Cognitive behaviour includes spatial orientation, problems with memory, learning, housetraining and recognising and reacting to human family members.
Pet owners have long been frustrated by age-related behavioural changes, including house-training problems, apparent memory loss, disorientation, confusion, staring, wandering, getting stuck in corners, sleep disturbances (waking at the wrong time, sleeping unusually deeply, night pacing), restlessness, barking, separation anxiety, panting, drooling, obsessive licking, etc. Progression of clinical signs is very gradual with most owners failing to recognise the early stages.
Although cognitive dysfunction is seen commonly in older animals, it does not make the behaviour normal. Studies have shown that dogs affected by this syndrome show deposition of amyloid (a protein) in their brains in patterns very similar to the amyloid plaques found in the brains of human Alzheimer’s patients.
In addition, cognitive dysfunction is often associated with the depletion of dopamine, a neurotransmitter.
Treatments that may help improve cognitive dysfunction include cerebral vasodilators, L-Deprenyl, dietary changes, and environmental enrichment.
Cerebral Vasodilators are used to promote increased blood flow to the brain thereby reducing the likelihood of ongoing injury associated with brain ischaemia or lack of oxygen.
Dietary Changes/Nutriceutical supplements. Some therapeutic diets contain antioxidants (mixed tocopherols, vitamin C, beta-carotene, carotenoids, and flavenoids), mitochondrial cofactors, and omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA). These diets have been shown to improve the performance of a number of cognitive tasks, when compared to older dogs on a non-supplemented diet. Improvements have been seen as early as to 2 to 8 weeks after the onset of therapy.
Environmental Enrichment. Just because they’re old doesn’t mean your dogs can’t learn new things. Use their intelligence to improve the quality of their lives.
If your old dog’s vision is still good, teach signals. This will serve as a back-up if hearing fails, which it often does. Signals are fun for dogs and are a more natural language for them than words.
Grooming (touch) will help your dog cope with vision and hearing loss. Your touch will help guide your dog.
In a laboratory study of older dogs over a 2-year period, environmental enrichment (e.g., housing with another dog, playing daily with toys) was shown to be effective tool for task learning. In fact, the combined effect of a special diet and enriched environment provided the greatest improvement in learning ability when compared to the dogs that did not have either dietary or environmental enrichment.