Dementia, senility or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) – whatever you call it, dementia in dogs does exist.
It’s probably sounding a bit scary but don’t worry, I’m going to walk you through what this is, how it’s diagnosed, and the treatment options available. One thing I always like to mention that is relevant for all pets, but seniors in particular, is the importance of keeping an eye out for changes in behaviour. If you notice anything different, no matter how subtle you think it is, my advice is to make a note of what you’re witnessing, video it if possible and make an appointment to see your vet.
What many people assume is just a natural part of aging could in fact be signalling a problem. A problem caught early stands a much better chance of being treated or at least managed.
**There are affiliate links in this post, which means if you purchase anything I make a few pennies…literally. That money helps me help homeless animals through donations and fostering, as well as keeping this blog running.**
UPDATED SEPTEMBER 13,2018
Since the writing of this post my muse Red got her wings (RIP May 18, 2018)
What causes dementia in dogs?
Some vets are sure of the causes, others not so much. Here is what I have discovered.
- Free radical damage which harm healthy cells in the brain
- Decreased dopamine production (a neurotransmitter essential for effective nerve transmission)
- Not enough blood getting to the brain
You probably will never know the exact cause, but that has no impact on your ability to help your dog cope.
Will my dog get dementia?
It is thought the rise in cases of dementia is a result of our pets living longer.
I haven’t been able to find any definitive statistics on the percentage of senior dogs likely to be afflicted with dementia. The figures I did find were wildly different, but I’ll share them anyway.
- Around 25% of all dogs over 10 will be afflicted
- 50% over the age of 11
- 23% 12 and over
- 41% over 14
- Over 60% or 68% have at least one symptom by the age of 15
See what I mean?
If I were you I wouldn’t get too hung up on these figures, but rather spend time on the rest of this post. I would also like to mention I haven’t found any evidence to suggest certain breeds are predisposed to developing dementia.
Signs of senility in dogs
Signs of dementia can be similar to other health concerns, so just because you notice some does not mean your dog has it.
- Paces or wanders aimlessly through the house
- Appears lost or confused
- Becomes trapped under or behind furniture
- Stands head first in corners or tight spaces and just stays there
- Stands on the hinge side of the door, waiting for it to open
- Has trouble finding and using doors
- Doesn’t move out of the way when someone opens the door
- Trouble using the stairs
- Difficulty learning new things
- Howling, barking, or whining for no apparent reason
- Aggression where none existed before
- Does not respond to her name
- Does not remember cues/commands
- Is withdrawn
- Seems scared of people she knows
- Walks away when petted
- Trembles or shakes for no apparent reason
- Has trouble finding the food and water bowls
- Difficulty keeping food in her mouth
- Panting and restlessness
- Has difficulty learning new tasks, commands…
- Generally more fearful and anxious
- Has accidents in the house, no matter how often she goes out
- Sleeps more during the day, less at night
- Stares at walls or into space
- Startles easily
- Doesn’t seek out as much of your attention
- Less interested in, or stopped playing
- May be less interested in food, forget to eat
- Does not respond to commands
- Walks in circles, typically in the same direction
This is something important to note: CCD shares many symptoms with other illnesses or conditions
- Accidents in the house could be a sign of urinary tract infection or kidney disease
- Not responding to commands may mean she is losing her hearing
- Less interested in playing or going for walks may mean she is starting to feel the effects of arthritis
- Sudden aggression may signal pain
How do I know what the problem is?
Like I mentioned earlier, just because your dog may be displaying some of these signs, does not automatically mean he has dementia. It does mean there is an issue that needs to be addressed, and the only way to do that is by seeing your vet sooner rather than later.
What I find helpful both for me and my vet, is to make notes ahead of the appointment. Sometimes we’re nervous during an appointment and of course time is limited, so having a list of questions or in this case symptoms you’ve been observing can save time. Taking a video of behaviours you’re observing would be of tremendous value, since it is unlikely your vet will see indications during the appointment.
There isn’t a test to diagnose CCD, but a diagnosis is typically made based on the exclusion of other possible explanations for your dog’s changed behaviour.
When you meet with your vet he will want to hear what you’ve been observing, and he will watch the video if you have one. Urine and blood samples will likely be taken as a way to test for other possible explanations. What comes next will depend on the results of the tests.
For the sake of this article let’s assume all other possibilities have been ruled out, and your vet has concluded dementia is the only possible explanation. While there is no cure or a way to halt its progression, there are things you can do to slow it down and help your dog cope with its effects.
Please be sure to check with your vet before introducing anything new. Natural does not always mean safe or appropriate for your dog.
This is THE drug given for a dementia diagnosis. Containing the active ingredient Selegiline hydrochloride it is sold as Selgian® in the UK and Anipryl® for dogs in the US. It has been shown to be effective by prolonging the activity of your dog’s remaining dopamine, which helps by improving memory and helping dogs think more clearly.
