Canine Cognitive Dysfunction: Signs of Dementia In Dogs



Who has experienced the dog or cat wanting to go outside, come back in repeat, multiple times, before?

Whilst we all might laugh at memes such as this one, it often means that your pet may be suffering from canine cognitive dysfunction or dementia, which isn’t a laughing matter.

As our pets get older their interactions with us often change. Many can’t or refuse to go on walks, where once they enjoyed it. Some, like my old girl Pippa, may start to have accidents inside, become more vocal, or less obedient.
Many become less tolerant of being handled and may get snappy.

The interesting thing is that these changes aren’t necessarily due to ‘getting old’, but could actually be signs of dementia and early onset of canine cognitive dysfunction.

The sad thing is that many owners just tolerate these behaviours until they become too much.

When we are sick and tired of being woken during the night; sick of the monotonous bark that seems to go on and on for no apparent reason; sick of seeing our dog stare blindly at the wall; or can’t handle the constant pacing up and down all day and night…we then choose to euthanise our family pet. ????

What we have discovered, is that canine cognitive dysfunction can be slowed.  Read on to find out more.

What Is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

When behavioural problems occur in the older, geriatric dog and we can’t contribute these to a medical condition such as neoplasia or organ failure we call it canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome.  There are four main categories where we see the behavioural change:

  1. Disorientation
  2. Inappropriate urination and/or defecation
  3. Change in social interactions
  4. Change in sleeping patterns

Interestingly, in a survey of owners of aged dogs reported by Landsberg and Araujo (2005), 75% of dogs had at least one behavioural symptom indicative of cognitive dysfunction, yet only 12% of owners had reported the change in behaviour to their veterinarian.

Canine cognitive dysfunction is similar to the human Alzheimer’s Disease. Changes to the brain result in neural degeneration and synaptic dysfunction.  Amyloid plaques are often found in the brain and these sometimes predispose to micro bleeds that impair cognition.

How Do We Diagnose Dog Dementia

To make a diagnosis of canine cognitive dysfunction we first have to rule out many other diseases that could be causing your dog to act strangely.

Painful conditions such as arthritis or an ear infection might cause them to snap at you. Dog ear infections can also result in weird circling behaviour and posturing.

Urinary tract or kidney problems may result in them needing to urinate frequently or cause accidents when they can’t get outside quick enough.

Cataracts and other eye disorders, as well as hearing loss, can cause issues that can mimic dementia.

Lack of coordination could be a musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, neurological or a hormonal issue.

As you can see, diagnosis relies on a thorough history, physical exam, and often further testing that might include bloods and urine.

Management of Dog Dementia

Once a diagnosis of canine cognitive dysfunction has been ruled in we look at prevention to slow progression of the disease.

We can use natural treatments for dog dementia such as Omega 3 Fish Oils and anti-oxidants. There are special foods that contain high levels of these ingredients such as Hill’s B/D and Royal Canin Senior Consult Mature.

The vet only medication Selegiline has been shown to alleviate some symptoms of canine dysfunction.  It isn’t a cure, but it like the natural ingredients, it may slow the progression of the disease.  If your dog does show a response, then it is recommended that they continue this medication for the rest of their life.

Anti-anxiety drugs can also play a huge role in helping to relieve symptoms.  While they won’t slow progression of the disease, they may well improve the quality of your dog’s life. Your vet may recommend medications such as gabapentin (pain and anxiety), fluoxetine or trazodone (anxiety).

Most importantly, an active brain and body can slow progression of this disease.  Daily walks and learning new tricks keeps these pets young at heart.  Like us, if they don’t use it, they will lose it.

If your older pet is experiencing behaviour problems, talk to your veterinarian. There may be multiple ways to help your pet have a more happy and healthy life in their senior years.

Signs of Dementia In Dogs:  Symptoms

One of the best ways of working out whether your dog is showing signs of dementia is completing a questionnaire that then formulates a “risk profile” dependent on the answers.

We have a “signs of dementia” questionnaire that you can fill out to see if your dog is at risk, or is likely to have dementia. You can download it here:

The particular signs that we are looking for with a dog who might have dementia are:

  • Confusion or disorientation. The dog may get lost in his own backyard, or get trapped in corners or behind furniture.
  • Pacing and being awake all night, or a change in sleeping patterns.
  • Loss of housetraining abilities. A previously house-trained dog may not remember to signal to go outside, and may urinate or defecate where he normally would not.
  • Anxiety and increased irritability.
  • Increased vocalization.
  • Apathy.
  • Decreased activity level.
  • Decreased attentiveness or staring into space.
  • Not recognizing friends or family members.
  • Decreased ability to perform certain tasks (e.g., tricks) or respond to commands.

Final Words On Dementia In Dogs

Dementia in our pets whether cat or dog is heartbreaking for us. We do have to remember that sometimes the welfare of the pet is compromised also.

The decision to euthanise is a big one but having been through this experience myself with my pets, sometimes it is in the best interests for our pets and for us.

Please don’t ever think you are doing the wrong thing if you cannot cope with your pet’s change in behaviour.