Dementia in Dogs

Senior dog with dementia

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Like humans, older dogs can exhibit signs of senior dementia. Vocalizing (barking, growling, howling) for no reason or at all hours, appearing to get "lost" in familiar surroundings, and other personality changes may suggest dementia. While they may be some treatments that can slow the progression, dementia is not curable.

Also known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) or cognitive dysfunction syndrome, this condition affects a significant portion of the senior dog population. While there are actually four cognitive forms, the general understanding of canine cognitive dysfunction is an age-related neurobehavioral syndrome. It leads to a decline in cognitive function. This decline can vary in its timeline but can be devastating to the dog-human relationship and can require a lot of care.

Why Do Dogs Get CCD?

Canine cognitive dysfunction is caused by physical changes in the brain and its chemistry. Studies have determined that some older dogs develop brain lesions similar to those that are found in patients with Alzheimer's. As a result, you might observe a deterioration of how your dog learns, thinks, and remembers, and these behavioral changes can impact the lives of both you and your dog. A large percentage of dog's age 10 and older experience dementia, which includes a range of symptoms like confusion and disorientation.

Your dog may have canine dementia if it isn't acting like itself and displays some of the following behaviors:

  • Becomes lost in familiar places around the home or yard
  • Hesitates to take treats, eat, and drink
  • Gets trapped behind furniture or in room corners
  • Wants less of your attention and praise, and isn't interesting in playing
  • Stares at the wall or into space and is startled by the lights, television, sounds, etc.
  • Has trouble finding and using doors and stairways
  • Sleeps more during the day and less at night
  • Doesn't respond to its name or commands
  • Frequently has accidents in the house, even when taken to the bathroom outside
  • Is withdrawn and doesn't want to go for walks, play, or go outside
  • Has difficulty learning new commands or routes
  • Does not recognize or is startled by family members and toys
  • Paces or wanders aimlessly around the house
  • Trembles or shakes often while standing or lying down

Treatment

It is always important to have your pet evaluated by your veterinarian to rule out any medical causes first, as some diseases may cause similar signs or add to dementia behaviors. A treatment plan can be put in place by your vet and will often include behavioral management, environmental management, diet, and medication. The purpose of the treatment plan should be to both slow the diseases progress and improve (or maintain) the quality of life for both the dog and the owner.

Some examples of these could be to spend more time playing during sunlight hours, dog-proof the house (much like you would for a toddler), provide proper toileting care, including pads or even doggie diapers, and adding in antioxidants or feeding specialized senior care food to your dog.

Many dogs that are suffering from CCD will have some level of anxiety. It can be stressful if they wake and feel alone in the middle of the night or find themselves in the corner of the room and cannot remember how to get out of that spot. Managing anxiety can be dog specific, but could include soothing music, long walks, petting, or even aromatherapy.

Your veterinarian will also discuss prescription options for your dog. You can inquire about Anipryl, a drug used for some cases of dementia. Inform your vet about any dietary supplements your dog is taking before starting any prescriptions. Some may have negative interactions.

How to Prevent CCD

There is no way to prevent CCD in dogs. Medical research is constantly working on this condition as it affects so many dogs (and could have a medical impact on Alzheimer's cures). As your dog ages, maintain a healthy diet, an active lifestyle, and include mental and physical stimulation to help stave off CCD.

Diagnostic Process

Diagnosing CCD can be tricky. Each dog can and will exhibit their own distinct symptoms, which may come and go. Since the symptoms can vary and may not be present at all times, a proper diagnosis can be hard to determine. A vet will likely run a number of tests based on what symptoms seem to be displaying themselves. Then, if these tests reveal no other medical cause, the vet may diagnose CCD. There is no specific CCD test that can provide a definitive answer for pet owners.