21 July 2011

Dementia Dog: My Introduction to Canine Alzheimer's

The first time I noticed a change in Henri (pronounced Henry, I’m not fancy about it) was after we had leashed up to go outside. Instead of standing, nose at the corner of door where he knew it would swing open and release him, he rushed to the hinge. His posture was the usual one, shaking with anticipation of what fun waited on the other side, but he had the layout backwards.

I figured it was just that we were at a new house and he hadn’t gotten his exits figured out yet. But similar actions continued. I noticed it next on doors that he had been using for a decade, like his crate and at my parent’s house. Then he started missing the door altogether, ending up in the closet or lost in a corner.

A few months later another new behavior began. Henri took up nighttime pacing. Instead of sleeping soundly, a talent he had always possessed in spades, he would wake up around 2 or 3 a.m. and pace from the door of my bedroom to the opposite wall. The patter of his paws on the carpet would wake me up too. If I turned on the light, it would startle him. He would see me in the suddenly lit room and react with excitement as though he had been looking for something and had finally stumbled upon it. Then he would settle down, at least for a few more hours.

By this point I was curious, but simply attributed my observations to the idea that Henri had never been an especially bright dog. He was getting older (I started noticing changes when he was 13), and maybe hearing and sight loss were making him disoriented. Then I heard a Fresh Air episode on National Public Radio where Terry Gross interviewed animal behaviorist Nicholas Dodman about his lastest collaborative book Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Healthy, Happy and Comfortable. One of the topics covered in Dodman’s book was Canine Alzheimer’s. He recommended an online test you could complete if you were suspicious of dementia in your dog.

I instantly pulled up the website and put Henri through the test. Although he didn’t get full marks, his newly acquired habits were all on the list. Symptoms like soiling the house hadn’t shown up…yet. The website recommended a medication such as Anipryl, similar to human treatment of Alzheimer’s, that would help to slow down the degenerative process and plaque buildup in his brain. But like all preventative treatments, it’s best to start early and Henri was pretty well on. A February 2011 article in USA Weekend Magazine recommends regular moderate exercise to help slow down the effects of canine dementia. So I have made it a priority to walk Henri a couple of times a day. For the time being, I feel better about this treatment than giving him a pill. I reasoned that until his appetite changed, something that has yet to happen, than he’s still the Henri I know and love.

I will mention here that since the day I got Henri over 10 years ago, he has only refused food of any kind once. That time he had gotten a hold of a couple pounds of pure deer fat the night before. To my relief, after he regurgitated the fat the following afternoon, he was back to his normal, voracious self. So while he may not always come when I call, partly because he can’t hear me and partly because he doesn’t always seem to remember his name, he still knows that I’m the keeper of the kibble.

Henri still requests time in my lap on occasion, but now that dementia is changing him, it’s more often that I seek him out. After hours at my computer, body stiff from inactivity and brain depleted from over-activity, I look for Henri. I usually find him on the cushion of the old chair that was once my grandfather’s. When I got it, the upholstery stank of cigars. Now it smells of dog as I’ve formally donated it to my aging, four-legged friend. His long body is curled in a tight ball and rumbles with snores. So not to disturb him I mimic his shape and curl around him. Wrapping my arm over him, I bury my hand under his warm chest and my nose in the nape of his neck. Breathing deeply I am comforted by his scent, sweet and nutty, just like always.

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