Anyone who is as old as I am knows the feeling: “Now why the heck did I come into this room? I must have had a good reason.” At my age the memory pathways of the brain are becoming evermore brambled and foggy, and it doesn’t take much to confuse me. Whereas I once loved to be around big parties of folks, I’d just as soon be by myself now, and as much as I love them all, after a while it can actually get to be a mite irritating to have bunches of grandkids running around. As a result, I am cranky and sometimes even bellicose.
I know exactly how my old dog Rufus felt during the last years of his life; I’m going through the same process. As an old guy, Rufus was often confused. There were times when he seemed to be “lost” in his own house or confused as to where he was and what he was doing on our daily walks across the prairie. Sometimes it was difficult to tell how much his failing eyesight and hearing were contributors, but he often looked as if he didn’t understand us when we asked him to obey simple obedience commands such as “come” or “sit.” Some nights he would wake us up in the middle of the night, whining as if he didn’t know where he was. As a pup, Rufus loved all kids, but as he aged, any loud congregation of little ones quickly drained his patience. He became more and more of a loner, and toward the end, this loving soul actually got to be a bit cranky.
Rufus was simply showing the symptoms many pets have as they age, symptoms that are common enough they have earned their place in our “doctor-talk” lexicon: Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome or more simply the “Dimming Mind Syndrome” or “old-age dementia.” (Some folks refer to the syndrome as Animal Alzheimer’s, although the processes are different in the way their pathology begins and progresses.)
More about aging
Aging is not an overnight event; it is a continuum beginning at conception and continuing throughout a pet’s lifetime. Aging is a natural part of the life cycle that is particularly hard on the brain, and there are several reasons for this.
As an animal’s body ages, many organ systems decrease in size—potentially 30 percent of an organ’s mass, including brain mass, may be lost in old age. And, some of the working units of the organ may lose their functional capacity or they may simply disappear. Examples of affected functional units include the kidney’s nephrons and the neurons of the brain.
The brain’s neuronal firing mechanism is slowed in old age. This may be due to a diminished supply of necessary biochemicals, to fewer connections between neurons, or to some other “slowing” mechanism. Whatever the cause, we can expect an old pet to respond to stimuli slower and to take more time to reason things through.
For its size, the brain requires a disproportionate amount of energy (and thus oxygen). Any decrease in blood supply to the brain (anything that causes a decrease in cardiac function, for example) will diminish the brain’s ability to function. The brain is super-sensitive to toxins. Not only are brain cells easily damaged by a variety of toxins, but many toxins also tend to accumulate in the fatty tissues of the brain. Nerve cells are extremely slow to regenerate once they’ve been damaged or lost. In addition to toxins, the brain cells that are not used may become non-functional.
Free radicals, intermediate oxygen states that develop during chemical reactions within the body, are toxic to cells and speed cellular death. An aging system has less capacity to produce the antioxidants that help remove or detoxify free radicals. As we age, there is a tendency for us (man and beast) to become more and more attached to the couch. The more couch-potato we become, the less we exercise, the less oxygen is supplied to the brain, the poorer our detoxifying and toxin-elimination systems work—and in short, the faster we age. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to slow the aging process’s progress and to enhance the quality of your pet’s final years.
Steps for slowing the aging process
While we will never be able to halt life’s inexorable progress of aging, we can certainly slow the process, and we can definitely enhance our pets’ quality of life in his/her waning years. These should be our objectives:
Step 1: Improving on life’s realities. Realize that many of the changes of aging are inevitable. Be ready and willing to accept some natural decrease in functional ability of your pet’s mind and body. Be patient. Understand that your pet may not be able to respond (either physically or mentally) to our commands as quickly as we might like. Be willing to calm and soothe your pet whenever he or she seems to be confused or “lost.” Herbal nervines and calmers such as oats (Avena sativa) or chamomile (Matricaria recutita) can be helpful.
Step 2: Use it or lose it. Exercise is every bit as important now as it was when your pet was a youngster—even though your pet may not always act as if he agrees with you. Exercise keeps the blood and oxygen flowing through the brain, keeps a pet’s arteries healthily pliable, helps maintain joint flexibility, and strengthens bones. Most of all, exercise keeps the fat off—fat that acts as a retention sewer for toxins. However, there are some adaptations we should make for the aging pet. Instead of one long daily walk, break it down into several shorter walks. Make the daily exercise a time of playful sauntering—there’s no reason to test an old pet’s athletic ability. Be observant of the weather. Old animals can’t respond as well to either cold or heat. Finally, be sure your pet has plenty of water, and offer food several times a day.
