Dogs are living longer these days thanks to better veterinary care. But, there’s a downside that’s taking many by surprise.
Nadyat El Gawley
June 16 2019
If you’ve got an older dog who’s acting a little unusually, and you think it’s old age–think again.
Getting stuck behind furniture, not sleeping at night or becoming increasingly anxious, could be signs of dementia. By the time your dog reaches the age of 14, she or he has a 40 percent chance of developing the disease, according to Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre.
It’s a startling statistic for any dog lover, but perhaps even more troubling, is that the decline could begin at age eight when dogs reach their senior years. At that point there’s a 14.2 percent chance of getting dementia.
Scientists began recognising dementia in dogs some two decades ago. And yet despite how common it is, many people are generally surprised to learn dogs can suffer from this terrifying disease.
“The first studies came out around the mid-90s, so we’ve known about it for quite some time now,” says Dr Tom Duncan, researcher for the Regenerative Neuroscience Group at the Brain and Mind Centre. Dr Duncan studies Alzheimer’s in both humans and dogs and says that as in humans, the biggest risk factor is ageing.
We’re more familiar with the disease in family pets because the research has focused on dogs and cats. And part of the reason why so much is known about the condition in dogs says Dr Duncan is because “we are prolonging the lives of dogs far beyond what a wild dog would be expected to live to. We have great veterinary care now and so we’re able to treat conditions that may have before affected the dog’s life span. These older dogs’ population is ageing just like in humans, and so we see an increased prevalence of this disease.”
So how does dementia show up in dogs?
“In a dog, this might manifest in not being able to find its food bowl,” says Dr Duncan. “[They can be] right in front of the food bowl, but not be able to locate it. Or perhaps getting stuck behind furniture or staring at the wall, staring at the hinge side of a door, expecting it to open.
“We can see disruption to their sleep patterns so they’re up all night barking seemingly for no reason, or [the dog might have] spontaneous outbursts of aggression towards people they once knew and loved,” Dr Duncan says.
Dr Cameron Fay, a veterinarian practising in Sydney’s culturally diverse Inner Western suburb of Marrickville, sees cases of dementia in dogs at least once a week at his Marrickville Vet clinic.
He says while people are aware of dementia in humans, the problem with identifying it in animals is that it can happen quickly.
“With dogs and cats, everything is in fast forward. You’ve got a puppy, then you got an adult dog, and quickly you’ve got a mature adult, and a senior, and then finally the geriatric.
And that happens in a short space of time…and sometimes it’s a matter of months [where] you can see that mental decline in them. I think that’s about the key difference that maybe catches people off-guard,” he says.
There’s no doubting the closeness between some dogs and their pet parent. It’s an emotional bond that’s developed over 15,000 years. And over that time, dogs have learned to read us in some of the most profound ways as this study suggests.
Dogs give us comfort, joy and energy, even permission to be silly at times. Who can resist? And Australians are big dog owners. According to Animal Medicines Australia’s 2016 Pet Ownership in Australia survey, dogs are the most popular animal companion in this country, with 38 percent of Australians choosing to have a dog. The average dog-owning household spends almost $2000 a year on food and veterinary care. And 64 percent see the dog as a member of the family.
But there are casualties of this love affair with dogs.
I meet with Cynthia Forshaw at DoggieRescue’s shelter on Sydney’s Northern Beaches in Ingleside. The leafy area takes in several national parks, including the stunning Sydney Harbour National Park.
An eloquent and passionate advocate for dogs, Ms Forshaw has been a volunteer with DoggieRescue for 15 years since retiring from the NSW education system. We meet on a Saturday, a usually busy day at the shelter because volunteers arrive to take the dogs for walks. There’s a lot of activity with dogs in various sections being readied for walks, given food, water and attention. The atmosphere is all woof woof.
We sit near a section housing three puppies rescued from a tip, and I ask her what she learned about humans from working with animals. She tells me she has delighted in the love people show for their companion animals, and many people love their dogs. But, like many in animal welfare groups, she singles out backyard breeders for particular criticism. She sees the results of their sometimes ruthless exploitation of animals regularly at the shelter–dogs are abandoned, mistreated and neglected in the race for profit.
