With advances in veterinary care and nutrition, dogs are living longer than ever before. While this might be an exciting prospect for pet parents, it also exposes our dogs to unique behavior problems with their increasing age. Much like people, senior dogs can suffer from age-related problems like dementia. Dementia in dogs is better known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) and comes with a range of symptoms. These symptoms range from mild to severe, but are always progressive and tend to worsen over time.
Because of this, it’s essential to catch dog dementia early to slow its progress. But what treatment options are there? And what are the main signs of CCD? How exactly can you help a dog who has dementia? To find out more about this progressive condition, read on with us.
What is Dementia in Dogs?
Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is a neurobehavioral syndrome in senior dogs. Some people call this “dog dementia” because of its similarity to human forms of dementia. Many cases of CCD go undiagnosed, so research estimates that its prevalence is anywhere between 14% and 60% in dogs over eight years old. This is partly because CCD varies in severity – while some dogs have milder symptoms, others experience extreme confusion and distress. The milder cases often go unseen by a vet until the dog has other health problems that bring them to the clinic.
But no matter how mild or severe, it’s important that your dog gets veterinary help early on. CCD is a progressive disease, so slowing it as soon as possible can help you and your pup to spend more quality time together. Although CCD is not curable, there are several options available to help your pooch get the best out of their senior years.
Four Forms of Dog Dementia
According to Dr. Leticia Fanucci, a veterinary behaviorist with the Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, there are four main types of CCD. These are involutive depression, dysthymia, hyper-aggression, and confusional syndrome. If your senior dog begins displaying symptoms from any of these categories, it’s important to take them to the vet right away. Each of these symptoms can occur due to physical health problems, too, so ruling these out first is very important.
Some research suggests that senior dogs are prone to something called involutive depression. Involutive depression is similar to chronic depression in people, and it may occur due to untreated anxieties. The classic signs of this condition are soiling in the house, anxious behavior, and seeking hiding places in the house. Dogs with involutive depression interact less, or less intensely, with their owners, suggesting a loss of social skills. Socially, these dogs appear to lose their ability to interact with other dogs. This form of depression is often accompanied by anxiety. One study notes that working dogs, particularly military and hunting dogs, fall into involutive depression with seniority. However, there is not much information about this side of involutive depression, and studies on the condition itself are currently lacking. It’s important to seek veterinary advice if your dog seems to be developing involutive depression.
Problems with depression can arise if your dog is in pain, and an underlying medical condition may be to blame. Your dog might become reclusive and unwilling to interact with others if it hurts to move and play. Make sure that you rule out problems like osteoarthritis with your vet!
Dysthymia in dogs is not the same as dysthymia in humans. In people, dysthymia refers to a chronic form of depression that is also known as persistent depressive disorder. In dogs, dysthymia refers to an apparent loss of awareness of body size. According to Leticia Fanucchi, dysthymia may cause confusion, disorientation, and lack of self-awareness. Dogs with dysthymia often get stuck behind furniture or in corners and struggle to figure out how to back up or walk around objects. Other symptoms associated with dysthymia appear to include growling, whining, and aggression, most likely due to confusion and distress.
It’s important that you take your pooch to the vet if they show signs of dysthymia, as problems with eyesight and brain tumors can cause confusion that might resemble it. If your dog is losing their eyesight, they might struggle to navigate your home. Similarly, brain tumors can cause confusion and pacing that may resemble the dysthymia seen in CCD.
Some senior dogs struggle with “hyper-aggression”. Some senior dogs will become irritable and have a bad temper, refusing to tolerate other dogs or perhaps even affection from their owners. Often, aggression in senior dogs occurs due to anxiety and fear. Anxiety is a key symptom of dog dementia, and if your dog doesn’t feel safe and secure, they might act out in self-defense.
Aggression in senior dogs is not always the result of CCD. It can also develop because of pain or discomfort, which can arise with age-related health problems like arthritis. Your dog might also develop aggressive behaviors if they are losing their senses, like sight and hearing. Loss of these senses can cause confusion, a lack of confidence, and a feeling of vulnerability.
