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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

McCallum: Canine Cognitive Disfunction

Mary McCallum
A younger version of commentator Mary McCallum's feisty terrier pauses at the summit during one of their mountain hikes.

When my aging terrier started slowing down last year, I took it in stride. She was twelve, and according to an online calculator, old enough to collect doggie Social Security. But just one year later, I knew she’d hiked her last Vermont mountain.Just as arthritis, dimming eyesight and a weak heart had taken their toll - mental disorientation had replaced her feisty energy with confusion and anxiety. That’s when I learned the phrase canine cognitive dysfunction – because with advanced age our pets pretty much get what we get: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, cavities, arthritis, kidney disease - and yes, dementia.

With my pup, it began with sudden startling, like leaping off her chair from a sound sleep to a full throttle run across the living room. It progressed to a lessening of confidence, an increasing need to be attached to me at the hip, and episodes of night terrors that lasted for hours. In humans with dementia, we call it sundowning: late day confusion, agitation and anxiety. In dogs it can include pacing, panting, barking and extreme restlessness.

A bestselling memoir, Dementia Reimagined, describes the gravity of a disease that may affect fifty percent of Americans who reach age eighty-five and threatens to bankrupt our health care system. Publishing is awash with titles that offer guidance and hope. And while there’s no cure, for humans or dogs, we seek ways to cope with the slow erasing of a once vibrant life.

In my work with elders, I witness the gaps caused by dementia. Some forget they’ve already eaten lunch, while others can’t recall the names of their children. At home my dog becomes terrified by her food dish; then minutes later, enthusiastically runs after her ball. It’s as if she occupies two worlds - one familiar, one frightening - mere moments apart.

Some say we learn about life from our dogs. They tether us to the present moment and bring out the best in us. They don’t sweat the small stuff. And even when its mind is going, an old dog may still somehow manage to find that ball again and chase it - in flat out joy.


Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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