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Can Dogs Get Dementia? Signs Explained

Canine dementia is a medical condition becoming increasingly recognized within the geriatric dog population. Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) or "dog dementia" is a slowing down of the brain and memory loss, leading to difficulty with day-to-day tasks and changes in a dog's behavior and/or personality. Many owners are unaware of CCD or uncertain of its signs. This article explores this condition in detail, equipping owners with the knowledge needed when they have a senior dog acting confused.

Understanding canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD)

CCD is akin to Alzheimer's disease in humans and affects the aging brain. Signs slowly progress and are only sometimes picked up on in the earlier stages. A dog's memory is affected, which affects how they act and their understanding of the world around them. Many patients deal with confusion and disorientation, which leads to new and unusual behaviors.

It is difficult to know exactly how many dogs are affected, but it is generally accepted that about three in 10 dogs entering the teenage years are showing signs, with this number increasing to around seven in 10 for those aged over 15. It is not uncommon for owners to dismiss signs as their dog "just getting old."

Recognizing the signs of dementia in dogs

If you've had your dog since puppyhood, you'll be fine-tuned to what is their "normal." If new signs start to emerge, you'll notice that something is not right. Some of the signs of dog dementia include:

  • Confusion
  • Trouble sleeping and a change in sleep cycles
  • Pacing and restlessness
  • Staring into space
  • Toileting indoors
  • Anxiety (which may mean whining for no obvious reason, being less social or worrying when left alone)
  • Not recognizing familiar people or walking routes
  • Repetitive behaviors (such as constantly asking for food, or to be let out)
  • Aggression
  • Barking for no obvious reason
  • Decreased willingness to interact socially
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Diagnosis of dog dementia

Importantly, dementia in dogs is not the cause of every behavioral change that happens in seniors. Other common ailments, including arthritis, urinary infections, hypothyroidism, and brain tumors, can potentially cause similar signs, so it is important that a dog is assessed and diagnosed by a veterinarian.

There is no specific test for canine dementia, as it is a "diagnosis of exclusion." This means if the vet rules out other suspected medical disorders and the signs point to dementia, they will then make a diagnosis. Your vet will examine your dog and should perform a neurological assessment as well as some routine blood and urine work. Where possible, try to capture any unusual behavior on video for your vet to see.

Management of dementia in dogs

Sadly, there is currently no cure for this condition, and it will progress with time, regardless of what is done. However, certain interventions and modifications can be made to best support those with CCD. When living with a dog with dementia, you'll find they will cope easier if changes are made as early on as possible. By supporting them as they age, you will be providing an improved quality of life.

Some of the things that are recommended include:

Tips for managing dog dementia
  • Environmental enrichment. While some owners assume we should avoid too much interaction with these dogs and not "put any pressure on them," research has shown that engaging with them is greatly beneficial. This can be something as simple as providing food puzzles and interactive toys or engaging in short training sessions and teaching new commands.
  • Physical exercise. Just because a dog is older should not mean it is no longer exercised. While you do need to tailor their exercise to their physical ability, getting outside and active can do a dog a world of good.
  • Routines and consistency. Dogs generally do very well with routine and thrive when they know what to expect from their day. You should aim to give them structure and to keep their home familiar. This means, where possible, avoiding any big renovations and trying to keep the furniture in the same place.
  • Diet. Certain diets can be beneficial for brain health, most notably those rich in antioxidants, SAMe, and fish oils. A range of nutritional supplements and prescription diets are available that aim to slow cognitive decline.
  • Medications. While there isn't a cure at this time, vet care for dog dementia has really come a long way in recent years. Your vet may prescribe certain medications to improve your dog's quality of life. Propentofylline (Vivitonin) and selegiline are two examples of medicines that may be issued. Propentofylline increases the blood supply to the brain, while selegiline aims to reduce anxiety, boost mood, and improve sociability. This sort of therapy would generally be covered by your pet insurance.
  • Emerging therapies. While any data is very limited at this time, current areas of interest in research include CBD, medicinal mushrooms and stem cell therapy.

More than anything, your dog needs an owner who will provide a caring and nurturing home where it feels safe. While some of the behaviors associated with canine dementia can be frustrating and worrying, providing a supportive environment can help your dog cope during this difficult time of its life.

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Can CCD be prevented?

There is no guarantee that CCD can be prevented or slowed. For many dogs, CCD is in their DNA, and for others, it can occur alongside other medical conditions such as hypothyroidism or epilepsy. It makes sense that you should aim to treat any underlying medical conditions when this is an option.

Preventative measures that are currently advised include:

  • Giving your dog a balanced and "brain healthy" diet that incorporates supplements like fish oils and vitamin E
  • Providing plenty of physical stimulation and mental enrichment
  • Keeping up with routine vet care and having regular check-ups, which should include dental cleaning when needed
  • Reducing stress and providing your dog with a safe and comforting home, as well as a predictable routine.

Dealing with CCD can be hugely emotive and challenging for owners, but there are tools available to help your dog cope and even thrive.

Importantly, always contact your vet if you suspect your pet is showing dementia symptoms. They will work with you to ensure your dog copes well in its golden years.

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