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The essentials

  • Certain risk factors may make dogs more susceptible to dementia — Aging is normal, but the process affects dogs in differently.
  • Symptoms in dogs are similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans — Some common signs include disorientation, personality changes, confusion, and eliminating waste inappropriately.
  • CCD isn’t curable, but there are ways to slow it down — Talk to your veterinarian about ways to mitigate the effects of the disease through diet and exercise changes.

What is dog dementia?

Dog dementia, also referred to as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. This disease occurs when amyloid plaques form in the front part of a dog’s brain and create cognitive difficulties. Like humans, dogs with dementia usually have problems with memory and learning, and their personalities may alter as the disease progresses. Although CCD is most common in older dogs, it’s not a normal part of aging. CCD does not occur in all dogs that live long lives.

Dog dementia or CCD is an umbrella term for four types of cognitive syndromes:

  • Involutional depression. Similar to chronic depression, this condition manifests in lethargy, circling the house aimlessly, eliminating waste inappropriately indoors, barking, or crying.
  • Dysthymia. As your dog forgets their size, their motor skills are impacted. They may not remember how to walk backward or navigate around the house. 
  • Hyper-aggression. The cognitive decline results in your dog losing the ability to connect with other dogs. As a result, they might attack a friendly dog because they misread social cues. 
  • Confusional syndrome. This is an extreme type of cognitive decline. It includes most of the symptoms of the other types, but dogs with this syndrome also completely lose their ability to learn. In severe cases, dogs may not even remember their owners.

Symptoms of dog dementia

The symptoms of canine dementia correlate with one or more of these four cognitive syndromes, but they’re similar to signs displayed by dogs with other medical conditions such as kidney disease, separation anxiety, or phobias to storms or other environmental stimuli. Your vet will need to rule out these other factors before they can give your pet a definitive diagnosis. Some signs of dementia to watch for include:

  • Disorientation or confusion. Your dog may treat another pet as a stranger, or suddenly act like they don’t remember where they are.
  • Restlessness or changes in sleep-wake cycles. CCD impairs a good night’s sleep. Dogs with severe cognitive decline may have trouble going to sleep and may wake more often than usual.
  • House soiling. Your dog may not remember to tell you they need to go potty. They may relieve themselves in your house, even if they’ve been potty-trained for years. 
  • Sudden behavioral changes or increased anxiety. A welcoming bark from Fido’s best furry friend may be met with a fearsome snarl or unexpected bite. Your dog may suddenly develop a new phobia or become excessively anxious when you leave the house. In extreme cases, they may even forget who you are.  
  • Forgetting learned skills. As the disease progresses, your dog may lose their way around the house or forget how to get home during their routine walks.

Causes of dog dementia

While dementia isn’t inevitable, aging increases your dog’s risk of developing CCD. Both genetic and environmental factors also appear to play a part, which hints that the disease may be expected in some dogs, but preventable in others. While the exact cause isn’t yet known, CCD only occurs after the amyloid plaques form and negatively impact cognitive function. As in humans, preventing those amyloid plaques from building up will likely decrease your dog’s chance of getting dementia. Unfortunately, there remains no known cure yet for dogs that contract CCD.

Can you prevent canine cognitive dysfunction?

Keeping your pet’s mind sharp and reducing the build-up of amyloid plaques can help mitigate uncontrollable factors such as age and genetics. Exercise helps the doggie brain stay sharp as well as mental activities such as fetch and treat puzzles. A 2013 study on humans saw a positive connection between vitamin D and omega-3 supplements and the removal of amyloid plaques. Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants may even help puppies pick up new skills. Some dog-friendly, natural sources of these nutrients include:

  • Salmon
  • Cod liver oil
  • Tuna
  • Chia seeds

Some of these ingredients may already be in your dog’s food, so check the bag. If not, talk to your vet about a recipe based on your dog’s age, as most senior diets contain one or more of the above nutrients. You may need to consult your vet about a diet change or supplement. You could add a product like ZipZyme™ Omega, food made from ocean algae, a natural, safe, plant-based source of omega-3 DHA, a particular type of omega-3. 

