Alzheimer's disease · Caregiver · Dogs

Lassie, get help! / December 2, 2006

As I write this I can hear my sweet, nearly-14-year-old collie Lily as she yips plaintively in the other room. There is nothing in particular the matter–she has begun doing this at various times of the day and night. We visited her vet this past Thursday and I asked her if dogs could suffer from dementia. She didn’t laugh when I asked her–it seems that there is a condition called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, often seen in geriatric dogs.

I enumerated the changes I’ve seen in Lily over the past couple of years: her housebreaking “skills” are on the wane, she will repeat certain pointless behaviors ad nauseum, and I am convinced that she is sundowning. The vet nodded and says she hears this frequently about older dogs.

I did a little research and came up with many articles like one found in the January 19, 2006, issue of Brain Research titled: “Cognitive disturbances in old dogs suffering from the canine counterpart of Alzheimer’s disease,” which states:

Due to advances in medicine and nutrition, pet dogs live substantially longer than a few decades ago. The majority of owners are, therefore, faced with the aging processes and veterinarians are increasingly confronted with the physical and mental consequences of old age. Currently, Alzheimer-like behavior occurs frequently in geriatric dogs (Landsberg and Ruehl, 1997). Some examples of this behavior are: being disorientated on walks, active incontinence, sleeping at day time but restless at night, trying to pass through narrow spaces

Last night was a fairly normal night. Despite the presence of a plush doggie bed (with memory-foam–I don’t even have memory-foam on MY bed) Lily will eventually circle and then suddenly drop on the hardwood floor beside my bed. I bought an egg-crate foam pad and made a cover for it, then put it where she usually sleeps, but she avoids that, too. Sometime around midnight she’ll begin her lament. I can hear her building up to it–emitting short breathy spasms that eventually become high-pitched yips. Sometimes I’ll just lean over and stroke her, which calms her down for a short while. Sometimes the sounds will be muffled, and I’ll look over the side of the bed to see only her tail and back paws. I must then get out of bed and pull her out from under it–I don’t know how she gets herself under there, she’s a 50-lb. dog–and she emerges wide-eyed and breathless. She skitters off, only to return and repeat the same circling-sleeping-yipping cycle.

Sometimes I hear the yipping from another part of the house, where Lily has trapped herself in a tight spot. Liz stayed over a couple of nights and reported that Lily managed to get stuck–three times–in the fireplace screen in the den. She got stuck in the bathroom last night–because of her arthritis she can no longer back up very well, and her turning radius was too wide for the space between the tub and sink. So she stood there and yipped until I came to the rescue.

I bought a sling at Petco which is a great help, not only in helping her to get up but also in guiding her along when we’re out in the backyard. I’ll take her out to relieve herself and she often has trouble finding the back door. So I grab the handles and steer her to her ramp, then lift her up and set her down on it. Our vet hasn’t found anything measurably wrong with Lily–I have full-panel bloodwork done on her every year, hoping to catch any ailment before it can cause her any pain. So far, only slightly elevated liver functions–which is normal for an elderly dog. And, of course, the arthritis.

Today I tried to remember what Lily was like as a younger dog. She has always been energetic and talkative. As a puppy she would often play by herself in the backyard, tossing her toys in the air and then tearing off with them, as if escaping an imaginary littermate. She has always been my watchdog, too, jumping up in a fury of barks at the slightest ground tremor, day or night. I think she was a little put off when I got the more-sedentary Dustin. Although he was the alpha dog, he let Lily do most of the guarding and greeting. If she got too assertive, he’d let her know by a stare or a bark, and then Lily would look at me and, with her eyes, say: Why? We were so happy before he came along.

And unlike Dustin, who was on medication for hypothyroidism, eczema and acid reflux (yes, I had to give him Pepcid AC everyday), Lily has rarely been sick. Her big adventure was a hyperextension of her left front paw, tearing the ligaments and requiring a joint fusion. I don’t know how she did that–at the time I had a broken foot, myself, and wasn’t able to walk her, so I let her out to play in the backyard in lieu of a walk. I later found her sitting quietly at the bottom of the steps, holding her left paw daintily in the air–a la Lassie. She went through three splints in her recovery and hasn’t had a problem since then.

So my collie girl may well have the same beta-amyloid plaques as my mother. I used to wonder if I was so attuned to dementia that I was seeing it everywhere: in myself, in my dog. But at least with Lily there seems to be justification. Like the dogs in the Brain Research study, she seems to have become a slightly bewildered shadow of her old self, literally bumping into closed doors and trying to squeeze herself into crevices. I’m off to rescue her right now. Somehow, when I got a collie I thought it would be the other way around…

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