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A dog with dementia

Dealing with a pet in mental decline

Anthony Gardner | February 4th 2015

It was our Christmas holiday that gave me the idea for a blog about a demented dog. We’d spent a delightful fortnight in the Lake District, but it wasn’t without stress, largely on account of Matty, our elderly Cocker spaniel. Would we be awake before our guests to clear up whatever disaster had taken place overnight? Would she mistake someone’s fingers for food and sink her teeth into them? Would she lose herself in the shrubbery and freeze to death? There was also the anxiety of walking her by the river, into which she’d wandered during our previous holiday. I’d found myself swimming downstream to retrieve her, and my waterlogged phone and camera never recovered.

Last summer, she suffered a stroke which left her so enfeebled that we thought she might have to be put down. It was only as she slowly recovered her strength that we began to notice changes in her behaviour—marching round and round the table while we were eating, staring blankly into space. It gradually dawned on us that she was making messes on the floor not because she couldn’t help herself, but because she’d forgotten she’d ever been house-trained.

Physically, Matty has made a reasonable recovery. But mentally she is clearly suffering from a condition similar to Alzheimer’s. Looking into the science of dog dementia, I was both consoled and dismayed to discover that it’s actually quite common. Its clinical name is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, and according to one study 50% of dogs show at least one symptom by the age of 11—though obviously that is very different from showing all the symptoms. Of the dozen I’ve found out about (which range from changes in sleep patterns to walking endlessly round in circles) there is only one Matty doesn’t have: barking for no reason. But on reflection that’s quite a lot to be thankful for.

CCD, like Alzheimer’s, is believed to involve the build-up of amyloid protein in the brain tissue. There is no specific test and no known cure, though some dogs have apparently benefited from using the prescription drugs selegeline—marketed for pets as Anipryl—and nicergoline, both developed for human dementia. (We’re thinking of trying them on Matty, but there are possible side effects, such as diarrhoea, which could make things even worse.) You’re encouraged to keep your animal in a familiar environment and routine, but also to provide stimuli such as toys, and to lace their biscuits with fish oils and vitamin supplements.

Occasionally we catch a glimpse of Matty’s old self as she bounds across the lawn for her breakfast, but most of the time she's in another world: at home she hides under chairs, in the park she attaches herself to strangers. Writing about her misadventures seemed the only way to alleviate the sadness of her decline. My blog, launched last week, is called A Spaniel Moment, and its motto is taken from Byron: “if I laugh at any mortal thing,/’Tis that I may not weep.”

One night towards the end of our Christmas holiday, Matty slipped through the front gate. I managed to intercept her before she’d gone far, but the scene still haunts me: a bewildered animal setting off alone into the darkness, along an empty road. I wanted to pick her up and comfort her, but she doesn’t like me stroking her any more; and I wanted to make reassuring noises, but I knew she was too deaf to hear. So now I’m relying on the fish oils—not in the hope of restoring Matty to what she once was, but of dispelling the darkness just enough to let her know she’s still loved.

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