Molly on her 16th birthday
Signs of Senility:
Staring blankly at walls
Going to wrong side of door
New aggression behavior
Decreased greeting behavior
Increased fear response
Pacing or wandering aimlessly
Decreased interest in play
Waking up at night
Sleeping more during the day
Urine or stool accidents
Not asking to go outside
Decreased ability to do tricks
Scout figuring out a treat puzzle.
Molly has been a patient of mine for over a decade. She is your typical Golden Retriever - gentle, obedient, food-motivated, and full of life and energy. As Molly aged, the fur on her face turned white, she started having some joint aches and pains, and she lost her hearing. Her attentive owners compensated for the hearing loss with more hand signals and treated the pain with different medications. Molly did well for a while, then she started waking the owners up in the wee hours of the night. When she was let outside, she would just wander around aimlessly until they went out to get her. Her physical exam, bloodwork, and urinalysis showed signs of aging kidneys, which necessitated a diet change. Molly's appetite was good and the new food wasn't a problem. But she still was acting oddly.
I diagnosed Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (aka CDS). A long name for a condition most of us understand better as "senility." There aren't any specific tests yet for dogs to take, but all we need are observant owners. The signs of CDS have been described using the acronym DISH-A.
D - Disorientation. For Molly, this was wandering aimless outside and in the house, and appearing confused by her surroundings. Some dogs will go to the hinge side of the door when they need to go outside. Other dogs will stare blankly at a wall or get stuck in a corner.
I - Interaction changes with family members. Molly started having some aggressive issues with the other dogs in the family - barking at them for no obvious reason. Some dogs become very clingy - they need constant contact from their owner and follow them around the house. Other dogs with CDS may stop greeting their owner at the door.
S - Sleep-wake cycle changes. Waking up at 4 a.m. was not typical for Molly. She would bark and be quite agitated until she was let outside, but then just stand there and stare. She was also sleeping a lot during the day.
H - Housetraining breaks. Molly didn't have any urine or stool accidents in the house, probably because the dogs in the household were let out regularly. Some dogs with CDS will be taken outside, but forget what they need to do, then go back inside and urinate.
A - Activity level changes. Molly started aimlessly wandering around the house. If another dog was lying in her path, she became agitated and couldn't figure out how to walk around him, so she would just stand and bark until the other dog moved.
With any behavior change, it is important to look for underlying problems that might be contributing to the problem. In addition to medications for Molly's kidney and joint problems, she was also found to have high blood pressure. But even with that under control and her kidneys doing well, her behavior changes persisted.
The most problematic behavior was her waking up and barking in the middle of the night. We tried over-the-counter products like melatonin, as well as prescription medications for CDS, anxiety, and pain. Her owners also found ways to stimulate her brain. They hid her food so she would have to find it, they used feeding puzzles, they took her for long strolls, and had her do "tricks" to keep her mind active.
There isn't a cure for CDS, but it can be managed and everyone's quality of life can be improved. If you think your dog (or cat) is showing signs of senility, please talk with your veterinarian about treatments that might be right for your pet. There is a lot of trial and error, but with love and perseverance, hopefully your dog can celebrate her 16th birthday, just like Molly!