Dementia and Senility in Dogs

woman and dog
Hilary Brodey/E+/Getty Images

Aging dogs can show curious behavior changes—confusion, irritability, and disorientation. Let's face it, getting old is for the birds. But senior dogs, just like humans, can experience changes in the brain that affect memory and comprehension, leading to senility and dementia. The symptoms of doggie old age can develop slowly or come on quickly due to a stressful event. So, don't just write it off if Fluffy forgets her daily walking route. Canine cognitive dysfunction affects a fairly high number of senior dogs. Yet, with proper treatment and the alleviation of symptoms, your prized pet can be healthy and happy in its golden years.

Symptoms of Dementia in Dogs

Similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans, dementia in dogs primarily affects memory, learning, and comprehension. You may notice your dog siding up to the wrong side of a familiar door, acting dazed—staring off into space like "nobody's home"—or wandering and pacing about your house. This general confusion and disorientation can work its way into every aspect of your dog's life, like forgetting where its food bowls are or inexplicable accidents. Doggie dementia can even affect sleep patterns. If your dog seems restless at night, tossing and turning or standing "on guard," he could be experiencing a level of discomfort reserved specifically for old age. Other symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction can include a change in personality or temperament, lack of enthusiasm for games, and decreased interaction with loved ones.

These signs can develop gradually and get worse over time, but they can also be caused by various other medical problems. Any dog exhibiting signs of dementia should be seen by a veterinarian to rule out other health issues like blindness, deafnessurinary tract infectionkidney disease, and arthritis.

Causes of Dementia

A definitive cause of dementia in dogs is not quite known. Similar to human aging, it is likely that brain function is affected by the physical and chemical changes that occur along with a dog's aging process. Canine cognitive dysfunction is associated with the depletion of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, although the cause of the depletion is unknown. Other causes can be an accumulation of proteins or a build-up of plaque (similar to Alzheimer's).

Treatment

If your dog is showing signs of senility or dementia, visit your veterinarian for an examination and consultation. Your vet will go over your dog's health history and conduct a thorough examination before reaching a diagnosis. Diagnostic testing like blood work and urinalysis may be recommended to check for other health problems. Upon the findings, additional tests may be ordered like X-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI.

Once other health issues have been ruled out, your vet might determine that your dog has canine cognitive dysfunction. And while a diagnosis of dementia can be difficult to handle, many dogs go on to live a happy, healthy life 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. A prescription drug called Anipryl helps alleviate some symptoms of cognitive dysfunction in certain dogs. This drug works by prolonging dopamine activity in the brain. Anipryl is given orally, once daily, and does not work for all dogs, but the side effects are fortunately mild and uncommon.

Additional practices include developing a daily routine for feeding, exercise, and other activities. And stick to it. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise. This helps manage its level of anxiety. Soothing music and aromatherapy may work, too. Spend quality time together, strengthening the human-canine bond and don't leave your dog home for extended periods of time. Also, avoid rearranging your furniture, moving your dog's belongings, or making any other changes in its living environment.

Dietary Supplements for Dogs with Dementia

Vitamins and supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, SAMe, and melatonin have been shown to improve cognitive function in some dogs. Talk to your veterinarian for information about dosing and help finding the right supplements for your dog. There are also 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. Chinese herbs may also be helpful for some dogs. Consult a vet who practices traditional Chinese veterinary medicine and acupuncture for a consultation.

How to Prevent Dementia

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent dementia in dogs. But, keeping your dog active and mentally stimulated helps keep its mind sharp. Teach it fun tricks and games as a puppy—ones that challenge its brain and that it can play well into adulthood. Also, feed your dog a high-quality food, void of fillers, and maintain a good exercise routine.