From my ‘Crossing the headlines’ column in Dog World (8th August 2014).

We moved to Dorset five years ago and our neighbours were a wonderfully youthful and incredibly sprightly married couple of octogenarians. They would often put us to shame as they were always on the go and the husband would pedal a five-mile circuit of the neighbourhood most evenings.

Within a year however things began to slowly change. After a series of minor falls my neighbour decided to sell his beloved racing bike, “I think I’m obviously getting too old for all this cycling malarkey,” he joked and so he began to rely more and more on his trusted, and more stable, Nissan to get him around.

A slight tremor in his hands combined with increasing forgetfulness finally forced him to see the doctor and, after a series of tests, back came the dreaded news that he had Alzheimer’s. With his usual cheeriness and fortitude he refused to let such a depressing diagnosis get him down and he carried on with his gardening and using the safer option of the exercise bike in his conservatory. “You have to stay fit to beat this kind of thing,” he said.

Yet, despite his incredible bravery and resilience, Alzheimer’s quickly overtook him stopping him from driving and then stripping away his hobbies and interests before finally robbing him of the most precious thing of all, the thing that makes each of us who we are, his precious memories.

Devastating to watch

It is a wickedly cruel and terrible disease and it has been devastating to watch such a wonderful man literally waste away in front of our eyes and, aside from offering help to his ever-patient and intensely loyal wife, we’ve felt powerless to do anything.

Now, you may well be thinking, ‘Yes, that’s awful but, what has this to do with dogs?’

Well, unbeknown to me at the time, a canine ‘Alzheimer’s’ equivalent was unfolding in our kitchen. We moved here with two of our golden oldies, Molly, a Miniature Long-haired Dachshund, and Rosie, a Standard Wire. Both of them were incredibly active and loved the freedom that Dorset offered; in fact it seemed to give the ‘golden girls’ a whole new lease of life.

Molly was particularly youthful and, even when she was 11 and 12 years old, people would often mistake her for a five-year-old and were quite shocked when we, whispered, her true age!

Rosie lived for her two walks a day. Tail thrashing wildly, we’d set off in all weathers across the heath and through the thick pinewoods where she would scamper off on the delicious scent of a rabbit or roe deer.

Neither of them, aside from their inoculations, had ever needed the attention of a vet. So it was such a shock then when Molly took a sudden turn for the worse at the age of 14.

One morning she simply refused to come out of her bed and by noon she had died. Things happened so suddenly it left all of us in complete shock.

It was soon after Molly’s death that we began to notice changes in Rosie; she suddenly became quite despondent and lethargic. Initially we put this down to depression caused by the loss of her old companion and sparring partner but, as the weeks went by, we noticed some truly bizarre things.

Furious barking

Rosie had always been a relatively quiet, especially by Dachshund standards, and laid back kind of hound but suddenly she started this strange relentless barking. The sound of a rook or crow, the sounds of which had never before provoked a reaction, would now result in furious barking and nothing would stop her no matter what was done to calm and quieten her.

And then we noticed the skirting board being chewed–something she hadn’t done since leaving puppyhood far behind her, and even then she had never been a particularly destructive puppy, and this was combined with bed wetting. Every morning her bedding was completely soaked.

We took her to our vet who gave her a thorough examination–throughout which Rosie continuously barked furiously–and she announced that, although in superb bodily condition given her age, 14, it was her opinion that our old girl was suffering from cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS)–the main form of dementia found in animals. It’s a degenerative brain disease, remarkably similar to that of Alzheimer’s in humans.

I had simply put Rosie’s catalogue of problems down to ‘old age’ as, ignorantly, I had never heard or thought of dogs suffering from dementia. However, it appears to be a well-documented and sadly increasing problem and one that is now fortunately being discussed on internet forums and in the media.

In a recent article inFemail, July 28, Dr Jon Bowen, honorary lecturer in Small Animal Behaviour at the Royal Veterinary College said, “As with humans, areas of the brain stop working properly which leads to problems with learning, memory, social interaction and continence.”

Mr Bowen believes that, just as humans are increasingly suffering from dementia due to a rising life expectancy, our pets are also being stricken by this disease because they too are living longer than ever.

“Years ago we weren’t seeing pets live to 17 or 18 years of age and nowadays we do,” said Mr Bowen.

“Their brains aren’t evolved to live so long – they wear out.”

And it isn’t only dogs suffering from this horrendous disease the article claims that half of cats aged over 15 also suffer from dementia.

Fortunately for us, Rosie didn’t suffer the common problem of sleep disturbance, so often associated with CDS, where animals pace up and down, constantly and continuously, at night. Her problem was quite the opposite – she would sleep all night and most of the day. I decided that as long as she was more or less content then we would leave things as they were…we’d cope with the increasing incontinence and the bouts of barking and chewing and that is exactly what we did.

Shortly after her 15th birthday Rosie suddenly stopped eating. As anyone who knows Dachshunds will tell you eating is one of the breed’s biggest joys in life and that morning as I looked into her eyes, eyes that had previously been filled with so much expression, intelligence and love, they now simply bore a haunting, hollow emptiness and on top of that, she was by now just wasting away. Later that day we made the heartbreaking decision to finally let her go and bucketfuls of tears were shed.

Maybe I’d held on to her a little too long, for when life had dealt me a bad hand or things had completely fallen apart, Rosie and Molly had always been there for me and I felt I owed them and, probably selfishly, wanted to hold onto them for as long as I possibly could but, eventually, I realised that dignity and quality of life are the most important things – equally for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and for our dogs suffering cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

Read more on Dog World’s website http://www.dogworld.co.uk/product.php/119871/

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