Our pets are living longer – and developing aging issues common to humans

Yoda, a canine senior citizen with the physique of a greyhound and the face of a basenji, started behaving oddly a couple of years ago.

Every so often, he would loop aimlessly around the living room of his home in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Sacramento. He stared blankly at bare walls. For the first time in years, he was having accidents in the house. Yoda seemed to be acting a bit like an old man with Alzheimer’s disease, thought his owner, Sacramento lobbyist Jennifer Fearing.

A recent veterinary workup confirmed her suspicions. Yoda, nearing 15, is showing clear signs of canine cognitive dysfunction, the dog equivalent of dementia, according to behavioral and neurology specialists at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

Our pets are living longer, the result of new preventive vaccines, improved nutritional guidelines and state-of-the-art treatment for chronic diseases. Though life expectancy varies by breed and size, it’s not uncommon nowadays for dogs and cats to live 16 to 20 years. But with that longevity comes a new host of challenges. It turns out, elderly dogs and cats are prone to many of the same ailments associated with old age in humans, including heart disease, arthritis, dementia and cancer.

Research suggests that nearly 70 percent of dogs ages 15 years and older show symptoms of cognitive dysfunction, said Melissa Bain, a UC Davis veterinarian whose specialty is animal behavior. Those symptoms can be compared to “human signs of Alzheimer’s,” she said, including becoming lost in familiar places, getting “stuck in corners” of rooms and changes in bathroom habits. About half of cats 15 years and older have symptoms of cognitive decline, research shows.

Autopsies on the brains of older dogs and cats show changes similar to those that occur in humans with Alzheimer’s disease, including atrophy, a loss of neurons and evidence of “plaques” or calcification. These changes are not a natural part of aging, Bain said, and can cause confusion, detachment from human companions, memory loss and other symptoms related to mental function.

Diagnosing canine cognitive dysfunction often involves a process of elimination. A pet that stands still and stares blankly may be suffering a minor seizure rather than dementia. Pets that seem detached may simply be in pain. Changes in bathroom habits could be a sign of kidney disease.

Veterinarians need to rule out those possibilities and others before making a diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction, Bain said. A team of specialists at UC Davis spent more than two hours with Yoda before determining that his issues were likely a result of a decline in brain function.

As with Alzheimer’s disease, no cure exists for canine cognitive decline. But various studies suggest that a combination of diets rich in antioxidants, supplements including ginkgo biloba and coconut oil, and mental stimulation can give pets more quality time with their families.

“We can’t cure it, but we can do a good job of managing it,” Bain said. “We can try to slow the progression.”

Fearing is president of a consulting and lobbying firm that represents, among other organizations, the Humane Society of the United States. She brings Yoda to her downtown office every day so she can watch over him.

In an effort to stem Yoda’s symptoms, Fearing now feeds him a prescription “brain diet” and engages him several times a day with games that require him to work for his treats. At home, her hardwood floors are draped with rugs to help Yoda maintain traction. The home, which she shares with her husband, Jay Chamberlin, is scattered with toys. Yoda also receives regular treatments from a veterinary acupuncturist to relieve arthritic pain and stimulate brain function.

Last year, Americans spent more than $15 billion on veterinary care, according to the American Pet Products Association. Fearing is among those defraying the costs through pet insurance. The coverage, through Petplan, costs $833 annually, Fearing said. The plan has a $200 deductible, she said, and offers 90 percent reimbursement for the bulk of Yoda’s care.

Yoda is Fearing’s only dog, a rescue animal she has raised from a puppy. She described him as a “vulnerable, soulful” creature who “helps calm me down.”

“We’ve been together for a third of my life,” Fearing said. “We moved to Washington, D.C., and back together. We’ve had so many outdoor adventures,” including hikes, camping and kayak rides.

Fearing’s biggest worry, she said, is waiting too long to decide when to let Yoda go.

Eileen Anderson, a dog blogger and author of a new book about canine dementia, recommends that pet owners use a scale developed by veterinarian Alice Villalobos to determine an aging pet’s quality of life. The scale lists seven criteria, including the animal’s hunger and pain levels and hygiene habits, and suggests pet owners rank each on a scale of 1 to 10. When the pet suffers “more bad days than good,” Villalobos says, it is probably best to humanely put the animal to death.

Anderson’s book, “Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction,” is dedicated to her late rat terrier Cricket, who had the condition and died in 2013 at age 15. In the depth of her illness, Cricket became hopelessly confused, even in her own house, lost her house-training skills and had to be encouraged to eat and drink. A prescription drug typically prescribed to humans seemed to make her less anxious, but other symptoms continued until she suffered a major seizure that led Anderson to put her down.

“I knew it was time,” Anderson said. “You’re never ready to make the decision to let your pet go, but at some point it’s the right thing to do.”

Fearing’s first clue that something was wrong with Yoda was about two years ago, when he stopped sleeping on her bed and “seemed to want to be on his own,” she said. Soon, other symptoms began to surface.

“I felt like I was observing signs of dementia,” Fearing said. “When I Googled it, I was shocked at how many of the things Yoda was doing were on the list.”

Fearing has approached Yoda’s diagnosis with a determination to do everything she can to keep him healthy and engaged during the time he has left.

On a recent day at home, amid Fearing’s praises, Yoda used his snout to retrieve treats hidden inside toys that lay across the living-room floor. Three medications prescribed by UC Davis veterinarians, plus an array of vitamins and other supplements, were arranged in the laundry room. Fearing smiled as Yoda briefly sat in her lap.

In her custom version of a quality-of-life scale, Fearing meticulously tracks Yoda’s daily activities and logs them on a spreadsheet, assigning each a number from 1 to 5. A “great day” might include his eating both meals enthusiastically, completing at least two puzzles, riding calmly in the car and playing with dog friends Mikey, Greta and Jetta. A “bad day” might include refusing a walk, defecating in the house more than once, refusing Greenie treats, and crying and whimpering several times.

The scale, said Fearing, gives her tangible tools for assessing what is best for her beloved companion, and ultimately for deciding when it is time say goodbye.

“I’ve always loved my little guy with all my heart,” she said. “But I know my head needs to take the lead, for his sake.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert