeff Castle is a veterinarian at Clark County Veterinary Clinic.