Confusional syndrome refers to the confusion that your dog experiences with CDD. Your dog may get lost in familiar places, bark for seemingly no reason, and become unresponsive to your calls without deafness. With age, your dog may become unable to process what you are saying, or may be confused about their name when you call it. They might stand on the wrong side of a door, waiting for it to open. Barking can become excessive, as dogs with CCD may be confused and anxious, especially at night. Your dog’s sleep cycle may reverse, leading to sleeping during the day and active and confused during the night.
Make sure to rule out other problems like deafness with your vet. If your dog is losing their hearing, they may bark loudly as they cannot hear how loud they are! They might also become unresponsive to your calls and struggle to understand your commands.
Symptoms of Canine Dementia
The symptoms of CCD include:
- Staring blankly at walls or floor
- Getting stuck behind objects
- Walking into walls or doors
- Avoiding being patted
- Having difficulty finding food on the floor
- Failing to recognize familiar people
- Accidents in the house
Other symptoms of CCD include changes in gait and posture, sleep-wake alterations, appetite changes, wandering at night, and excessive barking. Overall, your dog may appear more anxious and prone to confusion than they were before. However, not all dogs show all of these symptoms. Some dogs display one or two, while others display several. Regardless of how many symptoms your pooch shows, make sure to check in with your vet early.
There is no miracle cure for CCD in dogs, but its progression can be slowed with veterinary help. Your vet can recommend the best diet, medication, and supplements for your furry friend’s symptoms. No two dogs experience CDD in the same way, so it’s important to tailor their treatment to their specific needs!
The first stage of treatment for CCD in dogs is a dietary change. Most vets will recommend a prescription diet that’s rich in antioxidants like vitamins C and E. This is because antioxidants help to reduce oxidative damage to the brain, which is susceptible to oxidative stress. One specific diet, Canine b/dTM (Hills), is shown to improve age-related behavioral changes in older dogs because of its anti-oxidant package. This diet also contains beta carotene, selenium, flavonoids, carotenoids, and L-carnitine to enhance cell function. It also has high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. So, if your dog shows signs of CCD, ask your vet about the best diet for their symptoms.
To date, there is only one FDA-approved medication for CDD in dogs. This drug is Anipryl, or Selegiline. Anipryl is an “irreversible monoamine oxidase inhibitor”, which, in short, means that it increases dopamine production in your dog’s brain. It also enhances neuron activity in the brain. Because of these effects, Anipryl can help to control the signs of CDD and pituitary-dependent hyperadrenocorticism in dogs. The manufacturer recommends a dose of 0.5mg/kg once per day in the morning. After four weeks, the dose increases to 1.0mg/kg once per day. If the drug works for your dog, it can take four to six weeks for improvement to become obvious. This medication can be given with food and is available in multiple-dose sizes, but cannot be given alongside antidepressants. The most common side effects of the drug are vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, and restlessness.
Certain antidepressants are sometimes given to manage the anxiety and depression that comes with dementia in dogs. These are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Your vet may prescribe fluoxetine (Prozac) or sertraline (Zoloft) to help your dog with their anxiety and aggression. However, these medications do not treat the underlying cause for your dog’s CCD, and other symptoms like confusion may persist. If your dog’s anxiety and aggression are a concern, consider talking to your vet about antidepressants for your dog. Do not try to give your dog antidepressants without a veterinary prescription. Only your vet can tell you the best dose for your dog, and certain antidepressants will interact with other medications that your pet is already taking.
There are several supplements that might slow the progression of CCD in dogs. One such supplement is Novifit. Novifit contains a form of S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe), which supports brain and liver function. It helps cells to keep their structure and function and has anti-inflammatory effects that can help to detoxify cells. The way that it helps CCD is not fully understood yet, but it may work by increasing serotonin turnover, thus increasing dopamine levels in the brain. This can help to slow the progression of CCD, as it improves short and long-term memory, too. Talk to your vet about Novifit for dogs if you have concerns about your dog’s CCD.