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Diagnosing dog dementia

Because CCD symptoms can mirror other diseases, your vet will need to rule out other illnesses by performing a physical exam and running diagnostic tests like blood tests and a urinalysis before giving a definitive diagnosis. Your vet also might want to conduct an MRI to check for amyloid plaques in your dog’s brain. Visiting your vet regularly and monitoring your pet’s health will help you catch the symptoms early, which shows the best prognosis for treatment. You can then work with your vet to put together a treatment plan to help slow the progress of the disease.

Treating dog dementia

Unfortunately, dog dementia isn’t curable. However, it may be slowed with the proper nutrition, dietary supplements, exercise, and mental stimulation. Your veterinarian may prescribe an amino acid- and antioxidant-rich prescription dog food such as Purina Pro Plan NC NeuroCare for brain health. Carrots, blueberries, and spinach, which also contain amino acids and antioxidants, can be given as treats to your dog. Consult with your veterinarian before offering these to your dog, as they should be fed in moderation.

What is my dog’s prognosis? 

As a progressive disease, there are ways to slow down CCD, so your dog may spend several more happy, healthy years with you when given proper care. CCD isn’t curable, but the signs are recognizable. Most dog owners know when their pet’s time is coming close to an end, especially if their pet doesn’t recognize them and has a declining quality of life.

Caring for dogs with dementia

Developing dementia should not mean the end of a dog’s happiness or health. Here are some ways to care for your dog if they’re diagnosed with CCD:

Establish a routine — As your dog’s cognitive abilities decline, they may become more anxious about their day-to-day life. They’ll find comfort in the familiar, so develop a dependable feeding and walking schedule if you don’t already have one. 

Reduce environmental stress factors — Your pet may struggle to find their way around the house. Help them by keeping furniture in familiar spots, giving them space to move around, and removing known stressors or anxiety inducers. 

Teach your dog new tricks — “Use-it-or-lose-it” definitely applies to a dog’s cognitive abilities. Find treat puzzles that mentally stimulate your pet or take them on a different walking path to keep things interesting. Theoretically, the more you can mentally engage them, the longer they’ll be able to process and learn new experiences. Note: if your pet is experiencing the later stages of cognitive decline, strenuous mental exercises may be more stressful than beneficial. Talk to your vet about appropriate activities or training for your dog’s cognitive level.

Change your dog’s diet — Make sure you are feeding your older dog a senior diet as they often contain antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Your veterinarian may prescribe a diet richer in vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids to maximize brain health. Certain healthy treats can be helpful, too. Just be sure to stay away from foods that are harmful to dogs.

Ask your vet about medication or supplements — Unlike dementia in humans, CCD can only be treated with one psychoactive drug right now. There are also a few supplements available that may be helpful for a dog with CCD. Clinical trials regarding dog dementia continue to explore various treatment options. Be sure to keep up with research on the subject.  

Be prepared — Dogs with dementia tend to lose their ability to eliminate waste properly. Doggie diapers may be an option that can help, but diapers can cause urinary tract infections, urine scalding, and skin infections if they are not changed frequently. 

Frequently asked questions

What are the signs of dog dementia?  

There are four types of canine dementia: involutive depression (similar to chronic depression in humans), dysthymia, hyper-aggression, and confusional syndrome. While they all have specific symptoms, many signs overlap with the different types and other diseases. Some common symptoms include confusion, agitation, house soiling, or forgetting where they are or who they’re with.   

Is there a cure for dog dementia? 

CCD can’t be cured, but there are ways to help prevent and slow down the disease if it develops. Make sure your dog is on a high-quality diet that contains omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants for brain health. Exercise can keep your pet’s body and mind in good shape, too. 

What can I do for my dog with dementia? 

Talk to your vet about the best ways to help your pet live with the disease. With loving care, your dog could have many more happy memories with you. Like many other illnesses, CCD grows worse over time and may progress faster than you’d hope. The best thing you can do in this case is to enjoy every day with your pet. Even if they don’t remember who you are, they’ll remember feeling loved and that’s the most important thing.