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Dog Dementia: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Life Expectancy

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on October 28, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD

Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) syndrome is a condition related to the aging of a dog's brain, which ultimately leads to changes in awareness, deficits in learning and memory, and decreased responsiveness to stimuli.

Although the initial symptoms of the disorder are mild, they gradually worsen over time, which is referred to as “cognitive decline.”

In fact, clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome are found in nearly one in three dogs over the age of 11, and by the age of 16, nearly all dogs display at least one sign.

Here’s everything you need to know about dog dementia, from the symptoms, causes and life expectancy to treatment and prevention.

Symptoms of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

These are the most common symptoms of dementia in dogs:

  • Disorientation/confusion

  • Anxiety/restlessness

  • Extreme irritability

  • Decreased desire to play

  • Excessive licking

  • Seeming disregard for previously learned training or house rules

  • Slow to learn new tasks

  • Inability to follow familiar routes

  • Excessive barking

  • Lack of self-grooming

  • Fecal and urinary incontinence

  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)

  • Changes in sleep cycle (e.g., night waking, sleeping during the day)

Causes of Dog Dementia

As dogs age, the brain atrophies, meaning that the cells die. This likely impacts brain function. Small strokes and other accumulation of damage may also have a role in canine cognitive decline.

The exact causes are not known, but many of the same changes that cause problems as people age are likely to also cause problems as our pets age.

Diagnosis

You will need to give a thorough history of your dog’s health to your veterinarian, including the onset and nature of the symptoms and possible incidents that might have precipitated the unusual behaviors or complications.

They will then perform a complete physical examination to evaluate your dog’s overall health status and cognitive functions.

Routine blood tests, ultrasounds and X-rays are also employed to rule out other diseases that may lead to behavioral changes associated with canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

Treatment of Dog Dementia

Dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome require lifelong therapy and support. However, you can make a world of difference when it comes to improving your dog's cognitive functions.

For example, although it will not “cure” your dog, maintaining a healthy and stimulating environment will help slow the progression of cognitive decline. This typically involves imposing a daily routine of exercise, play and training (re-training).

Making your home more accessible and safer for your senior dog can also help:

  • Night lights can help your senior dog navigate in the dark.

  • Potty pads near doors give your pup a place to go if she can’t make it until you come home or wake up.

  • Orthopedic foam beds (with washable covers) can make sleep more comfortable.

In addition, medication and behavioral therapy can be used to help keep your dog comfortable and active.

Your veterinarian may also suggest employing a special, balanced diet to improve your dog's cognitive function in terms of memory, learning ability, etc.

This diet is also typically supplemented with antioxidants, vitamin E and C, selenium, flavonoids, beta carotene, carotenoids, omega-3, and carnitine—all considered excellent for improving a dog's cognitive functions. 

Life Expectancy of Dogs With Dementia

Since canine cognitive dysfunction is a degenerative process that occurs in a dog’s senior years, similar to Alzheimer’s in humans, life expectancy can be a tricky prognosis to make.

If a dog is otherwise healthy, then the dementia will eventually diminish your dog’s quality of life, but there has not been a specific timeframe established.

The best way to monitor your dog’s health and cognitive functioning is to work with your veterinarian and track your dog’s quality of life. This will help you determine when your dog is letting you know it’s time.

Vet Checkups for Dogs With Dementia

Your veterinarian will evaluate your dog periodically to monitor their response to therapy and the progression of symptoms.

However, if you notice any behavioral changes in your dog, notify your vet immediately.

In geriatric dogs, any change can be serious, so it’s important to talk to your veterinarian at the first sign. For stable patients, twice-yearly checkups are sufficient enough, unless new problems arise.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Atlantagreg