“My own negative penchant I suppose is against people who don’t de-sex their dogs, and produce unwanted puppies,” she says. “[They] either have to find free homes for them or, as with a litter of puppies at the moment, dump them at the tip.”
The shelter doesn’t tend to see abandoned dogs with dementia, though it has foster families who will adopt them if the need arises.
Cynthia recently lost her 18-year-old Bichon Poodle Terrier cross, Molly, to dementia.
You can hear the affection in her voice when she talks about her. “Oh she was the most intuitive dog I had ever known. She just picked up whole sentences I’d say to her and she would understand.”
In the Forshaw household, Molly quickly became a guardian to Cynthia’s first dog Tiger– a grumpy, elderly, deaf Terrier stray. Molly learned to wake him up, and “that became her job, she became his minder,“ says Cynthia. “She intuitively knew what to do. She was just the most brilliant creature.”
When Molly turned 16 and was still healthy, Cynthia breathed a sigh of relief, and said her expectations optimistically were that she was “just going to go on forever and ever”.
But she was “shattered” when Molly’s dementia became apparent. There wasn’t an official diagnosis, but Cynthia noticed the behavioural changes. Molly would get stuck behind open doors and sofas and would “just scream” because she couldn’t get out.
“There was one occasion where she actually forced herself through the front gate. She’d obviously put her head through [it], and didn’t know how to go backwards. So she literally forced her whole body through the front gate, and I heard this screaming and was running around looking for her.
“She’d gone into next door and got her head stuck in some wire fencing in their front garden,” Cynthia recalls while discussing what she had to grapple with. Her biggest struggle was being able to feed Molly who would reject food regularly.
“She would eat something one day and not the next… so trying to keep up her strength was probably the most stressful thing.”
“I think it probably parallels what happens in people,” says Dr Fay. “You start with these animals who are often very well trained, they’re very clever, they know their way around their home, and things start slipping away from them. They lose those higher functions first up, and then gradually over time, they lose their basic functions.
“They lose that ability to have a lead put onto them to go for a walk, that ability to have a bit of control over their toilet habit. And eventually that deserts them and you’re left with a bit of a shell of the animal that was there previously.”
What looking at dogs’ brains is showing us, is that there are striking similarities between Alzheimer’s in humans and canine cognitive dysfuntion (CCD) according to Dr Kaylene Jones.
Dr Jones is a veterinarian who’s recently joined the Regenerative Neuroscience Group at the Brain and Mind Centre as a senior researcher. Having practiced as a veterinarian for 15 years, she has witnessed the impact dementia can have on both the dog and the owner.
“Because of the profound effect of the disease on the dog’s life and the bond between the pet and their owner, there’s a very real urgency for the discovery of new treatments,” she says.
In 2015, the Regenerative Neuroscience Group spectacularly reversed dementia in Timmy, a 14-year-old Cocker Spaniel, using his own stem cells as part of Sydney university’s Dogs+ Cells trial . It was a major breakthrough for the group, who were able to repeat this success in another dog, Leo. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Over a 10-year period, the centre treated four dogs altogether with a third dog dying from complications, while a fourth did not respond to the treatment. But the success with Leo and Timmy who died two years ago, was the first of its kind worldwide. Leo is still going strong says Dr Duncan.
And there are benefits for humans.
“We are using canine dementia as a model for humans, but to see it cured in dogs would be a fantastic thing,” says Dr Duncan. “ We think if it works in dogs, it stands a very high chance of working in humans just because of the close similarity between the dog and the human brain.”
It takes a village
Dementia’s slow, cruel assaults on the soul are well documented. It marches on regardless, frightening for humans and dogs alike. But what we know from people’s experience is that it takes more than one person to care for someone suffering from dementia.
About three years ago, Natalie Pomroy’s 13-year-old Labrador “started to display unusual behaviour at night,” she says via email. He would stare into space, get lost in the garden and was forgetful. It was this encounter with dementia that both she and her partner found difficult and isolating. But it led to the establishment of the Dogs with Canine Dementia or Canine Dysfunction Facebook group.
The group started in 2016 with just a handful of members to provide “a place where people could come and share their experiences of a disease that so few knew about,” she says.
