Can Animals Get Alzheimer’s?

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? We take them to the vet for hip dysplasia, but 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.Can Animals Get Alzheimer's?

Can animals get Alzheimer’s? 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.

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 senior pet about caregiving? Share your story with us in the comments below.

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