Dr. Fiona is a guest veterinarian blogger for pet insurance provider, Pets Best.
It is an unfortunate fact that our pets age faster than we do. Even with pet insurance and the best care, Fido will likely reach his or her senior years before you, or will eventually surpass you.
In addition to common medical problems such as dental disease and arthritis, canine cognitive dysfunction is also a common occurrence in senior dogs. Recognizing its symptoms can allow you to help your dog to age gracefully.
Dementia is taken from the Latin roots ‘de’ meaning without, and ‘ment’ meaning mind, literally a lack of mind. Older dogs and cats, for that matter, can absolutely suffer from this debilitating syndrome just like older people. The accepted term in veterinary medicine is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, or CDS. It refers to the gradual onset of behavioral changes that cannot be explained by other illness, medical conditions, or sensory or motor impairment. Many experts liken the disease to Alzheimer’s disease in people.
The progression of clinical signs can be so gradual that often owners don’t recognize it is happening. The many behavior changes that manifest in this disease include disorientation and confusion; pets will wander, stare, or get ‘lost’ in familiar places. There may be a change in learning, or a change in previously learned behaviors, such as being house trained; a dog with CDS might start house soiling. There may be a change in your pet’s activity, s/he might be much less active, or might engage in repetitive behaviors like barking. There may be a change in sleeping patterns, including restlessness and irritability. There may be a decrease in your dog’s responsiveness to your voice, or other stimuli, which can appear as ‘selective hearing.’
Many older dogs suffer from this syndrome. Some studies suggest two thirds of dogs over the age of 11 show at least one sign of CDS. About half of owners with dogs older than 8 reported their dogs showed at least one clinical sign of CDS in one survey by Pfizer animal health. Only 17% reported these to their veterinarian. There have been no differences in susceptibility and dogs seem equally affected regardless of breed or whether they are spayed or neutered.
The reason behind CDS isn’t precisely understood, but we know that the brain atrophies, just like an unused muscle, as the animal ages. Research has demonstrated the formation of plaques, made up of a neurotoxic protein, can form in an older animal’s brain. This seems to compromise the brain’s function. In addition, neurotransmitters are altered during aging, making them less effective.
There are some things you can do to help prevent this disease from occurring, and even to help reverse some of the clinical signs as they occur. Be mindful of these changes; report them to your veterinarian. Enrich your older dog’s environment by providing new toys and play games with them. You might add a younger dog to the household to keep your older dog active. Take the dog new places and encourage them to be social. In one laboratory study, environmental enrichment over a two year period was demonstrated to be an effective tool for learning tasks.
There has been some promise of certain prescription medications, as well as a diet rich in antioxidants for helping pets with CDS. If you are concerned that your dog might be suffering from doggie Alzheimer’s, or if you have any other questions for your veterinarian, contact him or her for more information.
Pets Best Insurance solicited questions from our Facebook page fans relating to pet health, happiness and everything in between. Dr. Fiona Caldwell, a practicing veterinarian at Idaho Veterinary Hospital weighs in! Read on to see if your question was answered.
Question: Any suggestions on the origin of a hard-packed earth-like substance about an inch long and 1/4-inch wide that my dog coughs up on occasion? It’s always a surprise and she doesn’t act sick or in pain beforehand. She’s 12-14 years old.
Dr. Caldwell: This is not normal and should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian. Keep one of the samples that she coughs up and bring it to the appointment. In an older dog, especially, this should be evaluated.
Question: My kitty, born Feb 26, 2010, is occasionally semi-aggressive, swatting my son’s feet or mine (claws mostly sheathed), ears partially laid-back. We can tell when she’s in this mood, but there doesn’t seem to be a trigger to start it. How can I get her to stop without seeming to reward the behavior? Throwing a toy will stop her, but I don’t want her to think that she should act like that to get play time. We play with her at least 3 times a day, for an hour to 1 1/2 hours at a time. (She is spayed.)
