What is Dog Dementia? How Do I Know if My Dog Has It?

What is Dementia?

The CDC defines dementia as, “The general term for the impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities”

This means that doing day to day things becomes difficult.  You may forget how to tie your shoes or use the remote to change the TV channel. For dogs, this could mean forgetting where the food dish is, or how to play fetch. They may not understand commands that they have been responding to since puppyhood or may act strangely.

Many are surprised that dogs are susceptible to developing dementia or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, but they do and it’s important to know how to identify it so that you can help your dog to feel safe and comfortable.

I am neither a veterinarian nor a medical professional. The information in this article has been researched and sourced at the end of the post if required. All safety and medical issues or questions regarding your pet’s health or symptoms should always be brought to the attention of your veterinarian for clarification, assessment, advice, and treatment.

As with humans, the cause of dementia in dogs is not clear.  Some think that it is caused by plaque build-up in the brain. Others feel it’s a result of a reduced amount of dopamine. Both cause communication between nerves in the brain to be blocked.

How common is it for Dogs to Develop Dementia?

Diagnosing dementia in dogs has become more common in recent years.  As we learn to properly care for our dogs, they are living longer and longer.  Signs of dementia are found in about half of dogs who are more than eleven years old, but symptoms may be discovered in dogs as young as nine.  Almost twenty percent more are diagnosed by the time they are fifteen.

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What are the Signs and Symptoms of Dog Dementia? 

You may not recognize the signs right away as they can be subtle and are often brushed off as other things.

Your dog may occasionally not react when you call his name.  He may not perform a trick or a command. You may notice that he has developed sleep issues or sometimes he may not want to eat. He may not want to play as often as he did before or may become a Velcro dog. Sometimes, in later stages you may find that he seems lost in his own house or yard, maybe unable to find his favorite bed. He may begin jumping up on furniture he was never allowed to be on or having accidents in the house.  You may find that he seems to be agitated or you may find him crying for what seems to be no reason at all.

German Shepherd laying down with her head on her paws looking sad.
Photo by: M. Shea

These symptoms don’t just happen overnight. One unusual situation here and one weird event there. They don’t seem to be connected. Sadly, in many cases we justify all of these symptoms as the actions of a dog being silly, having eaten something that disagrees with him, being rebellious, or just being a cranky old guy.

As the disease progresses and the symptoms become more frequent, it becomes apparent that there is something more going on and the dog is taken to the vet for an examination.

How is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Diagnosed?

Because there are no specific tests to diagnose dementia, it is basically done by process of elimination.  The vet will run a battery of tests to see if your dog’s urine, blood, or brain show any symptoms of another illness. A dog who is unable to see or hear could seem to be lost or disobedient, therefore a hearing and vision test will be done.  Accidents in the house could be brought on by a urinary tract infection or kidney issues.  Bowel function will be analyzed for the same reason.  

If all of the test results for physical problems are normal, your vet will ask questions pertaining to your dog’s history and current behavior.  The results of the physical and questionnaire will help the vet conclude that your dog has dementia.

Are There Any Medications to Cure or Manage Dog Dementia?

While there is no cure for dementia, there are medications available to manage some of the symptoms.  

Selegiline is a drug used in an attempt to help with cognitive function.  According to VCA animal hospital, “its effectiveness has not been proven.”

To assist with a dog who is agitated, crying, or showing any other symptoms of stress or anxiety, the vet might prescribe medication to help calm your dog.

Can Games or Activities Prevent Dementia in Dogs?

Golden Retriever staring off into the distance while standing in the park.
Photo by: M. Shea

Keeping your dog busy and active keeps his brain sharp.  Similar to exercising his body, making sure your dog’s brain is well exercised will help to maintain its function.  

Here is an article that will provide you with ideas for stimulating your dog’s brain in order to help prevent or slow down the progression of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

Exercising Your Dog’s Brain

How Can You Help Your Dog to Live Comfortably if He Has Dementia?

Some of the other things you can do to help your dog live more comfortably is to be sure to keep things in his life very familiar.  This includes sticking to a strict routine, so he knows what to expect.  What seems like a minor deviation from your daily routine can wreak havoc on a dog with cognitive issues. 

Your dog’s physical surroundings are a source of familiarity, and therefor provides comfort for a dog who can easily become disoriented.  It is important not to move or change furniture.  Changing houses or traveling with your pup could cause increased stress and emotional strain leading to more confusion and disorientation.  The more things stay the same, the more content and self sufficient your dog will be.

Most of all, be patient.  Living with a dog with dementia is frustrating for everyone, but mostly for your doggo. If you become stressed or impatient, he will sense it. He is the same loyal friend you have loved since puppyhood, and he needs you now more than ever.

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