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Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is a loosely defined syndrome that affects older dogs and has been compared to the early stages of Alzheimer's disease in people. The cause of the CCD is not really known but affected animals have shown a deposition amyloid (a protein) in their brains in patterns very similar to the amyloid plaques found in the brains of human Alzheimer’s patients.

A dog that is suffering from CCD may be disorientated, wander aimlessly, exhibit changes in their social and environmental interactions, have disturbed sleep patterns (waking at the wrong time, sleeping unusually, night pacing etc), bark excessively, and have a breakdown in house training. Progression of clinical signs is very gradual and most owners fail to recognize the early stages.

We need to keep in mind that other conditions may cause similar signs such as deteriorating vision, pain, other neurological diseases or conditions that result in increased drinking and consequently urination. A diagnosis of CCD is made by the process of elimination. Because the clinical signs are non-specific, it is difficult to make a definitive diagnosis. A thorough physical examination and simple blood tests will help to rule out many underlying causes.

There are several treatments that can be used to help improve the symptoms of CCD and slow down the progression of disease. It is important that they are commenced as early as possible in the disease process.

Medications are available that improve blood flow to the brain whilst others increase the levels of important brain chemicals. These also act to improve brain metabolism and protect from damaging free radicals.

Research has also found that cognitive performance can also be improved with a diet supplemented with antioxidants and omega fatty acids. Prescription diets are now available that are enhanced with these agents.

One of the consequences of age-related behavioural disorders is the loss of learned responses. As a result the dog may lose its ability to perform simple tasks or respond to previously known commands.

Patients will often need to be house trained and in many cases owners also need to reintroduce some of the basic obedience commands. Cognitive dysfunction patients often show difficulty in concentrating and the owner should be encouraged to introduce games that will provide mental stimulation and increase social interaction with their pet. Ideally play and exercise sessions should be of short duration, involve simple tasks, which are repeated frequently and culminate in a positive reward for the pet.

Detecting the symptoms of this condition at the earliest opportunity will enable these dogs to receive appropriate veterinary care and maximise the benefits of therapy in terms of increased quality and duration of life.

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