“[It] grew over the last few years with people joining who were in a similar boat to us, having got a diagnosis that their elderly dogs were possibly showing signs of CCD but not knowing how to deal or cope with it.”
Since then, the overwhelmingly female membership has grown to 2500 people from Australia, Canada, Britain and the US. And Natalie says that it’s been particularly growing over recent months.
It’s proved to be invaluable for its members, and is to some, the only place where they could find helpful advice.
Candace Bonham, a single mum living in North Carolina in the US has been rescuing animals for several years. She’s a foster mum to three dogs and three cats, and is a member of the Dogs with Canine Dementia or Canine Dysfunction Facebook group.
We speak on the phone. It’s cool and overcast in Charlotte County today and she’s working from home, and it‘s about noon on a Friday. Her work in an environmental laboratory gives her the flexibility that was to become vital when her dogs got dementia.
Rescuing animals came at a time when Candace was putting her life back together again after leaving a violent marriage. She says she was looking for a way to heal from the pain of that relationship, and couldn’t find it anywhere until she adopted two six -year-old Yorkshire Terriers from a shelter: Mama and Sir Windsor.
“They came from such horrendous situations, that we began to heal together,” she recalls. “They saw me through, I saw them through… I always had dogs growing up all through childhood, but this experience was different. We healed each other and it opened up a place in my heart that I never felt before.”
Candace was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was looking for ways to restore her trust in people again, ”to seek goodness in people” .
“And so when I got Mama and Windsor and they came from these situations that I have personally been in, and there was no hope in their situation, there was no hope in my situation. And we just came together, hurt and raw and embittered, and we opened up to one another. And for the longest time it was just Sir Windsor, Mama and me.”
Both dogs were rescued from a breeder. For Sir Windsor, the abuse he suffered shut him down and it took six months before he would let Candace hold or stroke him.
“Neither had ever been to the vet or even bathed, let alone groomed,” she says via email. “Mama had approximately 10 litters in her life. Windsor barked non-stop for attention so he was tied to a fence where he literally barked until he no longer had a voice.”
Candace found she had a capacity for helping animals in distress, and fostered other dogs and cats. Particularly, “un-socialised dogs” from difficult backgrounds. “From day one to the day they found their family, watching their transformation was just such a sense of healing for me. It gave me so much joy.”
Nearly 11 and towards the end of her life, Mama’s kidneys went into failure, But she also started to behave in strange ways that Candace put down to her advanced age and her visual and hearing impairment.
Mama would urinate and defecate in the house and she also became aggressive. Candace would come home from work to find her behind a trash can or the toilet. “At the time I thought, “this is odd”, but now I realise she was lost in her own house.”
Candace didn’t become aware of dementia until after Mama had died, and Sir Windsor began to show similar symptoms.
“I knew something was wrong,” says the 37 years old “I just didn’t know what to attribute it to.”
“I am involved in rescue. I take on animals that people don’t want or that are about to be euthanized. I’ve been doing this for years and years, and I’ve never heard anyone talk about it. I’d never seen anything about it until I found the support group on Facebook.”
As in Australia, CCD is “definitely an underdiagnosed disease in dogs and even more so in cats in the US,” says Dr Leticia Fanucchi, Clinical Instructor on the behaviour of domestic and exotic animals at Washington State University.
“There has been more attention drawn to CCD in pets [over] the last few years, but it is still a disease process that goes by undetected and untreated until it is too late for the patient,” she said via email.
Sir Windsor would pace until he got exhausted. He became aggressive, and would get lost in the house, and Candace says there was no comforting him.
“So once I found the Facebook page and began to put these symptoms together, it made a lot more sense and I began therapy for him through food and treats.”
But sadly, not long after she’d found the group, Sir Windsor got pneumonia and passed away within days –almost a year after Mama at age 11, had died. Sir Windsor was also 11.
“It was very emotional, very hard, and I wasn’t ready to let him go,” Candace says.
Caring for Sir Windsor was an intense, anxiety filled time, as Candace re-organised her work and social commitments to support him. She worked from home as much as possible, and if she had to go out, she would make sure she was only away for a couple of hours. But it was always hard to leave him.
