We all love our sweet senior pups and want them to live a good life as long as possible. Get a better understanding of dementia in dogs, how to spot it early, and what to do to treat your best friend’s symptoms to ensure she gets the most out of her golden years.
Senior dog smiling in public park
Credit: abdelali ghayour / Getty

Just like humans, as dogs age, their bodies and minds start to change. These changes may include joint problems, changes in eyesight, changes in weight, and heart disease, among others. While physical changes are common, mental challenges can also start to develop, but may be harder to recognize in the early stages. As aging may progress subtly, it's important for pet parents to pay close attention to the signs of dog dementia in order to keep our furry friends happy and healthy for as long as possible.

Can Dogs Have Dementia or Alzheimers?

Dementia is a general medical term related to a decline in memory, thinking, and social abilities. While Azheimers in humans consists of some similar symptoms and brain changes, dogs don’t get this particular brain disease. But unfortunately, yes, dogs can get dementia—specifically what’s known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, according to Kenneth Martin, DVM, Diplomate, ACVB at Veterinary Behavior Consultations, LLC in Spicewood, Texas.

Signs and Symptoms of Dementia in Dogs

Age is a risk factor for dementia and, sadly, symptoms can become severe enough to interfere with daily functioning as the disease progresses. According to Martin, a senile dog exhibits certain behaviors that can indicate Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is present, including one or more of these symptoms, following the acronym DISHAA:

  • Disorientation
  • Changes in social interactions
  • Changes in sleep-wake cycles
  • Increased house soiling
  • Altered activity
  • Increased anxiety

“The clinical signs [of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction] are progressive with age, and they negatively impact the dog’s welfare and the dog’s relationship with people,” Martin says. “[CCD] in dogs can be diagnosed with cognitive testing, behavioral signs, and brain imaging studies.”

Can Dog Dementia Be Prevented or Cured?

Unfortunately, there is currently not a cure for Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, but there are ways to slow its progression. “[CCD] often goes undiagnosed as ‘normal’ and untreatable signs associated with aging,” says Martin. “Dogs over seven years of age should be screened by their veterinarian for [CCD] annually. With an early diagnosis and treatment, it is possible to resolve, improve, or slow clinical signs.”Luckily, there are studies out there bringing hope to us dog moms and dads. Research programs like the Dog Aging Project, formed by a group of scientists from colleges and universities across the U.S., are currently working to better understand factors related to dog aging and how to help dogs live longer, healthier lives.

Life Expectancy of Dogs With Dementia

The life expectancy for dogs with dementia is variable depending on their mental and physical health, the progression of the disease so far, and whether signs of dementia were caught early on.

“Dogs with cognitive dysfunction showing impairment in one category (disorientation, interaction changes, sleep-wake cycle changes, or house soiling) are likely to develop impairment in another category by 6 to 18 months,” Martin explains. This means that catching signs and starting treatment early are critical to ease dementia progression and help your pet live longer with a better quality of life.

While dogs don't actually die from dementia, as health impairments caused by CCD compound, a dog's life may reach a point where the quality of their life severely diminishes. As a result, some dog parents have to ask the incredibly difficult question whether to consider end-of-life care for their beloved furry friend. Some pets with dementia can continue to enjoy life, but if you're questioning whether euthanasia could be the more humane path forward, it is a decision to discuss with your pet's veterinarian. The vet can help you consider various aspects of your pup's life and understand what your options are.

How to Manage and Treat Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

CCD treatment involves making your dog’s life as happy as possible and easing their discomfort as a result of the dementia symptoms.

  • Medication: Selegiline is a FDA approved medication for the treatment of signs associated with CCD, although other medications, nutritional supplements, and prescription diets are sometimes used for treatment, according to Martin.
  • Exercise and Diet: Behavioral enrichment with an antioxidant-rich diet and regular exercise can help maintain cognitive function and slow the progression of CCD in senior pets.
  • Environment: Senior dogs with signs of dementia may require more supervision to ensure they don’t get stuck or lost. Try setting up a baby gate or indoor dog fence to block off certain areas of your house that could be more dangerous like stairways. Also, try not to move essential dog care items like food and water bowls around too much so your canine friend can more easily find where to go to get what they need.
  • Consistent Routine: Disorientation is a common symptom of dementia. To reduce any anxiety your dog experiences as a result, keep walks, feeding times, playtimes, and bedtime on a regular, predictable schedule.

Overall, the best way to manage and treat any dog with dementia is to talk with your pup’s veterinarian and come up with an expert-recommended treatment plan.