As veterinary medicine has succeeded in extending the lifespan of many pets, a different challenge has increased — dementia.
One study says that more than one in four dogs aged 11 to 12 experience canine cognitive decline — rising to an alarming 68% at ages 15 and 16.
There are some steps doctors might suggest, says Dr. Connor Ward, a veterinarian at RAPS Animal Hospital, in Richmond. But there is no cure — and the impacts of treatments vary dramatically from patient to patient.
“There is medication that helps to increase blood flow to the brain, which can improve some symptoms associated with these conditions,” Ward says. “It's intensely variable. Among animals of the same size, receiving the same dose, and having the same level of clinical diagnosis, one may improve greatly while another may have a very limited response.”
Signs of dementia in pets have some similarities and differences with symptoms in humans with dementia.
“There are lots of subtle changes,” says the veterinarian, “including generalized confusion, like forgetting where things are in the house.”
A dog might bark at nothing in the night or seem to forget where their bed is.
“They start sleeping in the middle of the hallway instead of where they normally would because they're just not really aware of what's going on,” says Ward. “A really common problem when you get to advanced stages is urinating and defecating indoors.”
Other symptoms may include wandering aimlessly or getting stuck in corners. Their sleep patterns might change, with the animal becoming restless at night and lethargic during the day. They might become withdrawn and avoid interaction with their people. Cats may reduce or stop their grooming habits. Pets may become aggressive, anxious or irritable, or otherwise demonstrate personality changes.
As in the case of any progressive condition, the decision needs to be made about when it is time to humanely end the pet’s life.
“These things are very often subjective,” says Ward. “If a pet is not in pain, seems relatively happy and is not at imminent risk of harming themselves, it makes sense to give them the happiest life possible for as long as possible. It’s a discussion to have with your veterinarian, but ultimately that decision is the family’s.”