As our loved ones age, it’ s natural to wonder about their mental health. Are they suffering from dementia now - or will they in the future? But, have we considered our older pets? While we take them to the vet for hip dysplasia, have we thought about their mental state too?
Studies show our pets are more like us than we’ ve realized - in both their emotional and cognitive functioning. What can we do to help them through this challenging time? Learn more.
Studies Show Pets are People, Too
A recent New York Times article illuminates what many of us have long suspected: our canine friends are far more than warm and welcoming family members. In fact, they may be more like young children than pets. The article is heartwarming as well as heartbreaking, but more importantly, it poses a whole new, very important, question: as our dogs and cats age, what will their mental needs be? Will we become caretakers to our pets and caregivers to our loved ones?
With advances in modern veterinarian medicine, domestic dogs and cats often live long enough to develop cognitive dysfunction. Our domestic pets live in safe, controlled environments, have healthy diets and access to great medical care. Although little data has been collected on older animals in the wild, if they were to develop dementia-like symptoms, they likely wouldn’ t survive very long after.
If You Have an Older Cat
How do you know if your older cat has dementia? Is your older cat behaving erratically? Does he or she wail in the early hours of the morning, begging for attention, yet their food bowl is full or perhaps they seem confused? Do they sleep more than they used to - or, conversely, are they up at all hours of the night?
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh now believe half of all cats over the age of 15 and a quarter aged 11 to 14, are suffering from “geriatric onset behavioral problems.” The same team was also the first to discover cats could suffer from Alzheimer’ s disease.
Their research involved scans which showed changes to the neural system of confused elderly felines were similar to those seen among humans with the conditions. They identified the same beta-amyloid protein present.
If You Have an Older Dog
How do you identify dog dementia? Does your older dog sleep more during the day and less at night? Does he or she pace or wander aimlessly? Do they have trouble finding the door or get ‘stuck’ in familiar places like behind furniture or in corner? Do they forget their old tricks?
Jennifer Bolser, chief clinician at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado, said veterinarians are seeing more cases of cognitive dysfunction syndrome, commonly called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD).
An ongoing study performed at the University of California-Berkeley has shown that 62% of dogs between ages 11 and 16 demonstrate one or more signs of CCD, and the percentage goes up as dogs get older.
Recognizing the Signs of Alzheimer’ s in Your Pet
The most dramatic signs owners might notice are dogs “acting disoriented, walking in circles, or staring into corners or [at] the wall.”
Other symptoms include aggression, changes in sleep patterns, loss of interest in family members and inability to control urination or defecation “in more than just an incontinent way - almost like they’ re forgetting how to be house trained,” Bolser said. Cat owners might also notice their pets yowling at random times of day.
Other illnesses have to be ruled out, though, before cognitive dysfunction is definitively determined.
“Usually it’ s a diagnosis by exclusion,” Bolser said. “If everything else is checking out normally,” it probably is cognitive dysfunction.
Helping Our Older Pets Live Better Lives
Bolser says that although there isn’ t a cure, there are ways to manage cognitive dysfunction and help your older pets live better lives.
“Keep your [pet’ s] brain active, even at an older age,” she said. “Teaching them new tricks, getting them outside and challenging their brains with new environmental stimuli is very important to helping the brain not deteriorate as quickly.”
Also, adding antioxidants to their diets can help with brain health. A prescription diet fortified with antioxidants, fatty acids and L-carnitine is available, she said. There are also some medications, the main one being selegiline, which has been used as an MAO inhibitor antidepressant in people and is also sometimes used for human Alzheimer’ s and Parkinson’ s patients as well, Bolser said.
Would You Recognize the Signs of Alzheimer’s?
1. You forget what you had for breakfast. Obviously memory loss is the hallmark sign of Alzheimer’s, but there are definite degrees: Forgetting to DVR your husband’s favorite show while you watch yours can happen to anyone. The date of your dentist appointment slips your mind, also normal. But not recalling recently learned information, like the name of someone you just met, for example, could be cause for concern - that’s because Alzheimer’s first attacks the part of the brain that stores short-term memory. Other memory lapses to note: forgetting significant dates and events; asking for the same information over and over; and over-relying on your cell phone’s reminder beeps to get you through your to-dos.
2. You lose track of numbers. Budgeting for your monthly bills used to be as simple as a few strokes of the calculator and doubling the ingredients of your favorite recipe took all of 3 seconds, but now the tasks quickly become frustrating and seem to take forever. As Alzheimer’s develops, more and more plaques and tangles - two abnormal structures that damage and kill nerve cells - form in the brain area involved in thinking and planning. The effects: You get confused more easily, you have trouble handling money or dealing with numbers, and it gets tougher to organize your thoughts.
3. You get flustered by routine activities. Maybe you get a little lost en route to your favorite store, or you can’t remember how to update your Facebook status. Sure, everyone blanks for a moment now and then, but pay attention if those moments happen often - particularly with the everyday things.
4. You hit the brakes hard at most traffic lights. Good that you don’t rear-end the car stopped in front of you, not good you are having a harder time judging distance. Alzheimer’s may disrupt your brain’s ability to judge spatial relationships, skew your understanding of what you see, and even mess with your sense of time and place.
5. You find your “lost” cell phone in the refrigerator. Or the medicine cabinet, or whatever other weird spot you can’t remember putting it in. Occasionally misplacing things is normal; what may not be, however, is if you do it more and more frequently and retracing your steps to find the lost items occurs less and less.
6. You call a watch a hand clock. Struggling with words when you didn’t before indicates Alzheimer’s, as does having trouble expressing your thoughts and following or taking part in a conversation.
7. You try to cross a busy intersection without waiting for the light. You see food burning on the stove and don’t know what to do. You answer a telemarketer’s call, and your donation is a little too handsome. Poor judgment and ineffective decision-making are all signs your brain function is compromised.
8. You become less social. The cooking class you used to love isn’t so much fun anymore; neither is game night with friends or tennis on the weekends. You may also become easily upset, somewhat depressed, and anxious or fearful for no specific reason. Alzheimer’s affects how you interact with people and can cause changes in your mood and personality.
9. You have diabetes. That doubles your risk of developing Alzheimer’s, according to a new study just published in the journal Neurology. Insulin resistance and high blood sugar may lead to complications that damage brain cells as well as the blood vessels that bring oxygen and nutrients to your brain, raising your risk of Alzheimer’s. Other conditions that may have the same effect include High Blood Pressure, heart disease, and High cholesterol. Work with your doctor to monitor and manage these diseases.
Mizejewski has some personal experience with CCD, having lost two dogs to old age. The keys to keeping them alive and healthy, he said, were regular exercise, mental stimulation, social interaction and a good diet.
Ultimately and not surprisingly, the same common sense approaches to keeping a person with dementia as healthy as possible also apply to our pets. We love them as people: that won’ t change.
How have you helped your aging pet live a better life? What did you learn from your sweet old pet about caregiving? Share your story in the comments below.
By Teresa Dumain
- Framework to establish standards for psychosocial interventions used to treat mental health and subs