Natural treatments are becoming increasingly popular, so it’s encouraging to know there are options for those who prefer them. Personally I would not give up on the Selgian or Anipryl in favour of a supplement but I would, and do, absolutely use them in combination.
Some of the options are –
Melatonin – dogs with dementia may experience something called “sundowning” which means they start getting agitated as night approaches, and they tend to sleep all day and wander at night. Melatonin can help restore the sleep/wake cycle
Coconut oil – is a rich source of medium-chain triglycerides, believed to be used as fuel by the brain. You do have to be careful with doses, especially if your dog is prone to pancreatitis. I gave Red less than 1/4 tsp and she started to show signs so I immediately stopped it
B vitamins – For their antioxidant properties. My vet recommended B complex, but he also gave Red a couple of injections of B12 I believe it was to boost her up a bit
CBD oil – Cannabidiol oil is a product derived from cannabis, and many dog parents have reported very good results. Although my holistic vet does not promote it in her practice, she did recommend buying organic and starting off with 1 drop and seeing how it goes. There are usually amounts listed on the bottle as a guide. I have read so many first hand accounts of how helpful NuLeaf has been, so here’s a link for more information. You may also want to listen to the podcast I did with an expert from the company.
Golden paste – There seems to be more and more buzz about the health benefits of turmeric for humans and dogs alike. It’s a powerful antioxidant and I have read a lot of testimonials from dog parents who have seen amazing results for a variety of issues, including doggie dementia. This article, “Beginners Info For Turmeric and Golden Paste” is from the Turmeric User Group on Facebook and is a wonderful resource to get you started.
NutraCalm – Created in the UK, it is a natural calming supplement to help reduce stress in anxious dogs and cats
NutraMind – Manufactured by the same company as nutracalm, it is a high strength supplement to support brain and mental function. Again take note if your dog is susceptible to pancreatitis, although Red has been okay on it so far and it’s been about 3 weeks.
Thundershirt – The company claims Thundershirt works on over 80% of dogs with anxiety. I have heard positive and negative reviews, but that’s the case with most things isn’t it? It’s trial and error.
Acupuncture – Acupuncture is often recommended as part of an overall treatment plan, with many dog parents reporting positive results. If you do want to give it a try please make sure you go to an experienced, qualified vet.
Valerian/Valerian and Skullcap – Valerian root is known for its sedative qualities, Skullcap is a plant with anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacteria, anti-histamine and sedative properties. My vet recommended the combination for my dog but many benefit from Valerian alone.
I have included an interesting article I came across called “Acupuncture as an Auxiliary Treatment of Dementia/Cognitive Dysfunction in Geriatric Dog.”
Interactive and puzzle toys
Giving your dog a challenge will help keep his brain active. Things like interactive toys and even teaching old and new tricks can help.
Through a Dog’s Ear
Through a Dog’s Ear is bioacoustically engineered music, proven to help calm anxious dogs. Studies conducted in shelters have shown remarkable results in helping them relax in what is a stressful environment. A 13 minute snippet can be found on Youtube for you to try before you buy.
I believe a routine is important for all dogs, but particularly for dogs with dementia who derive comfort from a schedule. If you don’t have one in place try and start something right now, and it can be as simple as feeding and walking your dog at roughly the same time each day.
What I do for Red
It was about 2 1/2 years ago when I first noticed Red was wandering, uncomfortable and not able to settle. In addition to that she was drinking and peeing a lot. At around the same time she was having some kidney issues, so I naturally assumed there was something about her condition that was making her uncomfortable. I’m a regular presence in my vet’s office so of course I called for an appointment to discuss what had been going on.
My vet assured me her condition would not have made her uncomfortable or caused the wandering. Being unfamiliar with dementia at the time, it was not something that had entered my head, or my vet’s head obviously. I know Red very well and I couldn’t accept there was no explanation for her behaviour. She would circle for hours and I was losing my mind. There were times it got so bad I had to leave the house to take a break. A few times I closed the door and went to sleep and let her wander. She did eventually settle but who knows how long that took.
I want to say I’m not proud of having to take time to myself, but it was extremely stressful not to mention heartbreaking when nothing you do helps your dog.
I don’t recall how I found Through a Dog’s Ear. I must have heard or read somewhere about music calming dogs and what a difference it made. I found it on YouTube and I’ll never forget the first time I played it. Red had, literally, been wandering for hours and when I started that music it was like a switch was flicked and she calmed down and within a minute or two she was resting, even sleeping.
At the beginning, especially before there was a diagnosis, I played that all the time. The music was incredibly beautiful I would find myself snoozing as well.
The word “dementia“ popped into my head one day, which is odd considering how I knew nothing about it but once it did and I did some research I realised all the pieces fit. I immediately called my vet who said it made sense to him as well. He ordered Selgian for me right away and within a few days I noticed a big difference. To this day she takes one 4mg tablet a day. My vet said there were no other treatment options, but that was not acceptable. Trust me my vet is amazing but he doesn’t know that much about natural supplements, and I think if something hasn’t been scientifically proven he doesn’t mention it so I did my own research.