Step 3: Proper nourishment. Now, more than ever, it is important to provide top-quality nutrition. Also, be sure you are not feeding potential toxins such as synthetic preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, food byproducts that are not fit for human consumption, etc. (These are often found in commercial foods, even those that tout some fancy mix of herbs and/or other supplement meant to be beneficial for older pets.)
Step 4: Physical exams. Complete physical exams become even more important as your pet ages. The idea is to screen for organ-related problems and catch them early on, at a time when we can actually do something about them. I recommend twice-annual exams for healthy dogs, soon after they have passed their seventh or eighth birthday. For at least one of these yearly exams I recommend a geriatric exam that includes: CBC (complete blood count), urinalysis, a series of blood chemistries, and possibly X-rays, an EKG, and any other tests that might be indicated. The geriatric exam is the perfect way to identify potential diseases as well as identifying specific organ systems that can be helped with herbs.
Step 5: Herbs for old guys and gals. First, a word of caution: Remember that most of an old pet’s organ systems have diminished functional capabilities. Thus, anything that goes into a pet’s body will take longer to be digested, absorbed, metabolized, and excreted—potentially creating a serious problem if the drug (or herb) has a history of adverse side effects. Even herbs can be a problem if they are used therapeutically (i.e. in high doses, concentrated in tinctures or capsules/pills). However, if herbs are used as they were meant to be used—in whole form, periodically added in small amounts to your pet’s food—they are incredibly safe, and even the old pets can benefit from their healing effects. If you must use herbal remedies in concentrated or extracted form (where one biochemical of the herb has been extracted from the entire herb), consult with a good herbalist for the potential of adverse side effects.
One of the keys to anti-aging is to counter the old body’s overproduction of free radicals with antioxidants. Vitamins C, E, and A and Coenzyme Q10 are examples of good antioxidants, but so too are many herbs. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) stimulates bile production by the liver and is a potent antioxidant. Green tea (Camellia sinensis) contains flavonoids and polyphenols, a type of flavonoid that may be a more powerful antioxidant than vitamins C or E. When you mix up a batch of tea, pour a little over your pet’s food.
Many culinary herbs also have strong antioxidant activity, herbs such as oregano (Origanum vulgare), basil (Ocimum basilicum), and thyme (Thymus vulgaris) Sprinkle these herbs on your pet’s food, and switch around until you find the ones that enhance your pet’s appetite.
Because many of the old body’s organ systems have diminished function, and because this functional decrease may secondarily affect a pet’s brain, I recommend tonic herbs, used on an on/off basis. If your pet’s geriatric physical indicates a particular organ system under stress, use the tonic herbs that apply to that organ specifically. Herbs that apply here include:
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) as a general immune balancer
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) as a cardiovascular tonic to help aging hearts
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) to enhance the digestive system
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) for liver function
Nettles (Urtica dioica) as a gentle, whole-body tonic
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) to enhance liver and kidney function and as a diuretic
Sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.), as a male rejuvenator and immune-system enhancer
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), another male rejuvenator, especially good to help avoid prostatic hyperplasia
Herbs for healthy brain function
Finally, there are the brain-specific herbs—ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and gotu kola (Centella asiatica). Ginkgo is the primary anti-aging herb, and it acts on two major systems of the body: the nervous system and the cardiovascular system. Ginkgo has been shown to be effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and senile dementia. Ginkgo enhances both long-term and short-term memory in puppies and old critters alike. Ginkgo improves circulation and has good antioxidant activity. Studies also indicate that ginkgo is often effective as a treatment for age-related hearing loss, dizziness and vertigo, tinnitus (abnormal ringing in the ear), and age-related loss of vision.
Rosemary contains bioactive ingredients that help prevent the breakdown of the chemical acetylcholine in the brain. A deficiency in acetylcholine is believed to be a contributing factor to senility in general and Alzheimer’s disease in particular. Rosemary is also an important antioxidant. Gotu kola is a traditional herb of both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Its antioxidant activity protects against damage by free radicals, making it useful for stress-related disorders and memory problems.
Now, there are products on the market that claim to diminish the affects of “dimming mind syndrome,” and some veterinarians swear by them. I am still withholding judgment. Seems to me that the old herbal standbys that have withstood the test of thousands of years and perhaps millions of satisfied users have proven themselves both safe and efficacious—and those are my ultimate criteria for the overall merit of any treatment.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for ten years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri.
Information provided in “Pet corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.