Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

by Alice Kane

The well cared for Shih Tzu can be expected to enjoy a long, healthy and hearty life span. But just as our human bodies and brains show signs of growing older, similar physiological changes can occur in our aging dogs.

When my Shih Tzu Aubrey turned 17, I began to notice changes in his behavior. Pacing and restless, he would circle the room. Sometimes I would !nd him trapped behind furniture or in a corner, confused. His sleeping was interrupted, and he would get in and out of bed, wandering in aimless patterns. Even his prized toys no longer held his interest.

Concerned, I turned to my veterinarian to rule out causes such as anxiety, tumors, Cushing’s disease - an endocrine disorder, and other possible abnormalities. Once he got a clean bill of health, a clearer picture emerged. As our pets live longer lives, aided by nutrition, medicine and large doses of love, 1 in 3 senior dogs face a condition comparable to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Sadly, Aubrey was suffering from ‘doggy dementia.’ Official diagnosis: Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.

Much like human dementia, the process of aging causes similar physiological changes in the brain chemistry of our Shih Tzu. Cognitive Canine Dysfunction is believed to result from plaque deposits in the brain slowing down nerve function, along with a depletion in the neurotransmitter dopamine that communicates basic life info throughout the brain and body. Vital to cognitive function, dopamine helps with depression as well as mental focus. When aging slows down your dog’s nerve function, so do the messages to his body to react, physically or mentally. The result can be dementia.

Signs of CCD
There is no single test to diagnose Cognitive Canine Dysfunction. Your Shih Tzu will not misplace his keys or hide his pearls in the fridge! But there are some common signs that can help you identify CCD in your pet:

  • Pacing and circling
  • Getting “stuck” in places in the home
  • Staring blankly
  • Erratic and changing sleep patterns
  • Slow responses to you—to your voice or to his name
  • Repetitive actions or movement
  • Making housebreaking mistakes
  • Irritability—often due to confusion

  • These signs may occur slowly and individually, or several may come on relatively quickly. It is important that you observe your Shih Tzu. A well-kept diary or video is invaluable when you talk over these behavioral changes with your Vet. And do make that visit with your Vet as soon as possible. Working together and early treatment are crucial to helping your pet.

    While there is no cure for Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, there are growing options that can help slow down the process and help you manage your older Shih Tzu’s conditions. Your Vet can prescribe medications that have been shown to improve a dog’s energy levels and concentration. Additionally, there are pet foods that promote complete diets to slow the process of aging. Finally, there are supplements available over-the-counter that have been proven to help with the function of the brain. It’s important that you and your Vet are proactive and try to determine what the most effective program is for your Shih Tzu.

    Managing CCD
    There is also much you can do around the home to help your senior. You will want to maintain familiarity, keeping a routine your pet is used to, while accommodating his changes. These small adaptations will allow him to feel less confused and even rebuild his confidence. Keep his food and water bowls, his mats, and special toys in a small, safe “nesting” area. The less he needs to wander, the more secure he will feel. Also give him frequent opportunities to relieve himself, taking him to the same spot each time.

    Be sure to encourage exercise that he is capable of and initiate simple games that will stimulate him. If you have another dog, encourage interaction between them. A younger pet can work absolute wonders to perk up a senior. Above all, offer lots of reassurance and put aside special bonding time. A soft hand, a cuddle'you are his world now and time is precious.

    The dog and human connection has long been evaluated for our similarity in thinking and feeling. It’s not surprising that we also share the same process of aging. Now, as medicine advances, we have the opportunity to make our senior dogs comfortable physically and mentally and to be the best possible caregivers at this poignant, special time in their lives. By managing the challenges of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, we can enjoy the gift of these extra years with our beloved elder Shih Tzu.