Reviewed and updated for accuracy on November 22, 2019, by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
While your beloved senior dog can’t really forget where he put his car keys, he is capable of experiencing “senior moments.”
If your dog forgets the route on your daily walk or if he’s not enjoying the things he once did, like chasing after his favorite toy or greeting you at the door, he could be suffering from canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), or the doggy version of Alzheimer’s.
To help detect the onset of cognitive decline earlier, it’s important to know what signs you should be looking for in your dog.
7 Signs of Dementia in Dogs
Dr. Denise Petryk, DVM, says the widely accepted DISHA acronym can help dog owners characterize the most distinct signs and changes associated with CCD.
DISHA refers to these symptoms:
[altered] Interactions with family members or other pets
Sleep-wake cycle changes
Activity level changes
“It gives us the ability to check against a list of things to show that something else isn’t going on. If your dog has one of the symptoms or some combination, then we’re more likely to call it cognitive dysfunction,” explains Dr. Petryk.
In addition to DISHA symptoms, you may notice these signs of dog dementia:
Having trouble eating or finding food or water dish
Repetitive or restless movements
Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, says to keep in mind that there isn’t necessarily a progression to the symptoms your dog may be experiencing. “The more signs and frequency we see, the greater significance of the problem. Each sign or symptom doesn’t really signify a particular phase,” she says.
Here’s what you need to know about each of the symptoms for cognitive dysfunction in dogs:
One of the most common things you may notice is that your senior dog gets disoriented even when he’s in his normal or familiar environment.
“This often happens when the dog is out in the backyard and he goes to the wrong door or the wrong side of the door to get back in. The part of the brain that is involved with orientation has been affected.” Dr. Beaver says.
Your dog may also experience difficulty with spatial awareness. He may wander behind the couch and then realize he doesn’t know where he is or how to get out. At bedtime, you may find your dog in a different part of the house, staring at the wall instead of curled up in his dog bed.
According to Dr. Petryk, dogs have a good sense of timing, so this is a sign that something is wrong.
“The first thing you should do is to take your dog in for a checkup. It might not be a cognitive issue, so your vet may want to rule out some other possible medical causes, which could involve a brain tumor or diabetes.”
Changes in Interactions With Family, Other Pets or Guests
Canine cognitive dysfunction can affect your dog’s interactions with people and other animals.
Your once sociable dog, who used to be the most popular pup on the block, now acts cranky and irritable, or even growls at other animals or children. He may lash out and bite his once favorite playmates.
Dr. Petryk cautions that this behavior could be the result of something serious.
“He may be acting this way because he’s in pain. He could have arthritis or some other ailment that hurts when he moves or is touched. Your vet may want to do X-rays to rule out a painful condition,” explains Dr. Petryk.
Some dogs with CCD withdraw from their family and their favorite activities. They may fail to notice when the doorbell rings and seem disinterested in greeting visitors, or they may stop barking at the mail carrier. Your dog may not even respond when you get his leash out to go for a walk.
Talk with your veterinarian if you notice changes in the way your dog interacts with those around him. They can help rule out potential health issues and help you learn how to support your dog’s evolving needs.
Sleep-Wake Cycle Changes
A change in sleep patterns or a disruption in circadian rhythms is one of the more specific symptoms related to cognitive dysfunction.
Dogs that used to sleep soundly may now pace all night. Many dogs reverse their normal schedules, so their daytime activities become their nighttime activities. This “up all night” routine can be frustrating and tiring to pet owners.
“If your dog is active at night and you want to get him to sleep, a nightlight or white noise may help him,” Dr. Beaver says.
If this doesn’t provide relief, consult your veterinarian for medications that may ease your dog’s anxiety and reestablish normal sleep cycles.
Urinating or defecating in the house is one of the most common ways cognitive dysfunction is detected in dogs, especially if the dog was previously house-trained.
Dr. Petryk says that when this happens, it’s important to consider that your dog may have lost his ability to voluntarily control elimination or even to let you know that he needs to go outside.
“After we run tests and rule out a bladder infection, kidney problems or diabetes, then there’s usually been a cognitive change. If your dog is staring out at the sliding glass door and then poops in the house anyway, and it’s not because of bowel trouble; he’s lost the understanding that he should poop outside,” Dr. Petryk explains.
Decreased Activity Levels
Dogs with cognitive dysfunction may show a decreased desire to explore and a decreased response to things, people and sounds in their environments.
They may not greet you or they may no longer respond on cue to fetch their favorite toy. They may also be less focused and show an altered response to stimuli.
Having Trouble Eating and Drinking
Some dogs have trouble eating or drinking or even finding their food bowls.
"They may drop something when they’re eating and they can’t find it,” says Dr. Petryk. “If they don’t have sight or hearing issues, this can be a true indication that they are experiencing cognitive dysfunction.”
"I've had patients whose dogs don't recognize that their favorite cookies are treats for them,” says Dr. Petryk. “The owner's first instinct is to buy other cookies. They don't realize that something else could be going on.”
Repetitive or Restless Movements
Although older dogs experience a normal decline in activity levels, they may also experience symptoms that seem like restlessness.
"They may exhibit repetitive motion; things like head bobbing, leg shaking or pacing in circles. This kind of action is more related to cognitive dysfunction or a degeneration of the brain. It’s less likely to be mistaken for anything else," Dr. Petryk says.
When to See the Vet
You should also be aware of other behavioral changes, such as if your typically quiet dog now barks excessively, or if he barks at times when nothing is going on.
If you notice any of these signs of “dog dementia,” discuss them with your veterinarian as soon as possible.
By: Katherine Tolford
Featured Image: iStock.com/Kara Arceneaux