Dr. Caldwell: Behavioral issues in cats can be challenging! Great job on the play sessions you are having with her now, in addition to having her spayed. The best thing you can do to negatively reinforce this behavior is to walk away from her. Tell her a firm no, and then remove yourself from the situation.
Cats have short attention spans, so you can return after a few minute ‘time out’, but if she does it again, then you’ll firmly say no and walk away from her again. This tells her you’re not interested in being around her if she acts like that. Additional attention, even negative scolding attention can be misinterpreted. I agree with you that switching to playing with toys can be inadvertently rewarding her for her negative behavior. Make sure all family members are on board with your new plan so she has consistency.
Question: This may have already been asked but what are the recommended things to get done at your pets annual exams and how should this change as they get older? With older pets what should you watch for between exams that could be a sign of a senior disease requiring a check up?
Dr. Caldwell: This is a fantastic question. Preventative medicine is the BEST way to keep your pet healthy! Young dogs (depending on the breed, but up to about 7 to 8 years of age) should be seen at their veterinarian at least once a year. This annual exam should include a good overall exam, especially examining the oral health, and weight. Obesity and dental disease are some of the most common problems seen in young dogs.
The vaccine schedule in your area may differ from others, but generally after a series of 3 to 4 vaccinations starting at 8 weeks of age, adult dogs need either yearly or three year vaccines including, but not limited to a rabies vaccination, and distemper/parvo combination vaccine. Most dogs should be dewormed annually, depending on their lifestyle. Most areas of the nation agree that dogs should be on heartworm, flea, tick and parasite preventions programs as well. Talk to your local veterinarian for additional information about this.
Older dogs, generally 7 to 8 years and older (sooner for giant breed dogs like Mastiffs and Great Danes, and possibly later for smaller breed dogs like Chihuahuas and Yorkies) should start having a more ‘senior’ approach to veterinary care. This is a great time to start screening blood work. Ask your veterinarian to run a ‘senior panel’ to screen for common senior diseases such as thyroid dysfunction and organ changes.
Some pets might benefit from biannual visits to the veterinary clinic. If every dog year is worth 7 human years, then six months is the equivalent of three and a half people years! Specific things to bring to the attention of your veterinarian include difficulty rising or limping after activity, vision loss, behavioral changes, changes in coat quality, changes in urination and drinking habits, changes in appetite, and weight loss or gain.
Question: Any tips for cats dental care? Using a tooth brush isn’t practical with most cats but I’m not sure what other options are effective. One thing I heard about is that if they chew on raw bones such as a chicken wing that will really help but I’m not sure if there is a risk of choking etc.
Dr. Caldwell: It is great that you are thinking about your cat’s dental health! I agree that brushing teeth can be tricky, or even downright intolerable in cats. Most veterinarians would agree you should NOT give your cat bones to chew on. Cats are typically ‘gnawers’ like dogs anyway. There are dental products aimed at cats that might help keep his or her mouth healthy. For example, there are specifically designed cat chews with ingredients to combat plaque. Some cats won’t chew on them, which means they won’t work for you though. There are dental rinses available, and even a water additive that disinfects plaque. Most veterinary clinics sell these over-the-counter, meaning you don’t need a prescription for them. Call your local veterinarian to ask.
Question: Sierra, my 8 year shetland sheepdog, pants ALL the time. (cold and warm weather) In the beginning they said that she needed to lose some weight. She did and she still pants. What gives? Other than that she is as healthy as a dog can be. Also, any suggestion on how to teach a dog to play with toys, even to go after one? From the time we got her (when she was 15 months) she has never played with a toy or even go after one. (when we through one, she looks at us like saying ” You threw it, you go get it)
Dr. Caldwell: Panting can be a sign of an underlying endocrine disorder, or even breathing issue in older pets. I recommend you go back to your veterinarian with the problem. Show them that you have followed the instructions to lose the weight, but it hasn’t helped. While I applaud your weight loss efforts for her, it may not be enough weight loss, or there may be a different underlying problem. Diseases such as Cushing’s disease and laryngeal paralysis are just two potentially more serious underlying problems that can be ruled out.
