Thanks to improved nutrition, better veterinary care, and safer home environments, household pets are living longer than ever. And like humans, as animals grow older, their brains undergo the normal structural and functional changes that accompany age -- all of which can alter memory and behavior.Senility is prevalent amongst older animals. As Kim Campbell Thornton from MSNBC notes, recent research has shown that nearly a third of 11- and 12-year-old dogs and two-thirds of 15- and 16-year-old dogs have significant cognitive impairment, which is commonly termed "cognitive dysfunction syndrome" (CDS). Thornton suggests helpful tips for pet owners, including how to spot signs of dementia (disorientation, altered sleep habits, etc) and how to cope (feeding pets a better diet, maintaining a routine, keeping pets stimulated through play and trick teaching, etc).As is the case with so-called "Alzheimer's disease" in humans, it is impossible for clinicians to make a definitive diagnosis of CDS in animals. As April Shattuck has written, CDS, like Alzheimer's, is considered a "diagnosis of exclusion," meaning that multiple other diagnoses -- such as pain, hearing loss, thyroid dysfunction, liver and kidney dysfunction, and incontinence, all of which can mimic cognitive dysfunction -- must first be ruled out. Therefore, it is advisable, Shattuck says, for aging pets to undergo a thorough veterinary exam to assess the various other diagnoses that may be treatable.
In terms of keeping pets vital in their dotage, it seems prudent to take the same approach we ourselves would and stay stimulated through play and training. Shattuck advises owners to practice hide-and-seek games with food, use food puzzles, teach new tricks or re-teach old tricks. Exercise, such as a short walk, is also helpful, as it can be stimulating improve circulation and vascular health, and help keep arthritic joints mobile.
Above all, we must realize as pet owners that our beloved companions will grow old and eventually pass on. There is a lot to be said for providing a dignified and comfortable ending for your pet and not over-extending their lives once quality of life has diminished.