Dogs with an AARF Card, Growing Old With Grace: Old Dogs Should Learn New Tricks

Originally published in November 2014.

This month’s “Helping People Help Their Pets” column features an interview with Gary Landsberg, BSc, DVM, Dipl ACVB, DECAWBM, a leader in the field of veterinary behavior and author of the chapter “Dogs with an AARF Card: Growing Old With Grace” from “Decoding Your Dog,” a new book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on dog behavior.

Can you tell us how you decided to become a veterinarian, and a veterinary behaviorist?

Gary Landsberg and pepper

Gary Landsberg BSc, DVM, Dipl ACVB, DECAWBM and Pepper, his 5 month old female Havanese.

I was fortunate that when I graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in 1976, we had one of only a few curriculums that included companion animal behavior.  Our professor Dr. Don McKeown estimated at the time that behavior was 5% of a veterinarian’s caseload but 20% of his or her time.  Shortly after graduation, I purchased a companion animal hospital and quickly learned that this was true.  In addition behavior was a major source of pet owner frustration, a weakened bond, and an all too frequent cause of relinquishment or euthanasia.  Therefore, by reading every pet behavior text and article available (of which there were few), continuing education, and annual meetings with colleagues in veterinary behavior (many of whom became the founders of the ACVB), my expertise increased to a point where I soon began seeing referrals, speaking, appearing in the media, and even co-authoring a behavior text of my own.

As dogs age, what physical and behavioral signs should pet owners look for and report to their veterinarian?

Owners should immediately report to their veterinarian any change in health or behavior.  Physical signs that are increasingly common with age include altered mobility or lameness, increased urination and drinking, increased or decreased appetite, lethargy, tumors, or mouth odor.  Behavioral signs might include any change from normal behavior including decreased interest in social interactions, aggression, irritability, increased “clinginess”, decreased responsiveness to stimuli, repetitive behaviors such as circling or pacing, restlessness, confusion, and house soiling.

You readily note that physical problems also induce behavioral issues. How important is it to distinguish between the two to help dogs age more beneficially?

Medical issues may cause or contribute to behavioral signs.  In fact the first or only sign of many health problems including pain, loss of sight or hearing, urinary tract disease, endocrine disorder or cognitive dysfunction might be a change in behavior.  Therefore, the only way to diagnose a behavioral problem is to rule out all possible physical problems that might cause the signs through physical examination and any necessary diagnostics.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) often affects senior pets much as Alzheimer’s Disease takes its toll on many aging humans. How do these diseases compare and differ between dogs and people?

CDS in dogs is described as closely modelling that of early Alzheimer’s disease(AD) in humans.  This means that diagnostic tests and treatments that prove to be effective for dogs might benefit humans and human research might benefit dogs.  As in AD, in CDS there may be an increase in free radicals, decreased cerebral flood flow, neuron loss and an increase in beta-amyloid.  Behaviorally many of the same signs are seen in dogs and humans including a change in social interactions, confusion, waking at night and a decline in memory and learning ability.

The warnings signs of CDS in dogs go by the acronym DISHA. Can you explain this to our readers and perhaps point out the most significant and troubling signs?

-D: disorientation

-I: changes in social interaction

-S: changes in sleep-wake cycles

-H: house soiling

-A: changes in activity levels

In addition there may be increased anxiety and a loss of previously learned behaviors.  Owners are most likely to be troubled when these signs affect both the pet’s quality of life and their own such as with night waking, house soiling, anxiety, or how the pet socially interacts with family members or other pets.

We find it startling that only 1 in 10 (12%) of pet owners report signs of CDS to their veterinarian. Why do you think this occurs and what more can the veterinary community do to encourage pet owners to be more vigilant?

The signs may be mild enough or not sufficiently troublesome for owners to report.  Some owners might feel that these changes are a natural consequence of aging or that there is no available treatment. Therefore owners must be made aware that any emerging problems could be indicative of underlying health problems for which prompt and early treatment would be most effective.  In addition twice yearly examinations with blood and urine screening can help to identify problems even before outward signs become evident.

What recommendations would you give to pet owners in seeking answers and treatment options for behavioral issues in senior pets? When would you suggest pet owners visit a veterinary behaviorist?

First and foremost owners should report any change in health or behavior no matter how subtle to their veterinarian.  Most health and behavioral issues can be addressed by your family veterinarian.  However, behavior problems that are intense or that persist after initial treatment such as fears, phobias, anxiety, night waking, or house soiling should be referred to a veterinary behaviorist.

Your look at dogs growing old with grace debunks the old saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Enrichment is a big part of this. What “tricks” can help pet owners slow the aging process and correct the associated behavioral issues?

Optimal health can be maintained by keeping the body and mind stimulated and enriched.  However, it is essential to work within the physical and mental limitations of your senior pet.  Enrichment should be physical, mental and social including exercise, reward based training, and play with family members and other pets, and object play with chew toys, and food and treats hidden or stuffed into the toys for searching and manipulation.  Get guidance from your veterinarian as to what your pet can do and what to avoid so that you can make modifications that allow you to continue to provide adequate enrichment.

Your experience with Grace, your beloved Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, is both heartwarming and informative. You no doubt learned a lot along the way. What does the future hold in finding more ways to diagnose and treat behavioral and medical issues to help more dogs such as Grace extend their days living happier, healthier lives?

Veterinary medicine is likely to closely parallel human medicine in that advances and research to improve physical health, brain health and longevity in humans should also benefit pets while what we learn about health and aging in dogs can also benefit humans.  Advances in diagnostics, both in equipment and in identifying early markers of disease, would allow for earlier intervention to prevent, slow the progress, or better manage disease and discomfort.  In addition, research continues into finding new therapeutic options for the prevention and treatment of pain, disease, and brain health, and for assessing their efficacy.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

A number of diets, drugs and supplements are currently available or in development that might improve cognitive function or prevent and slow cognitive decline. Ask your veterinarian what’s best for your pet.  In addition, maintaining and improving brain health and improving cognitive function starts with the control and treatment of underlying health issues, managing or minimizing pain, maintaining physical and mental enrichment through play, training and exercise. If you notice behavioral changes in your aging pet, even if mild or subtle, see your veterinarian and if problems persist or progress, referral to a specialist might then be an option.


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The information provided in the Goodnewsforpets ACVB Helping People Help Their Pets columns is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the services of a veterinary behaviorist. The information should also not be construed as a recommendation by the ACVB or for any course of action regarding veterinary medical or behavioral advice. The editors, authors and publisher disclaim any responsibility for adverse effects resulting directly or indirectly from information in this column.


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