Senilife is another supplement that appears to help with cognitive decline. This supplement contains vitamin E, pyridoxine, and phosphatidylserine. A study on the supplement found that it does indeed support memory performance in dogs in the study, younger dogs (between 7 and 10 years) improved more than older dogs (between 11 and 16 years). However, it’s also important to consider the weaknesses of current studies on Senilife, and it does not guarantee a miracle cure for your dog with CCD. Speak to your vet about your options.
The saying “use it or lose it” is often used by people when talking about preventing dementia. This adage seems to apply to dementia in dogs as well. In dogs, environmental enrichment is key! Keeping your pooch mentally stimulated through feeder toys, puzzle toys, agility, obedience training, and general exercise is crucial for their mental health. Make sure that your furry friend has opportunities to express their natural behaviors in a way that suits them – your high-energy working breed will benefit from dog sports like agility and flyball, or long, exciting hikes that allow them to use their energy.
Many dog behaviorists agree that some of the signs of CDD arise from untreated anxiety. For example, Fanucci theorizes that involutive depression as part of CDD stems from anxieties that were not properly addressed in the dog’s younger years. To prevent problems with anxiety, make sure that your pup socializes often and has plenty of outlets for their energy. Take extra care to socialize young puppies and be mindful of their fear periods, too.
As always, keep feeding your pooch the best quality diet you can get your paws on! While it may get tiring to hear, feeding your dog a high-quality, balanced diet is key to keeping them both physically and mentally healthy. Dogs with certain nutritional deficiencies are more likely to develop problems with depression and lethargy, which can worsen the signs of CDD in dogs.
Dog Dementia: FAQ
Have any more questions about dementia in dogs? Feel free to refer to our Frequently Asked Questions section for more details. If in doubt about your senior pup’s health, always ask your vet for advice.
The signs of CDD in dogs include difficult sleep, anxiety, excessive barking, pacing, disorientation, memory loss, and staring at walls. Other symptoms include getting “stuck” behind objects and accidents in the house. Dogs with CCD may appear confused by their own name, and may struggle to process commands. Some dogs become more aggressive because of their anxiety and depression. Others may become reclusive, no longer wanting to be around people or other dogs.
When considering euthanasia, the bottom line is to always consider your dog’s quality of life. Dementia in dogs in itself is not always a reason to put a dog to sleep – some dogs have milder symptoms that progress much slower than others. However, others struggle immensely with the condition, and their confusion and memory loss can be difficult for them to cope with. In either case, it’s important to consider your dog’s overall quality of life before coming to a decision. There are many resources that can help you to decide if your dog has a good quality of life – Journeys Home, Villalobos, and VIP Vet Visit offer charts to help you calculate this.
Some dogs with CCD experience a change in their sleep-wake cycles, leading them to be confused at night – but it is difficult to say if this causes them to suffer more or not. For some dogs, this confusion might be mild. For others, their confusion may be frightening and difficult to cope with. Dogs who go through this change often sleep through the day and wake up at night. When awake, they might wander aimlessly in the dark and bark a lot out of confusion. Although this might be frustrating, it’s crucial that you don’t punish or scold your pup for their behavior. Speak to your vet about medication and dietary changes that might help your pooch to get a better night’s sleep. Your vet may recommend melatonin to help to re-establish their normal sleep schedule.
Much like in people, dementia in dogs is a frightening and confusing thing to experience. As such, your role is to spend as much time with your pooch as possible. Offer them plenty of reassurance and comfort and always avoid showing frustration. Your dog may benefit from external stimulation, too, to keep the world available to them. This might involve short walks and rides in the car to keep them mentally active.
Some owners of dogs with CCD let their dogs sleep in their bed, if they didn’t do so already. This can help to comfort your dog, and gives you peace of mind that they are safe and not wandering in the house. If you find your dog wandering, always speak in a calm, positive voice. Do not show frustration or anger with your dog, as this will only worsen their anxiety and confusion. Gently encourage your dog back to their bed where possible. In some cases, your vet might recommend melatonin for your dog. This can help to calm them and re-establish a more normal sleep schedule.
Seeing your furry friend go through dog dementia or CCD isn’t easy. Luckily, with support from your vet, your pup may have a better quality of life despite their CCD. Consider dietary changes, medication, and supplements when asking your vet about dementia in dogs.