“He’s just not himself”. This is what I’ve found myself repeating when referring to Itchy during the course of the last few months.
I know he’s getting older, I don’t expect him to last forever, but when he’s down, I’m down. Those of you who share your emotional and physical lives with pets will understand, it’s impossible to separate out feelings – if our animal companions are unhappy, poorly or out of sorts, we are too.
How do you tell when your dog is unwell?
Sensing that something isn’t right is often more to do with what’s ‘not’ than what ‘is’. The subtle nuances of their habits and behaviours which change, the flicker of a thought which questions why they are not acting ‘normal’. Then over a period, days or weeks, these observations and queries form a string of concern which soon morphs into sickening worry.
Given that dogs are able to understand a remarkable number of verbal words and phrases (more than 200), the fact that they can’t actually talk means that in times of trouble we’re left desperately, forensically analysing why they are not themselves. As the best friend of our pet, our ‘gut instinct/intuition’ is not to be underestimated, after all, intuition isn’t some kind of magical super sense, but rather a belief formed from intimate knowledge and experience over a period of time.
It was when I arrived back from a trip to Antarctica, during the second week in December, that I first remember noting that Itch was a bit off. He’d lost weight, but that in itself wasn’t too disconcerting because Linda, the devoted poodle nanny, tends to be a little stricter with treats and diet than I do. Both dogs are vaccinated and have regular health checks from the vet due to our regular travels so I was not unduly worried.
Although the weight loss didn’t ring any massive alarm bells things I became more troubled when Itchy started acting oddly. At night he’d wake up startled, like he’d had a nightmare, and start pacing as though wanting to go out for a wee. I’d dutifully give him access to the garden, he’d go out, run around, bark, bark some more, then return to bed. But instead of sleeping in until the next morning he’d pad around restlessly, sometimes panting. Then, just as I’d drifted off it would start all over again. Come morning, I’d awaken blurry-eyed and not exactly jumping for joy in anticipation of a day’s work with a ‘lack of sleep’ induced hangover. Itchy however, would be full of the joys of winter once out in the forest while I’d be scratching my head trying to fathom what on Earth was going on.
Over the festive period he continued to need letting out at night, but not consistently – sometimes he’d sleep through. But another anomaly in his regular behaviour pattern was that he was often conspicuous by his absence in the house during the day. My miniature black fluffy shadow was increasingly lying on a random chair in a next-door room rather than tripping me up or bugging me for cuddles. That was strange. He was begging less at meal times although his appetite didn’t wane to the extent that he went off his own food.
He was also a bit grouchier, but then he’s getting older and less tolerant and this change had been a theme of his behaviour for several months, if not longer.
Boxing Day night he was up and down like a yo-yo. A pile of vomit greeted us in the morning, and, coupled with the fact that we’d been ‘sleeping’ on an ever-deflating air bed and I had consumed significant quantities of red wine the previous night, the atmosphere was not exactly festive. On reflection about the gastric ejection (his not mine) I was inclined to put that down to the richer than usual array of food items Itch and Scratch had been showered with at my partners’ mum’s house.
However, there was one thing in particular which was beyond doubt and weighing heavily on my mind, Itchy was not gaining weight. Despite all the additional, luxury titbits he’d consumed over the past few weeks, I could feel he was not his usual weight. We had tested him for Diabetes last Autumn during Pet Diabetes Month and so I was not worried that this was behind the weight loss but enough was enough.
I booked him an appointment with Seadown Veterinary Group on New Year’s Eve. Soaking wet from a vile storm, he stood dripping on the scales: 10.3kg. He is usually around 11kg. We weighed Scratch to compare, he was 11.1kg. Now I was really worrying, they are usually the same, give or take a kg or two.