“When I got ready to go I would walk up a flight of [wooden] stairs. The third stair would squeak, that would set Windsor off, and he knew I was leaving. My whole body would tense up with anxiety because I knew he knew I was leaving. And I would hear him as I walked out the door, I could hear him all the way to my car. It was heart breaking. I hated leaving him, it tore at me.”
The stress of caring for a dog with dementia is something that anecdotally, seems little understood by people around the dog carer. But its effects on the caregiver could be as significant as those felt by families and friends of people with dementia.
“Because of the profound effect of the disease on the patient’s behaviour and quality of life,” says Dr Kaylene Jones “there’s a huge strain placed on that bond between the owner and the animal.
“Research has shown that humans providing intensive support to a family member or a friend with dementia can … affect their emotional, psychological and physical health.
“I think we can assume some degree of these same effects with owners caring for their beloved pets.”
Life turned upside down
Like Candace, Alex Williams’ life radically changed when her older rescue dog Murphy was diagnosed with dementia. She is also a member of the Dogs with Canine Dementia or Canine Dysfunction Facebook group.
The 29-year-old says she was devastated by Murphy’s dementia. She felt the impact both emotionally and physically. Both she and her partner were constantly sick, and hardly got any sleep.
“We were running on two hours of sleep within 24 hours. It was a constant attention to Murphy and in your mind as their mum, you’d be thinking do we put him to sleep, do we keep him alive? Are we keeping him alive for us? Is he living a good quality life? It was a very traumatising disease.”
Alex lives in Arizona, and she’s been rescuing dogs for 10 years. She says she found two of her four dogs—Max and Ella, on the side of the road while driving to Arizona’s capital city Phoenix. All her dogs are rescues.
Murphy, a Dachshund, had belonged to a homeless man who could no longer look after him and gave him up to what Alex says was a “high kill Shelter”. When she adopted him, he was 11 and suffering from Cushing’s Disease. Among many symptoms, it is marked by increased thirst and urination. In Murphy’s case, Alex says he had “no muscle tone in his back legs” which toward the end, added to his anguish.
While she had been rescuing and fostering animals for a decade, Alex was not aware dogs could get dementia, and it was difficult to “watch him go downhill,” she says. But harder, was understanding that the disease affected the mind.
“You know, a dog gets cancer or has diabetes, you can see they’re physically sick. I think it’s a lot easier,” she says on the phone from Kingman, Arizona where she lives. “He would kiss us and he would be excited to eat. His body wasn’t sick, his mind was sick. That was a really hard thing for me to understand. It was like he’s still okay, but it’s really not okay.”
Alex’s bond with Murphy was strong, and she says he helped her through many hard times in her life.
“Murphy taught me a lot about myself. You know, he loved everything. Even if there was a fly in the house, he loved it. He was happy all the time, and that was something he brought to my life: No matter what you’re going through, you just have to be happy. And I always say I just want to live like Murphy.”
Murphy’s dementia would keep him awake at night when he would be feeling anxious and confused. He would constantly pace.
“When he would pace, he would fall over, and then he’d walk into corners or into the back side of the door,” says Alex.
“We had to put our bed on the floor because he would get scared. It was almost like he didn’t know who he was. He struggled to get up, so you’d help him up, he’d go walk, then come back in, lay down and then get back right up.
“But it was exhausting for him towards the end. And he would end up dragging his back legs. It wasn’t good.”
Towards the end, both Alex and her partner were sleeping with a nightlight on Murphy’s bed as well as the bedroom light to keep him from feeling frightened. But it was a distressing time.
“I would pet him to let him know I was here, and he would be scared. He would bite my hand [and] jump at me touching him. He didn’t want me to cuddle him anymore. It changed the dog that I did know.”
After struggling for about four months with the disease, Murphy died in April at age 14. And it was the worst day of Alex’s life.
Making a pact
The hardest thing for Cynthia was not being able to make things better for Molly.
“I couldn’t fix it could I?” she says.
“I had to go with the flow, and give her the best possible life for as long as she had, and make compromises with my own life to make sure she was happy. So I never went out after five pm. It was important to be home. “
Cynthia’s resolve comes from another pact she makes with the animals in her care, and that is, she will be with them until they draw their last breath.