She takes nutramind and nutracalm (which I believed are made here in England). Nutracalm is for dogs who are stressed by fireworks and thunderstorms so the relaxing properties prevent Red from getting anxious. She was on one capsule for a long time, now she’s on them twice a day. A few weeks ago my holistic vet recommended nutramind as it’s made up of omega 3s and ginko biloba. I do think it has been helping her as well.
B vitamins are very good for dogs with dementia and I give Red a B1 vitamin everyday. She gets other Bs in supplements she takes for different reasons.
My holistic vet also prescribed .2ml of berberis.
She started going for acupuncture a few months ago, and helped a lot with her overall wellbeing. I know there is mention of it helping dogs with dementia but I can’t say whether or not it’s made a difference. She hasn’t been in a few weeks due to transportation issues. I found with acupuncture in general I didn’t see the results at the time, but I saw a big difference when we stopped it and I mean for the worse so obviously it has been beneficial for her.
From the moment my dogs step into my house, they have a routine and a schedule, and I know how much that helps Red. I never used to have a problem taking Red out for hours, but just last week we had company and I took her with us in her stroller. We were only out for about 4 hours but I could tell she was getting agitated. She’s blind, which has never affected her before, but combined with her dementia she was stressed being away from her familiar environment.
Red has some vestibular disease so her circling is aggravated by her dementia. In order to help keep her calm she sits with me on the couch during the day while I work. I do believe it gives her some security, and allowing her to circle for too long causes her anxiety.
Why I added natural supplements
If you’ve read my posts before, you’ll notice how often I talk about the importance of involving your vet in your pet’s care. I love my vet, I think he’s amazing but…he does not deal with natural and alternative treatments. He is open to them, he knows a bit about some of them, and is always willing to listen when I talk about something I’ve read, but he’s all about the drugs. Yes those drugs have helped Red tremendously, but when he told me the only treatment for dementia was Selgian, I could not accept that. I did my research and found lots of alternatives people were having varying degrees of success with, and because I personally prefer a kinder gentler approach to treatment when possible, I felt it was important to add them into the mix to see if they would help…and they have.
There isn’t necessarily a way to prevent your dog from getting dementia, but the tips listed below are really the things we should be doing with, and for our dogs no matter the age.
- Feeding a nutritionally balanced diet
- Antioxidants to destroy free radicals before they harm healthy cells
- Regular exercise
- Mental stimulation – learning new tricks, using interactive toys and puzzles…
- Socialising with dogs, other pets and people
- Keeping your dog at a healthy weight
- Good oral hygiene by brushing, providing dental sticks and dental checks
- Supplements such as omega 3s and anything else your holistic vet feels would benefit your dog
- Seeing your vet when you notice any changes in your dog’s behaviour.
Dealing with the effects of dementia in older dogs
- The most important thing is to be patient and understanding
- Try not to rearrange your furniture – leave it as it is
- Don’t leave stuff on the floor she can trip over
- A ramp may be easier for her to use than stairs
- Engage in a little play time with her
- Comfort her when she needs it
- Don’t overwhelm her with too much “new” stuff – people, toys…
- If you don’t already have a schedule, create one for feeding, walking and bedtime. Structure is good for all dogs, but can help confused dogs even more
- Keep commands short and simple
Take care of yourself
This is huge, trust me! Caring for a senior dog who isn’t well can be very stressful, you may not even realise the effect it’s having, until you feel like you’re going to snap.
You have to take care of yourself because living with the constant worry will make you sick, and that is unfair to you, and no help to your dog.
I know you’re worried about leaving him/her alone for too many hours, so don’t.
- Put your sneakers and headphones on, and go take a 30 minute walk on the beach, or in the park. You’ll feel so much better when you get back.
- Prefer something closer to home? Try meditating for a few minutes, it will do wonders.
- Have someone you trust come over and dog sit, then go to the mall, have lunch with a friend or both!
- If it’s become harder to let your dog sleep in your room with you, then set her up on a nice cozy bed in another room. You all may sleep better.
Believe me, I know how difficult it is to watch your dog wander aimlessly, and how helpless you feel. I’m going through that right now with Red. But no good can come out of you ending up a wreck.
The better you care for yourself, the better you will care for your dog, and she needs you to help her.
How to help a dog with dementia – conclusion
Believe me, I know how scary, sad, frustrating and cruel dementia in dogs can be, but don’t despair. I hope this article about how to help a dog with dementia has given you options and helped you feel less alone.
Share your experiences in the comments section below, or on my Facebook page, dedicated to people who share their lives with senior dogs.
I would like to invite you to join Senior Dog Care Club, a new Facebook group for senior dog parents. There you will find lots of helpful tips and advice, a place to ask questions and share experiences. I look forward to welcoming you.