As for playing with toys, every dog is different in terms of their affinity for toys. Some dogs never quite ‘get’ fetch, or if they do, it’s not fun for them. A dog can’t really be taught to like toys, much like you can’t be taught to like heavy metal music, if you don’t. Focus on things they do like to do, such as grooming, petting, or maybe leash walks or trips in the car!
Dr. Fiona is a guest veterinarian blogger for the highly rated pet insurance provider, Pets Best.
Cancer is epidemic in the human population, with millions of dollars set aside annually for research to help treatment and diagnostic efforts. Most people have been touched by this disease in some way, either themselves, or by a loved one. But did you know that the cancer rate in dogs is similar to that of people?
One in three dogs will contract cancer in their lifetimes. This statistic cites the overall dog population, the statistic for cancer in pure bred dogs is even higher.
Uncovering this genetic predisposition towards cancer has the promise of providing a tool for researchers to better understand how genes affect cancer rates. The canine genome has already been decoded; scientists are hopeful that learning how traits in purebred dogs relate to cancer can help aid the diagnosis and treatment of human cancers.
In breeds most susceptible to cancer, this rate of cancer is generally found across most lines and pedigrees. This indicates that the genes that code for cancer were present in the earliest start of that breed’s creation. Most purebreds are essentially inbred, thus their genes are concentrated over time. Specific desirable characteristics are bred for again and again, perfecting the breed.
Golden Retrievers are a great example of a cancer prone breed with a very specific genealogical lineage. A Scottish Land Baron in the 1860’s crossed a yellow flat coated retriever with a water spaniel in the 1860’s to create the Golden Retriever. The breed was recognized by the UK’s Kennel Club in 1911, and ALL purebred goldens are theoretically descended from this line.
There are some undesirable genetic or inherited problems in dogs that have been successfully reduced by careful breeding. For example, early detection of orthopedic issues such as hip and elbow dysplasia, and certain eye abnormalities have helped breeders deselect these dogs. Cancer is a difficult disease to deselect for, because most dogs obtain cancer after their most reproductive years and have may already birthed many litters prior to becoming ill, thus inadvertently passing these genes onto their offspring.
While in general pure breeds are most prone to cancer, some breeds are even more susceptible than others. Some studies indicate that about 60% of Golden Retrievers, for example, will die from some type of cancer. Other susceptible breeds include the Boxer, Rottweiler and Bernese Mountain Dog. Breeds with some of the lowest risks of cancer include the Beagle, Miniature and Standard Poodle, Collie and Dachshund.
The most common dogs cancer include osteosarcoma; a bone cancer, lymphoma; a disease of white blood cells, mast cell tumors; a cancer that generally manifests as a tumor on the skin and hemangiosarcoma; a cancer of blood vessels. There are many new promising treatments in the field of veterinary oncology, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Some cancers can be managed giving pets additional months or even years of time.
There are some things you can do to help keep your dog healthy. Experts generally agree that mixed breed dogs, while not exempt from cancer, live about 10% longer than there purebred counterparts. Adopting a mixed breed dog can be one way of lessening your pet’s chance of developing cancer. In addition, keeping your pet fit and lean is very important. Obesity has been linked as a predisposition to a whole slew of health problems in dogs, including some cancers. It’s also a good idea to bring your pet in to your veterinarian for annual wellness and routine care exams. Some dog insurance companies, like Pets Best Insurance, will even help to pay for a portion of wellness care if the optional Wellness plan has been added to the policy.
The field of veterinary oncology and genealogy is in a position to prove of great value, not only for the benefit of companion animals, but for human cancer studies as well. Learning to better treat, prevent cancer and extend the lifespan of our canine counterparts has the exciting possibility of translating into better human medicine as well.
Are you worried about dog cancer and affording the coverage?
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