On examination, vet, Bob Bentley, said Itchy wasn’t underweight for his size and that a degree of muscle wastage commensurate with age could be to blame for the loss. Possibly, but I still felt uneasy. We scrutinized graphs of their weights over several years, it was definitely abnormal for his weight to be this low. Results from recent blood samples, taken during a dental procedure, were reviewed – nothing untoward there. Given the lack of clinical signs to accompany his case our immediate plan was to rule out as many possible causes for his predicament as possible. So, we left the clinic with a cocktail of pharmaceuticals with which to celebrate the arrival of 2016. Bob wanted to make sure that Itchy’s on-going back issues weren’t to blame for some of the restlessness so he prescribed an anti-inflammatory and Tramadol for pain relief. He was also put onto a course of antibiotics in case of a urinary tract/kidney type infection. To top it off, I also took away a wormer to give him and Scratchy, always a sensible precaution in cases of weight loss.
After the worming I kept my eye out but there were no signs of parasites in his poo. Despite the medications his overall disposition and odd behaviours refused to disappear and I wasn’t convinced he was getting any better. The symptoms were frustratingly subjective but I wasn’t alone in my belief that there was something wrong.
Unfortunately my domestic proximity to the boys was, by this time, coming to an abrupt close with a stint of working away from home so they went off to stay with Linda. Needless to say I continued fretting with no definitive diagnosis yet forthcoming. Linda’s text updates cited repeated incidences of disturbed sleep with Itchy getting her up, barking, several times a night. On some occasions she would find puddles of wee but he never seemed to want to go out and would run around gleefully with his toys. Weird. And worrying. And not made any less so by the fact that I had a very poor signal where I was based so communication was hard.
I asked my partner, Charlotte, to liaise with my expert veterinarian friend and MyPetonline contributor, Matt Brash, to seek his opinion on the matter. As ever, he was very helpful and said that aspects of Itchy’s behaviour were pointing towards senile dementia/canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). Like humans, the aging process naturally brings with it a decline in mental agility and function. One study of dogs between Itchy and Scratchy’s age band of 11-12 years found 28% to be suffering from mild CCD although cases are diagnosed from 8 years onwards. Itchy had exhibited the following symptoms of CCD: pacing and restlessness; sleeping more during the day and less at night; hanging out in odd places in the house; being slightly withdrawn and less attention–seeking; episodes of soiling in the house and occasional staring at walls. On the other hand, he was having no trouble recognising his name and everyday commands (well…aside from deliberately ignoring me); no signs of trembling; not getting lost or having trouble navigating in his surroundings.
Matt suggested starting him on a nutrient supplement which helps to guard against neurological damage (it contains antioxidants which neutralise free-radicals), it also stimulates nerve growth, reduces neural inflammation and increases cerebral blood flow while reducing dopamine levels. Evaluating any positive effect of the supplement would take at least a month though. Matt also advised splitting his meals into morning and early evening (previously I fed one meal in the evening) and said to get a urine sample to the vets.
While dropping off the sample at the vets, Linda took the opportunity to re-weigh Itchy and he’d put on 0.3kg, which was something. Since New Year he’d had two courses of antibiotics - his urine sample came back clear from infection so he was taken off them. We gradually omitted all other meds except the supplement and so far, on writing this blog, I’m tentatively glad to report that he’s doing okay – I’ve been home for just over a week and he’s been sleeping through the night and seems generally brighter. So, basically I’m none the wiser but of course I’m wondering if Matt’s thoughts about CCD are valid in Itchy’s case – or perhaps it’s still too early to tell. From what I’ve read up on the subject it’s really important that, even if you just suspect that your pet is starting to suffer from senile related disease, you provide an extra supportive environment and attitude towards him/her. Getting older is never easy and when you can’t talk it’s even harder and potentially more confusing so, with this in mind, I’m being ultra cautious to ensure my aging baby boy is not anxious. Stimulation is also important to slow down CCD so more toys, more cuddles and the rest…
I’m very lucky to have such a robust network, both locally and remotely, of veterinary support including via this website, helping me to do my best by the poodles. At times like these the value of that combined knowledge and care is crystallised.
Hopefully by my next blog there will have be no further relapses.