She didn’t sleep the night before she took her dog to the vet. “Something had snapped,” she says. Molly paced in circles all through the night, and like Candace and Sir Winston’s dementia, Cynthia couldn’t console her.
“She no longer recognised me…and if I tried to calm her, she would just scream at the top of her lungs. That’s why I’d say it’s not for me to make the decision. Dogs let you know when it’s time.”
“But my pact with my fur kids is that I will be the last voice they hear, the last eyes they see and the last touch they feel at the end of their life. For the love and joy they give you, you can’t do it any other way, you just got to be there right till the end, no matter how much it hurts.”
Candace’s heart broke as Sir Windsor’s pneumonia got worse. It was time to let him go and although she wasn’t ready, she took him to the emergency pet clinic.
“He was so miserable. Fluid began to build up in his lungs and we just couldn’t get it out,” she says. “His quality of life of course was not very much. The vet said that Windsor had to feel like he was drowning because there was so much fluid.
“He was just weak, he could not keep fighting. You see that when you have a bond with your pet, you know. And I definitely knew.”
It’s a question that’s regularly asked on the Dogs with Canine Dementia or Canine Dysfunction Facebook group, and one so many people wrestle with.
“All of us including vets, bring our own lens to that situation,” says Dr Fay, “it’s a very subjective thing and I often say that it’s not a black and white line.“
“You get some people, as soon as they know that that animal’s going to decline, then they’re basically ready at that point. And then you get the other end of the scale where the attachment is so intensely strong that potentially they can’t see that that particular animal has no quality of life.”
And the grief Dr Fay has seen in his 17-year- career as a veterinarian mirrors that personal, ethical and cultural lens and how people respond to loss. It’s at those significant moments that Natalie Pomroy says the Facebook group really helps. “I think that many join when their dogs are in the later stage of the disease and they cling onto a thread of hope that they can somehow reverse the decline or find a miracle cure but dementia has none. “
She says that unlike humans [in the English-speaking world], animals are provided euthanasia. “We as guardians can offer release to our pets by euthanasia and this is where the support network of the group really helps.”
The day Alex and her partner Glenn farewelled Murphy is a day she won’t forget. She says Murphy was pacing and falling over, and when they took him outside to urinate, the wind blew him over.
“And that’s when it was… okay we’re keeping him alive for us. You could just tell he lost the sparkle in his eye.”
They then called the vet to euthanize Murphy at home.
Through tears she says: “You know he went really easy. He gave my boyfriend a kiss on the nose, [and] he just went. It wasn’t like he fought it. He didn’t twitch, he didn’t cry, he didn’t do anything. And the vet said that when dogs go that fast, it means their bodies are done fighting.”
Preventing, treating, curing
While there is no treatment to stop dementia in its tracks, ultimately the key is keeping the animals engaged says Dr Fay. “Keep them stimulated, get them outside … play games, and stay interactive with them, ” he says.
“There’s nothing really that’s going to stop the process, but as I always say to people, it’s important that they stay as active as possible. It would be like people playing Sudoku and staying active with puzzles. I think it’s the same for dogs, you’ve got to keep them energised and stimulated.”
CCD can be treated, but just as in the treatment of Alzheimer’s in humans, it’s about slowing the disease down. In Australia, there are various medications and food supplements, and in the UK and US, Xanax and CBD (cannabis) oil are available to help with the pacing and the accompanying anxiety. Anecdotally, these are effective to varying degrees.
Stem cells are already being used in dogs for treating conditions such as arthritis, and although a treatment for dementia may be years away, it is nonetheless an exciting concept to many.
Back at the Brain and Mind Centre Dr Duncan tells me the way stem cells function in dogs’ brains is yet to be fully understood. But, once they’re transplanted into the brain’s memory centre–the hippocampus–they can work in several ways.
“One potential mechanism is that the stem cells…immediately start to support the remaining brain cells, and give them some sort of boost, some encouragement to light up again, “ says Dr Duncan.
“Another potential mechanism is that these stem cells change into brain cells. It could be one or the other or a combination of those; or another process entirely. It’s a big field of study that we’re just trying to understand in our trial patients.”
The Brain and Mind Centre is about to start another trial , and if you’re interested, you can contact them here.