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Dog dementia is progressive, meaning it worsens over time- usually over several years. It causes physical and behavioral changes in older dogs, such as confusion and anxiety.
Canine dementia can cause multiple changes in your dog’s personality and routine. Some dogs exhibit several symptoms, and others just show one or two.
Recognizing the symptoms of dog dementia early on in the disease is helpful because early treatment is generally much more effective and gives your pet a better quality of life for a longer time.
At what age does dementia start in dogs?
Every dog does not get dog dementia; however, it is one of the most common diseases in older animals. Dog dementia can start as early as nine years old.
One study found that 28% of dogs over 11 years old and 68% of dogs over 15 exhibited at least one symptom of dog dementia. Additionally, dogs 15 years old and older were more likely to show multiple signs of dementia. 1
What causes dog dementia?
Dog dementia is caused by the degeneration of cells in the brain called neurons. This process has yet to be fully known in dogs, and research is ongoing to understand further why the deterioration happens.
We do know that there is an excessive protein deposit called “beta-amyloid” in the brain, which causes neurons to malfunction, ultimately leading to the symptoms we see in dog dementia. This process is similar to Alzheimer’s in humans.
We do not yet understand how factors such as diet, exercise, weight, breed, and spayed/neutered status affect the probability of dogs developing dog dementia.
However, one study from 2022 did find that an active lifestyle was associated with a significantly less chance of having dog dementia compared to dogs with more sedentary lifestyles.
Symptoms of dementia in dogs
Dog dementia is an umbrella term that can include various symptoms. Some dogs with dementia may only show one of these signs, whereas others can show multiple.
Dogs can initially exhibit one symptom and then develop more over time. The most common symptoms of dog dementia include the following:
- Changes in sleeping schedule– Including waking up in the middle of the night to wander or pant. Your dog may also start to sleep more during the daytime. Change in the sleep-wake cycle is usually one of the initial symptoms of dog dementia that dog owners notice first.
- Using the bathroom in the house – Urinating and defecating in the house, even though your dog has been previously house trained.
- Disorientation– Confusion about where they are or what they are doing is common as the disease progresses. They may stare blankly off into the distance or get stuck in corners or in other locations they could previously easily navigate.
- Changes in Social Interactions – Keep an eye on your dog’s behavior. Irritability, aggression, or indifference towards people or animals your dog already knows. This may also include your dog isolating themselves more frequently and generally wanting less social interaction with other pets or other animals.
- New Anxieties- Your dog may start exhibiting signs of separation anxiety or anxiety around new situations or objects that previously didn’t bother them.
- Changes in Activity Level – This could include a decrease or increase in activity. Your dog may sleep more or spend more time pacing or wandering.
- Difficulty learning or recalling – Struggling to learn new tricks or commands and having difficulty remembering how to respond to commands they may have known for years is another symptom of age related cognitive decline or dog dementia.
How is dog dementia diagnosed
Veterinarians diagnose dog dementia based on the symptoms and clinical signs of dementia.
There are several medical and behavioral reasons for the signs of dog dementia, so it is important to rule these causes out before making a diagnosis of dementia.
Recommended tests may include blood work, urinalysis, and medical imaging.
Do-it-yourself assessments that you can perform at home are helpful for your veterinarian when discussing a possible diagnosis of dog dementia.
How is dog dementia treated?
There is not yet any specific medication used to treat dog dementia. Most treatment options aim at slowing the progression of disease and managing anxiety. Treatment recommendations for dementia in dogs vary from dog to dog but may include any of the following:
Supplements and nutrition
Senilife, SamE, and medium-chain triglycerides are commonly recommended brain healthy supplements.
There are also prescription senior dog food options for your dog’s diet that are rich in antioxidants specifically formulated for dogs with dementia that can be helpful (Hills b/d, Purina Neuro Care).
The most commonly prescribed medication for dog dementia is selegiline (Anipryl). Other prescribed medications aim to treat anxiety, such as fluoxetine or clomipramine.
Sleep aids such as trazodone and gabapentin can also be very helpful for dogs with changes to their sleep cycle.
Exercise and environmental enrichment
Regular exercise and activity, as well as interaction with toys or other kinds of play, including with other dogs, can help maintain cognitive function.
Keeping a schedule and reducing stress factors
A predictable routine helps many dogs with dementia and cognitive dysfunction by reducing anxiety. This could include keeping meals, bedtime, and exercise time the same daily.
Addressing pain or discomfort from other underlying diseases
Chronic disease and pain (such as arthritis) can worsen the symptoms of dementia in dogs. Ensuring these conditions are adequately addressed may help lessen the severity of your dog’s dementia symptoms.
Caring for an elderly dog can be challenging but also a very rewarding time. Discuss the best way to help your dog and his cognitive dysfunction with your veterinarian.
Your veterinarian is a valuable resource in guiding choices about your dog’s quality of life and end-of-life care.
If you are interested in helping further research related to senior dog aging, consider participating in the Dog Aging Project, a large-scale research study investigating different factors throughout a dog’s life with the ultimate goal of maximizing the dog’s lifespan.
The final stages of dog dementia and canine cognitive dysfunction vary from dog to dog but typically include multiple of the listed symptoms, and the symptoms tend to be more frequent and severe.
Dogs can live with canine dementia for many years. However, senior dogs with dementia can become very difficult to care for.
Ultimately, many pet parents may choose humane euthanasia when they feel their pet’s quality of life is no longer acceptable due to advanced canine cognitive dysfunction.
If your senior dog exhibits one or more of the above symptoms, dog dementia is a possible diagnosis.
However, discussing the signs of dog dementia that you are noticing with your veterinarian is essential to ensure no other medical cause for your dog’s symptoms.