Winter 2009 Newsletter

Casa Canine

Winding Down:
Canine Senior Dementia

By Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Bella roams about the kitchen. I hear her little nails tapping away on the wooden floor. We have placed a path of rugs around the kitchen. When she walks on them, they offer her feet better traction. They also help her find her way to her bed and to the water bowl. But sometimes Bella forgets to stay on the runners. Her weakened legs splay on the wood, and I rescue her. After an hour or more or restless pacing, she might settle down in her bed and sleep for five or six hours. Any attempt to use a crate results in continuous howling. We understand and arrange the kitchen as best we can to keep her safe. The kitchen is her world now.

Bella is sixteen and a half years old. She is a corgi/terrier mix, a blonde ball of fluff, one of those "cute as a button" dogs. Sweet-tempered, feisty and affectionate, Bella came to our family when she was five years old, cast out by someone who just didn't want her anymore. Well, we wanted her and she has thrived in our family. She used to weigh 23 pounds but has lost weight over the last few months. With age, she has acquired an array of lumps and warts growing in various places on her body. She has Cushing's disease and diminished sensory capacities. She is almost completely blind and partially deaf. Her quiet, shadowy world has come upon us gradually over the last eight months. We are all learning to cope with it.

The quality of Bella's life as an elderly dog is foremost on my mind. She eats with relish, and still snuggles when I hold her on my lap. She does not appear to be in pain. But how do I assess the less tangible part of her life? Sometimes Bella gets disoriented and cannot find her way out of a corner - literally. Sometimes when I go to pick her up or pat her, she startles, not having sensed my presence. She no longer likes to be brushed. Sometimes she howls on and on for no apparent reason, as I try in vain to find the demon that is causing her distress. Her deterioration is not straightforward. She has good days and bad days.

Bella shows many of the classic symptoms of senior dementia, also known as cognitive dysfunction or senility. The list of symptoms is long: disorientation, personality changes, restlessness and agitation, appetite and weight changes, sleep problems, unusual barking, changes in bowel and urinary habits, and decreased responsiveness to affection. The causes of senior dementia are related to deterioration of the body from advancing age and various disease factors that produce chemical and physiological changes in the brain.

Because the symptoms of canine dementia come on gradually in most cases, it is possible to misinterpret them. Physical problems like impaired senses or urinary incontinence can be mistaken for dementia or even for bad behavior. If you ask your senior dog to sit or come and she does not, it is possible she may have a hearing loss. Or she may have a cognitive problem with her ability to pay attention. If your dog is house-trained and starts urinating indoors, she may have a urinary tract infection (UTI). Two key courses of action will enable you to provide a good quality of life for your senior dog and help you learn to cope with the physical and mental changes of your elderly canine: a good medical examine by your veterinarian and coping mechanisms within your home to help make the care easier on you as well as your dog.

The first step is a trip to your veterinarian to assess the health status of your senior dog and to help you develop a treatment plan. There are medications that can help with many of the physical ailments like a UTI. There are pain medications that can help your dog tolerate chronic conditions like arthritis. For some dogs with cognitive deficits, treatment with the drug Anipryl (also known as selegiline hydrochlorideor L-deprenyl) may help. It works well for some dogs; others show no improvement with the drug. Every dog is different and your veterinarian can help you decide if Anipryl is worth a try.

Caring for your elderly canine companion can be frustrating and difficult. There are many things you can do to set up your home to make the care easier and reduce the emotional and physical stress on both of you. Here are just a few of the many accommodations you can make. For her protection, do not let your dog roam freely. It is very easy for a dog with senior dementia to get lost, indoors and outside - even in once familiar places. To help regulate bathroom activity, keep your dog on a consistent feeding schedule. Frequent walks help reduce bowel and bladder accidents in the house. You may want to put your dog in a crate or exercise pen while you are away which will help eliminate accidents or at least confine them to an easy-to-clean area. If your dog has diminished sight and hearing, accommodate those limitations. For example, keep furniture in place so the dog can navigate easily around a familiar room. If your dog has lost her hearing, she may startle when touched, unaware that you are approaching. You can learn ways to make her aware of your presence and reduce the startle response. There are many excellent websites such as and that offer advice for living with deaf and blind dogs. Keep in mind that if your dog has dementia, do not expect her to learn new things quickly or at all. Rather, make accommodations to your home or to your own behavior.

As you and your dog journey through the last stages of her life, treasure the time you have with your old friend. For now, Bella has more good days than bad days. As long as she is content and free from pain, we will continue to cuddle her, support her, be patient with her and revel in the love she has shared with us for the last eleven years. Isn't that what they all deserve?

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator. She shares her home in Cerrillos with her husband, dogs and horses.

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