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Why Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Is on the Rise and What You Can Do About It

Julie Sprankles is a freelance writer living in the storied city of Charleston, SC. When she isn't slinging sass for SheKnows, she enjoys watching campy SyFy creature features (Pirahnaconda, anyone?), trolling the internet for dance work...

Worried about your dog and CCD? Here's what you need to know about this condition

Most of us have either watched a loved one suffer with dementia or at least have a basic idea of what dementia does to a person. However, many of us (myself included) were not aware that doggies can get dementia too. Only it's not called dementia; it's called canine cognitive dysfunction — and it's on the rise.

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Like dementia in humans, CCD is a neurodegenerative disease that affects the aging population. And similar to what happens in humans, CCD in dogs is caused by degenerative inflammation of the brain or neuron loss and cortical atrophy.

And since studies show that now at least 14 percent of geriatric dogs are affected by CCD, this disorder clearly deserves more attention.

Why is CCD on the rise?

There is no hard and fast answer for this one. One explanation could be that CCD has largely gone undiagnosed over the years. Now that more veterinarians are screening for the disorder and more pet owners are becoming aware CCD exists, more cases could be getting diagnosed accurately than were up until this point in time.

A study conducted by the University of California, Davis of dog owners with pets between 11 and 16 years of age seems to corroborate this theory. When asked about their dogs' sleeping habits, disorientation and other common signs associated with CCD, 62 percent of the dog owners reported their pets were exhibiting behavioral changes in at least one of these areas. Since the current estimate on prevalence is the aforementioned 14 percent, it would stand to reason this figure will rise sharply as more people (and their vets) begin to connect the dots between their aging dog's behavior and CCD.

Another possible explanation is that dogs are living longer now, and therefore more dogs are reaching the age when CCD starts to become more of a likelihood. In the scholarly paper "Now Why Did I Come Here? Canine Cognitive Dysfunction," Dr. Kersti Seksel points out, "Better veterinary care is ensuring that companion animals are living longer and hopefully healthier and happier lives. Over time, increasing numbers of 20-year-old cats or 18-year-old dogs will present as patients. In 1997, in the United States, 11 percent of dogs were over 10 years of age and this is similar in Australia."

What are the symptoms of CCD?

While it's not uncommon for an older dog to act a bit irritably from time to time, bump into things occasionally and even experience incontinence every so often, the USDAA underscores that a dog suffering from CCD will experience much more pronounced signs.

For example, as opposed to a general sort of clumsiness, a dog with CCD might seem extremely disoriented or even lost. They may bump into things frequently or simply stand in a corner. Other changes in behavior that seem extreme could also be signs of CCD presenting — think behavior that is completely out of character for your dog, persistent incontinence, lack of appetite and trouble sleeping.

How is CCD diagnosed?

Unfortunately, diagnosing CCD isn't as simple as taking your dog to the vet for a standard screening test. "The syndrome is based on the patient's clinical signs and activity/behavioral changes at home," explains Dr. Joseph Mankin, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. "There is not a specific test to diagnose the problem, although changes on advanced imaging of the brain can give some indication."

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As such, your veterinarian will need to perform a complete physical workup on your dog to rule out any other medical causes that could be causing your dog's symptoms. Essentially, the test for determining CCD in a dog is one of exclusion.

Are there any preventative measures that can be taken?

Although there is no known cure for CCD, there are ways to alleviate the symptoms once your dog has been diagnosed. "Treatment of cognitive dysfunction includes certain medications, environmental changes and changes in diet," says Mankin. "With this syndrome, there may be an association with the lack of dopamine and there are medications that can increase dopamine activity that can help with a patient's clinical signs."

But there are also things you can do before you even notice cognitive decline in your dog that could help stave off CCD or at least keep the symptoms at bay longer. On the Healthy Pets website, Dr. Karen Becker — a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian — offers a nine-step plan to fight CCD.

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The foundation, she explains, is a nutritionally balanced diet rich in brain-boosting omega-3 essential fats and a metabolism-enhancing variety of fresh, living food. Becker's other recommendations include keeping your pet's body and mind active, providing your pet with an S-adenosylmethionine supplement and feeding your dog coconut oil to decrease amyloid building in the brain.

And as always, regardless of whether your dog is already geriatric or in their prime, taking your pup to the vet twice a year for well checks minimizes the chance that you'll miss any potentially problematic changes.

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