Canine cognitive disorder (canine cognitive dysfunction) is a medical condition associated with age-related deterioration of a dog’s cognitive functioning. The condition most commonly affects dogs 11 years of age and older. The results of several recent studies showed that 48 percent of dogs eight years of age and older, 62 percent of dogs 11 to 16 years of age, and 100 percent of dogs 16 years of age and older exhibited at least one of the changes that occurs in dogs with cognitive disorder. The changes occur as a result of physical and chemical changes within the cerebrum of the dog, including deposition of beta amyloid protein (similar to Alzheimer’s patients), atrophy from nerve cell death, myelin degeneration, intraneuronal lipofuscin accumulation, decreased neurotransmitter activity, or increased activity of monoamine oxidase-B (MAO-B, an enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter dopamine).
Clinical signs include those changes owners often refer to as “senility” (which does not occur in pets), such as disorientation, “acting old,” interactions with family members, loss of house-training, decreased ability to recognize familiar people and surroundings, decreased hearing, restlessness, decreased desire to perform favorite tasks (such as walking), standing in the corner, and barking at inanimate objects.
There is no diagnostic test for cognitive disorder. The diagnosis is made after ruling out other diseases that can also alter mental state (internal disorders such as liver or kidney diseases, cardiac diseases, and especially hypothyroidism) via laboratory testing (usually blood and urine testing). The condition appears to occur in cats as well, but is not as well defined or researched. Additionally, there is no approved conventional treatment for feline cognitive disorder.
Note: Many older dogs and cats that act “old” in fact have suffered for years from other chronic problems such as osteoarthritis or periodontal disease. Following proper diagnosis and treatment, these pets misdiagnosed as acting “old” will act “young” again as a result of decreased pain and infection.
Principal Natural Treatments
Lecithin contains a substance called phosphatidylcholine (PC) that is presumed to be responsible for its medicinal effects. Phosphatidylcholine is a major part of the membranes surrounding our cells. However, when phosphatidylcholine is consumed, it is broken down into choline rather than being carried directly to cell membranes. Choline acts like folic acid, TMG (trimethylglycine), and SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) to promote methylation. It is also used to make acetylcholine, a nerve chemical essential for proper brain function. Choline and phosphatidylcholine are effective for treating human neurological disorders with presumed choline deficiencies including tardive dyskinesia, Huntington’s chorea, and Friedreich’s ataxia.
For use as a supplement or a food additive, lecithin is often manufactured from soy.
One choline-containing product that has been used successfully in pets in Cholodin. Cholodin contains choline (40mg per pill), phosphatidylcholine (as lecithin, 40 mg per pill), DL-methionine, and vitamins and minerals. Choline provides methyl groups used by the body in a number of biological reactions and acts as a precursor of acetylcholine. Phosphatidylcholine (lecithin) in part of the plasma membrane of mammalian cells also provides additional choline for acetylcholine synthesis. Methionine and inositol also are involved in neurotransmitter metabolism.
Studies have shown effectiveness in improving neurological function in pets with cognitive disorder (often referred to incorrectly as “senility” in older pets). For those pets who respond favorably, Cholodin, given at one to two pills daily for a small dog or cat, and two to four pills given daily for a large dog, can be used in place of the drug Anipryl (selegiline) which has been approved for use in canine cognitive disorder.
Lecithin is believed to be generally safe. However, some people taking high dosages (several grams daily) experience minor but annoying side effects, such as abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, and nausea. Maximum safe dosages for young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with sever liver or kidney diseases have not been determined; the same precautions are probably warranted in pets.
The conventional therapy for cognitive disorder is a medication called Anipryl (selegiline, also called l-deprenyl), which has a complex set of mechanisms of action. It appears to work by increasing dopamine neurotransmitter levels in the brain via its inhibition of the enzyme monoamine oxidase- B (MAO-B). It should not be used in pets receiving opioid medications, amitraz (Mitaban, a commonly used dip for pets with mange), other antidepressants (tricyclics such as amitriptyline and SSRI’s such as fluoxetine (Prozac), and ephedrine. Side effects include vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, restlessness, lethargy, salivation, and trembling. Owners must use the product for at least 30 to 60 days to assess the effectiveness of Anipryl in treating dogs with cognitive disorder. The drug is not approved for use in cats at this time. For dogs with hypothyroidism as the cause of their cognitive disorder, thyroid supplementation is prescribed.
Cognitive Disorder (Senility)
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Shawn Messonnier, DVM
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Shawn Messonnier DVM Past Supporting Member, Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians Author, the award-winning The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and Breast Choices for the Best Chances: Your Breasts, Your Life, and How YOU Can Win The Battle!
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