Can Dogs Get Dementia?

Unfortunately, yes, dogs can suffer from dementia in a condition known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). Dementia usually occurs in older dogs and there can be multiple unpleasant symptoms including depression, lack of spatial awareness, aggression and confusion. Naturally, it’s a devastating condition for your dog to have, but it can also impact on your relationship as well. 

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: there is nothing more devastating than encountering illness or chronic conditions in dogs who are beloved pets and members of our family. Sadly, it’s a fact of life that we have to accept, and dementia in dogs is just one of these facts. We’re going to outline some of the points that you should be aware of as a pet owner and offer advice on what you need to look out for.

Dogs and dementia: what should I know?

As you will have noticed from other articles here on Puphelp, there are multiple new developments in the world of animal behavioural science and we should all be very thankful that this means better outcomes and treatments for our pets. 

For instance, in our recent article on ‘Why is my dog growling at nothing?’ we covered many possible options that could explain why your dog is growling for no obvious reason. One of the possible reasons we covered was cognitive dysfunction or canine dementia. 

The condition is defined an age-related progressive disorder that negatively affects normal cognitive function and is closely related to the type of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease suffered by humans. There is an acronym that sums up the primary clinical signs of canine dementia to look out for: DISHA (disorientation, interactions, sleep changes, house soiling and activity changes). There has been a recent increase in study in the field of CCD as it is has been suggested that by comparing this disease in animals and humans can improve outcomes in humans, and of course, for dogs too. 

How common is dementia in dogs? One study found that in a study of 124 geriatric dogs, about 50% showed symptoms of CCD. Another found that by the age of 15 years old (which is quite old for a dog), 68% of dogs would display signs of dementia. 

Currently, there is no cure available for dementia because it is such a complex condition. The reason that dementia occurs is due to damage to parts of the brain that cannot be easily repaired with current scientific methods. The damaged parts of the brain can suddenly no longer communicate effectively which results in poor functioning and things that were previously simple are suddenly much more complicated. For example, a dog might have been able to walk across a room without any problems. With dementia, the dog’s brain gives it conflicting or incomplete information that means they ‘forget’ how to walk, or they might bump into something. 

It’s really quite difficult to diagnose or identify dementia in dogs, and it’s something that veterinary experts and scientists have been having difficulty with for some time. How is it even possible to identify cognitive (brain) decline in an animal who can’t speak? 

We will look now at some symptoms of dementia, but it’s important to remember that unless you are a qualified vet, you should not diagnose your pet or undertake any form of treatment without expert advice. 

Dog dementia symptoms to look out for 

Let’s look at some common symptoms of dementia in dogs. As we mentioned above, the standard acronym given to the collection of symptoms is DISHA. 

  1. Disorientation

Dogs have many memories, mental maps and the ability to follow patterns based on learned behaviour. However, a dog with dementia may get confused with routine tasks. They might walk behind the couch and forget how to get back out, or instead of going to their usual crate to sleep, they might sleep in random parts of the house. 

  1. Interactions

Whether it’s playing gently with a fellow pet, having rough and tumble fun at the dog park, or playing with you, dogs recognise that interactions with certain animals and humans are different. If a dog is experienced CCD, they may lose aspects of their personality, and they may become withdrawn, aggressive or uninterested in interactions that they previously enjoyed.

  1. Sleep changes

This can be attributed to one of many conditions and is not limited to CCD. However, watch your dog carefully to see what exactly is happening. If your dog is ill from something they ate, for example, they might whine or become restless, whereas CCD has a bigger impact and can cause your dog to act as though night-time is day-time and vice versa.

  1. House Soiling 

This again is a pretty noticeable symptom, especially if your dog has previously been fully house trained. The poor animals unfortunately have no control over it, so it’s extra important not to get annoyed or punish them. 

  1. Activity changes

Dogs are curious creatures who usually love nothing more than exploring new places, experiencing new smells and making new dog or human friends. But the onset of CCD can result in a lack of interest in exploring or an unusual decrease in responding to normal stimulation.


Treatment for cognitive dysfunction in dogs

If you suspect that your dog may be suffering with some of these symptoms, don’t diagnose them yourself – instead, take plenty of notes of what you’ve observed and book and appointment with your vet. It’s also not always what you think, and your vet will be able to advise you on the next courses of action. But even if you do receive that diagnosis, it doesn’t have to mean that your dog can’t continue to live a happy life.

Current treatments include behaviour management training, a specialised diet and medication to treat symptoms. The aim of any treatment plan created by your vet will be delay the onset of the illness and give your dog the best possible quality of life. 

There are numerous ways to make life easier for your dog with dementia, including plenty of appropriately stimulating forms of entertainment, structured interactions with trusted dogs or human friends and a house environment that is set up so that your dog won’t hurt themselves by accident.

Incontinence in your dog doesn’t have to be a major problem and there are lots of products out there to help, including pet diapers and pads. If it’s necessary, you can cover furniture or other areas of your home with special plastic sheeting. 

The most important thing to remember is that your pet didn’t choose to get dementia and even if their behaviour changes, they are still counting on you, as their best friend, to take care of them and treat them with care and compassion. 

Future treatment possibilities 

While this article may be quite a sobering and saddening read for some people, it’s just a fact of life that our wonderful dogs, just like us, may encounter suffering and all we can do is minimize their pain as much as possible.

And the future is looking promising – there is constant research into dementia and other cognitive disorders, so it’s likely not going to be long before a cure is found and this condition will become a thing of the past.

But in the meantime, the same is true for humans as well as dogs – we never know what’s around the corner, so pick up your pet (if they’re comfortable with that!) and give them a big cuddle and a kiss and enjoy the present moment with them.