We have a 13 year old pup who, over the last few months, started exhibiting certain signs that suggested she had dog dementia. She lost her hearing in the last year and a half, so initially we attributed some of the symptoms to that, as well as her advanced age, but looking more into things, we discovered that her symptoms were more akin to something other than just hearing loss. A trip to the vet to rule out any other issues confirmed the diagnosis.

Before this point, we knew a little, but not a lot, about canine dementia. And we quickly discovered we were not alone.

Like humans, as dogs age, they can experience declines in memory, learning, perception, and awareness. But what exactly is dog dementia, what causes it, how can you determine if your dog is experiencing cognitive decline, and how can you support your senior if they start to display symptoms?

What is Dog Dementia?

Dog dementia, also called canine cognitive disfunction, is like the dog version of Alzheimer’s. It’s actually a term that encompasses four different neurobehavioral conditions that lead to a decline in cognitive function.

As with human dementia, the exact causes of dementia in dogs are not known, but researchers suggest that accumulations of sticky proteins called beta-amyloid plaques around neurons and the breakdown of neurons resulting in so-called neurofibrillary tangles are the main contributing factors. Both of these affect the brain by interrupting nerve impulse transmission, and both occur as a normal part of the aging process. Genetic factors or other diseases like brain tumors and brain trauma may also predispose an animal to develop dementia.

How common is it? Well, although most pet parents attribute the symptoms of dementia to aging in general, it is fairly common. In fact, estimates put cases anywhere from 14% to over 60% in dogs over eight years old. And, research shows that the risks increase with age.

NOTE: Cats can also get dementia, and it is even more rare for it to be recognized for what it is compared to dogs.

Signs of Dog Dementia

Early identification is best, so how can you tell if your dog has dementia? There are certain signs that your vet will want to know about – and one or more of them could lead to a diagnosis.

These are the most common signs of dementia in dogs:

  1. Disorientation/confusion – This is one of the most recognizable signs. Often dogs with dementia wander as if lost, stare off into space, or at the walls or floor, or seem confused even when in familiar surroundings. They can ‘forget’ where to go if they have to go outside, or not seem as comfortable on normal walking routes or even with people they know.
  2. Changes in behavior and interactions with family members or other pets – Often dogs with dementia will show a change in how they behave socially. Previously playful dogs may not be as interested in toys or engaging with other dogs. Some dogs show signs of increased anxiety or fearfulness, even if those were not present earlier in life. Some dogs become more irritable and prefer time alone. On the other hand, some may become more interested in support and comfort from you and want to be with you more often.
  3. Changes to typical sleeping patterns – Another sign of dog dementia is a change to your dog’s sleep-wake cycle. Many dogs with dementia will start sleeping more during the day and then staying awake at night. Many will experience restlessness and pace the house when everyone is asleep. Some will also become more vocal.
  4. Restlessness – Not only do dogs with dementia tend to pace more at night, but they may show signs of restlessness throughout the day. This is often a symptom of the confusion we mentioned earlier, as well as the changing sleep patterns.
  5. House soiling – If a previously house-trained dog starts going to the bathroom in the house, this could be because they’ve forgotten that they should go outside. Make sure to check for other causes (bladder infections, for example), but once those are ruled out, note that this symptom may be caused by the cognitive decline. Remember, no scolding! This is an accident and your dog may just not understand.
  6. Changes to activity levels – Older dogs in general will likely experience decreased activity levels as they age, but again, this could be a sign of dementia. They may show less interest in exploring their environment, being outside, or going on adventures. Your dog may also show decreased responses to or interest in external stimuli like other dogs, sounds, things, and people.
  7. Having trouble eating or finding food or water dish – Again, something that often comes with the confusion or memory loss is changes to eating habits.

Supporting Your Senior Dog

If you suspect your dog has dementia, a trip to the vet is a good idea. That way, your vet can rule out any other health concerns that may be causing the symptoms.

Once you know for sure, there are several things you can do to help support your senior pup and make their life easier even with the changes to their brain function. There may not be a cure for dog dementia, but there are plenty of things you can do, day-to-day, to help them.

Food & Supplements

  • Omega-3s. Omega-3s are important at every life stage, but once the brain starts to experience changes, ensuring your dog is getting plenty is really important. Research shows that the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, can improve cognitive dysfunction in affected dogs, so sardines a few times a week, or a daily omega-3 supplement like phytoplankton makes sure your dog is getting lots.
  • Medicinal mushrooms. Medicinal mushrooms, specifically Lion’s Mane, are great for boosting brain health. Lion’s Mane has been shown to not only improve brain function and memory, it can also help regenerate damaged nerves and stimulate nerve growth. It’s also helpful for prevention.
  • Antioxidants. Antioxidants are molecules that fight oxidants and free radicals in the body, which can cause illness and disease. Research shows that an antioxidant-rich diet can help decrease the production of free radicals, increasing the body’s ability to fight free radicals, and thus slow the progression of cognitive decline by reducing oxidative damage. Research also found that senior dogs fed a diet rich in antioxidants showed significant improvement in cognitive function (learning and memory of learned tasks). Make sure you’re feeding things like blueberries, broccoli, pumpkin, asparagus, and kale. An antioxidant supplement like astaxanthin may also be helpful.
  • SAMe (S-Adenosyl-Methionine). This is an amino acid derivative normally synthesized in the body that can become depleted with sickness or age. It can help to decrease the signs of age-related cognitive decline in dogs (as well as humans). In fact, according to one study, SAMe-treated dogs showed significant improvements in activity and awareness of their surroundings without serious adverse effects.
  • CBD oil. CBD has become a very popular health supplement for pets for many reasons. Not only will CBD help ease the anxiety and stress related to dementia, helping your dog stay calm and comfortable, as well as aiding with sleep, it has also been shown to have neuro-protective properties. It is being studied at length for use with Alzheimer’s patients with results showing much success. For more on CBD for dogs, check this out.

Environment & Routine

Aside from food and supplements, there are plenty of other things you can do to offer support.

  • Maintain a level of physical activity your pet can handle. Many dogs with dementia may not be as active as they used to be, but keeping up a level of physical activity is important. Try to walk every day, shorter walks if necessary.
  • Increase the mental stimulation. Engage in activities that provide stimulation and help work out the brain. Interactive toys, brain games if you will, can help with their memory and learning. And remember, there’s no truth in the statement “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
  • Stick to a routine. This could be as simple as feeding breakfast and dinner at the same time, or as complex as having a fully structured day. These established patterns help keep a dog comfortable.
  • Avoid major changes. Keep furniture in the same place. While social interaction is important, don’t overwhelm your pup with too many new things (people, places, dogs, etc.).
  • Get outside. Exposing your dog to sunlight can help keep the sleep-wake cycle on track. It also helps to increase potty breaks (either their number or duration) to reduce the instance of accidents in the house.
  • Spend time at home. If your dog becomes more clingy, try to avoid leaving for long periods of time. This can help manage symptoms of anxiety and fearfulness and maintain your dog’s comfort. They seek comfort from you, and need you there. Try to keep that in mind

Last but not least – show them love!! As our dogs age, we need to show them we’re there, and that we love them. Spending time with them, whether you’re walking, playing, or just snuggling on the couch, encourages a strengthening of your bond and increases their level of comfort and feelings of safety.

Our senior pups have been with us for the long haul, providing a steady source of support throughout their lives. When they start to show signs of dog dementia, there are plenty of ways we can return the favor.