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Can Dogs Get Dementia? Vet-Approved Signs, Symptoms, & Stages

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By Nicole Cosgrove

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Vet approved

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Nia Perkins

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Most people are familiar with dementia in humans, but did you know it can also affect your dog? Canine Cognitive Decline (CCD), or Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), is the veterinary term for dog dementia, and it exhibits similar symptoms and signs as humans.

As our canine companions live longer lives, we see more signs of dog dementia. Studies indicate that as much as 62 percent of dogs between the ages of 11 and 16 demonstrate signs of dementia.

Learn more about dog dementia, the signs and symptoms to look out for, and when to seek veterinary care.

Divider 5Clinical Signs and Symptoms of Dementia in Dogs

Veterinarians use the following symptoms to diagnose CCD after ruling out other medical causes.

  • Disorientation: Disorientation is one of the most obvious signs of dementia. Dogs with CCD may look confused in their home environments, and may struggle to find their food bowl or the door to go outside. These dogs may also find themselves in a corner or empty room, staring aimlessly. They may show signs of confusion around familiar people or struggle to move around objects in your home.
  • Interaction Changes: Dogs with dementia may show less interest in interacting with familiar people or other household pets. Some dogs withdraw, while others become clingier. In some cases, dogs with dementia prefer to be by themselves longer and may become scared or overstimulated easily.
  • Sleep/Wake Cycle Disruptions: Dementia causes changes to the sleep/wake cycle in dogs, which can be uncomfortable for them and their human companions. Dogs may struggle to sleep through the night and may bark or pace while the rest of the household is sleeping. When this happens, dogs may experience fear or agitation. As a result of poor nighttime sleep, they may sleep more during the day.
  • Housebreaking Problems/Learning Problems: Many owners notice that their dogs have a lapse in housebreaking as a sign of dementia. These dogs may stop letting their owners know they need to go out or go out and seemingly “forget” what they’re supposed to do. Consequently, they may soil in the house more often, which may cause anxiety. The lapse in training can extend to other behaviors, such as performing tricks, sitting or staying, recalling, and more.
  • Changes in Activity Levels: Dogs with dementia may experience a rapid decline in activity levels and less interest in playing or exploring. They may ignore ambient noises like dogs barking, loud noises, or people around them.
close up of veterinarian examining dog with stethoscope
Image Credit: areetham, Shutterstock

Some other indicators of dementia may include difficulty eating or drinking and repetitive or restless movements. Dogs with dementia may struggle to find food or the water bowl. They  may also drop food as they eat it, or struggle to find treats when they’re offered.

Restless or repetitive movements are less likely to be mistaken for underlying conditions. Dogs with dementia may pace or show restless behaviors like head bobbing, walking in circles, or leg shaking, which is a direct result of brain degeneration.

Other health conditions can cause similar symptoms, such as:
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Vision or hearing loss
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Kidney problems
  • Arthritis
  • Skin disorders

While CCD doesn’t have recognized stages like dementia in humans, it is a progressive condition. Early veterinary intervention can help you support your dog and treat side effects and symptoms, such as anxiety, poor sleep, and physical discomfort.

Vet specialist examination sick dog_didesign021_shutterstock
Image Credit: Ruth Black, Shutterstock

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The 6 Tips for Supporting a Dog with Dementia

There’s no cure for dementia, but you can improve your dog’s quality of life and make them as comfortable as possible for their remaining years. Here are some tips for helping your dog with dementia.

1. Be Patient

Dogs with dementia may exhibit strange behaviors and need help with basic needs like eating and going outside. They may forget training, struggle to navigate the house, and display unpleasant behaviors like excessive barking and pacing. It’s important to remember that none of this is your dog’s fault. Dogs with dementia can be frustrating, especially if you’re dealing with indoor accidents and sleep disruptions from nighttime barking. But scolding them won’t help. Interventions like diapers can help with housetraining issues, and your vet may be able to provide medication to relieve anxiety and curb excessive barking. If your dog’s restlessness or pacing puts it at risk, like with stairs or other obstacles, consider confining them to a room or playpen.

2. Keep Your Dog’s Supplies in the Same Place

Dogs with dementia are prone to confusion, especially if they have accompanying vision or hearing loss. Avoid moving common items like your dog’s food and water bowls or bed, and try not to put furniture or other décor near them, which can cause anxiety. Along with cognitive decline, your dog may be struggling with joint discomfort from arthritis. If you suspect this is the case, speak with your vet about arthritis medication and consider providing them with a supportive orthopedic bed to ease pressure points. If possible, put a few beds in your dog’s preferred space to give it options for where to lay.

3. Provide Physical and Mental Stimulation

Some exercise routines may be too much for your older dog, but you can still take gentle walks to give them some activity and bonding time. If a walk in the park or in your neighborhood is too stimulating, or the weather isn’t ideal, try taking short walks around the yard or inside the house.Mental stimulation is also important for dogs with dementia. This keeps the brain active and may slow the progression of the condition. Depending on your dog’s cognitive level, you can try basic tricks or simple puzzle toys, such as a Kong toy with treats inside.

labrador dog licking kong treat dispensing toy
Image Credit: Michar Peppenster, Shutterstock

4. Keep the Routine Consistent

Dogs of all ages appreciate routine and consistency, but it’s even more important for a dog with dementia. Disorientation, anxiety, and confusion are common symptoms, which can be exacerbated by a chaotic environment. Try to keep your dog’s routine as consistent as possible. From the moment you wake up and take your dog outside, to feeding time to bedtime. Keeping this routine may also help with sleep and wake cycle disturbances as well as nighttime barking.

5. Always Supervise Your Dog

Dogs with dementia are at a higher risk for wandering and injury, so they should never be left unattended. Even if they were reliable off-leash before, it’s not safe to let them wander now. Be sure to provide current contact information on your dog’s collar, or have them microchipped in case they get lost. If your yard has a deck, pool, or other obstacles that can be hazardous, be sure to stay with your dog to avoid injury. It only takes a split second for your dog to find themselves in a dangerous situation.

6. Stay Adaptable

CCD is a progressive condition—what works today may not work tomorrow, or next week, or a month from now. You can’t predict how your dog’s symptoms may change, but you can address new developments as they arise. Other health conditions can occur with dementia, such as vision loss, diabetes, or arthritis. Work with your veterinarian to address changes in your dog’s attitude, behavior, or habits, and treat the symptoms as best as possible.

Young happy veterinary nurse smiling while playing with a dog
Image Credit: David Herraez Calzada, Shutterstock

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Dog dementia can be challenging. Symptoms can change over time, and other conditions may arise, but there are numerous ways to improve your dog’s quality of life and make its “golden years” as enjoyable as possible. Be sure to work closely with your vet to address your dog’s symptoms and show them patience, kindness, and tons of love.

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Featured Image Credit: Elena Shvetsova, Shutterstock

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