Dementia and Senility in Dogs

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

woman and dog
Hilary Brodey/E+/Getty Images

If your aging dog showing some curious behavior changes, you may wonder whether your pet is going senile or developing dementia. Senior dogs, like humans, experience changes in the brain that can affect memory and comprehension. Dementia and senility are broad terms used to describe these changes. In dogs, the disease is often called canine cognitive dysfunction or cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Unfortunately, it affects a fairly high number of senior dogs.

Signs of Dementia in Dogs

Similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans, dementia in dogs primarily affects memory, learning, and comprehension. The following are common signs of dementia in dogs:

  • General confusion or disorientation
  • Wandering and/or pacing
  • Restlessness, sleeplessness at night
  • Getting stuck in corners or small spaces
  • Acting dazed or staring off into space
  • Seeming to be lost in familiar places
  • Going to the wrong side of familiar doors
  • Becoming withdrawn; interacting less with familiar people and other pets
  • Forgetting housetraining; having "accidents" in areas where the dog never did before
  • Less enthusiastic about games, toys or foods that used to create excitement
  • Change in personality and temperament, such as uncharacteristic aggression for no reason
  • Not responding well to its name or to commands the dog once knew
  • Any other behaviors that are unusual for your dog

These signs often develop gradually and get worse over time. Of course, not all dogs with dementia will display the same signs. If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, be sure to see your veterinarian.

Be aware that the above symptoms may also be caused by various other medical problems. Any dog with these signs should be seen by a veterinarian to rule out other health issues such as blindness, deafnessurinary tract infectionkidney diseasearthritis, and more.

Causes of Dementia in Dogs

A definitive cause of dementia in dogs is not known. It is likely that brain function is affected by the physical and chemical changes that occur along with the aging process. Specifically, canine cognitive dysfunction is associated with the depletion of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, but what causes that depletion is unknown.

Because a precise cause is not known, it is difficult to discuss prevention. However, keeping your dog active and mentally stimulated is believed to help keep its mind sharp. You can do this by teaching fun tricks, playing games, exercising, and participating in various activities together.

Diagnosing Dementia in Dogs

If your dog is showing signs of senility or dementia, it is important that you visit your veterinarian for an examination and consultation. Your vet will go over your dog's history with you in great detail and conduct a thorough examination of your dog before reaching a diagnosis.

Vets often recommend some diagnostic tests to check for other health problems. These diagnostics typically include blood chemistry, complete blood count, and urinalysis. Other lab tests may be recommended. Your vet may even recommend diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays, CT scan, or MRI.

Once other health issues have been ruled out, your vet might determine that your dog has canine cognitive dysfunction or cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Your vet will then discuss various options with you. Although a diagnosis of dementia can be difficult to handle, be aware that this does not mean your dog's life is over. Many dogs can live a happy, healthy life for several years when given proper care and attention.

There is no cure for dementia in dogs. It is a progressive degenerative disease, meaning it will get worse over time. However, there are some things that can be done to make you and your dog more comfortable. Each dog is different. Your vet can help guide you through your choices so you can make informed decisions with your dog's best interest at heart. 

Treatment of Dementia in Dogs

There are not many medical treatments available for dementia in dogs. A prescription drug called Anipryl (selegiline, L-deprenyl) has been known to alleviate some symptoms of cognitive dysfunction in some dogs. This drug helps to prolong dopamine activity, something that is lacking in dogs with cognitive dysfunction. Anipryl is a tablet given orally once daily and is available by prescription only. This drug does not work for all dogs, but side effects are fortunately mild and uncommon.

Dietary Supplements for Dogs With Dementia

Vitamins and supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, SAMe, and melatonin have been known to improve cognitive function in some dogs.

Talk to your veterinarian for information about dosing and help to find the right kinds of supplements for your dog. There are also some other homeopathic treatments, herbal remedies, and nutritional supplements said to benefit dogs with cognitive dysfunction. One of these is called Neutricks, which is made from a calcium binding protein found in a specific species of jellyfish. There are many such supplements on the market, and results vary.

Chinese herbs may also be helpful for some dogs. Consult your vet about these options. You may also wish to find a vet who practices in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine and have a consultation.

Helping Your Dog With Dementia

There are several things you can do to improve your dog's environment, accommodating and keeping your pet comfortable as well as sharpening your dog's mind.

  • Develop a daily routine for feeding, exercise, and other activities. Stick to it.
  • Avoid rearranging your furniture or moving your dog's things. Keep clutter away from walkways and any areas where your dog spends time.
  • Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise. However, know your pet's limits and don't overdo it.
  • Teach your dog some fun tricks. Play games like tug-of-war and fetch if you pet is physically up for it.
  • Spend quality time together, strengthening the human-canine bond.
  • No matter what you are doing with your dog, go slowly and be patient. If your dog becomes frustrated, take a break. Try rewarding your pet with a treat and helping it get comfortable.
  • Above all, provide plenty of tender, loving care.

Your dog's dementia will progress. However, with a combination of the above options, you may be able to improve your dog's quality of life for a longer period of time. You can help keep your pet's golden years golden.