Dementia, senility or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) – whatever you call it, dementia in a dog exists.
It’s probably sounding a bit scary but don’t worry. I’m going to walk you through what it is, how it’s diagnosed, treatment options available and share some of my experiences. 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 may receive a commission for the sale. This has no effect on the price for you..**
Since the writing of this post my muse, inspiration and heart dog Red gained her wings (RIP May 18, 2018)
What causes dementia in a dog?
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
- Sedentary lifestyles
- Poor diet
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 seems everywhere I turn I hear someone tell me they have a dog with dementia.
Is it becoming more common?
Is it because our pets are living longer?
Are we and our vets becoming more “tuned in” to this disease?
Are senior dog parents getting answers from FB communities, where they have the opportunity to share symptoms with others who can help identify possibilities when support from their own vet was lacking?
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?
I also haven’t found any evidence to suggest certain breeds are predisposed to developing dementia.
Don’t panic, just keep reading!!
Signs your dog may have dementia
- Paces or wanders aimlessly through the house
- Becomes trapped under or behind furniture
- Howling, barking, or whining for no apparent reason
- Sudden aggression
- Trembles or shakes for no apparent reason
- Has trouble finding the food and water bowls
- Difficulty keeping food in her mouth
- Has accidents in the house, no matter how often she goes out
- Walks in circles, typically in the same direction
Just because you see your dog exhibiting one or more of these signs, it doesn’t mean he has dementia. Yes I know I gave you a list of dementia signs, and in the next breath I’m telling you it might not be dementia. Here’s why – a lot of the signs are present in other illnesses. For example, vision problems can make finding food and water bowls challenging, and kidney disease and diabetes are just two explanations for accidents in the house.
For a detailed and printable list of signs, please read this article “Signs Your Dog Probably Has Dementia.”
Make an appointment to see your vet, and try and get in sooner rather than later. Once that’s done, make a list of all the signs and behaviour changes you’ve been noticing. Even the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential thing could be important. Taking a video will also be a big help in diagnosing what’s going on. In my experience, the behaviours we were concerned about at home don’t seem to manifest in the exam room!!
Bringing notes, and even jotting down some questions in advance will make your time with the vet much more productive.
Figuring out what’s wrong
There isn’t a test to diagnose CCD, rather dementia is diagnosed by a process of elimination.
At your appointment your vet will want to know what’s been going on, and that’s where your notes (and video if you have one) will come in handy. Next he will perform a physical examination, probably also take your dog’s temperature. Urine and blood tests will almost certainly be taken in order to rule in or out possible explanations.
Depending on your vet and whether or not he has any suspicions, some blood and urine tests can be done on the spot. Having results in just a few minutes or a few hours may already give him some answers. Typically they will still be sent to a lab with results taking a few days.
What comes next will depend on the results of the tests.
For the sake of this article let’s assume all other medical conditions have been ruled out, and your vet has concluded dementia is the only possible explanation. While there is no cure, there are things you can do to slow down its progression and help your dog cope with its effects.
Note: Please be sure to check with your vet before giving your dog any supplements. 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® 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.
While this was the one thing my vet recommended right away, I know from the experience of many of my FB group members, this drug was never mentioned to them. Instead they were told there was nothing to be done and sent on their merry way. Since this drug does not work for every dog, some vets don’t bother recommending it. Personally I disagree with that attitude. We should be presented with the options, have the chance to discuss the pros and cons, and be able to participate in the decision making. The fact it doesn’t work for every dog doesn’t mean it won’t work for your dog. I saw incredible results within just a few days, although I understand it typically takes longer than that.
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 did, 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. Their sleep/wake cycle is disturbed so you may notice your dog sleeping all day, but wandering all night. Melatonin may help restore that cycle.
Coconut oil – 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 showing signs of pancreatitis, so I stopped it immediately.
B vitamins – Used for their antioxidant properties, my vet recommended B complex, and gave my dog Red a couple of injections of B12 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.
Turmeric 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. I will say that the majority of members of my FB group who have tried it have seen some great results.
Acupuncture – Often recommended as part of an overall treatment plan, many dog parents have reported positive results. If you do want to give it a try please make sure you go to an experienced, qualified vet.
I have included an interesting article I came across called “Acupuncture as an Auxiliary Treatment of Dementia/Cognitive Dysfunction in Geriatric Dog.”
To Find an acupuncturist visit –
International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS)
Association of British Veterinary Acupuncturists (ABVA)
Senilife – It is an oral supplement made up of antioxidants used to treat the symptoms of brain aging in dogs. To learn more about this product, here is a link to the company website. I can tell you there are a lot of senior dog parents I know who have noticed a big difference with this product. Like with many things, it is not guaranteed to help every dog, but it may help yours!
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.
Interactive and puzzle toys
Giving your dog a challenge will help keep his brain active, so provide him with interactive toys or treat dispensing toys. Even teaching new, and re-teaching old tricks can be beneficial.
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.
For a list of natural treatment options – “How To Treat Dementia In A Dog Naturally.”
I believe a routine is important for all dogs, but particularly for a dog with dementia who derives 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.
My heart dog Red and dementia
(This post has been updated since Red died, but I decided to leave this section written in the present, because it’s what was happening at the time of writing.)
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. He did blood and urine tests to try and find an explanation, but everything came back fine. 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 for 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 being calming to dogs. I randomly clicked on that sample 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. 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 it 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 I knew nothing about it. I did some research and 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 of giving it to Red 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 I found that unacceptable.
Trust me my vet is amazing, but he doesn’t know that much about natural supplements. Plus, if something hasn’t been scientifically proven he won’t mention/recommend it, so I did my own research.
Red takes nutramind and nutracalm (which 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, which helped a lot with her overall well being and vitality. 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 had 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, and me, 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.
My life as a dog with dementia
One day I thought it would be helpful to write about dementia from Red’s point of view… and here it is.
Read this ⇒ My Life As A Dog With Dementia
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 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
- I don’t like the idea of crating a dog with dementia, in my experience that level of confinement can be very stressful because of their need to wander. A baby gate to keep her in one room or part of the house, or getting creative in how to block off a section of your house are better options.
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.
- Planning a family vacation and can’t stand the thought of leaving the dog? Perhaps you can bring her along. There are lots of pet friendly hotels and restaurants. Renting a motor home or caravan is a great dog friendly way to travel. Can’t bring her for whatever reason? Is there someone you have complete trust in to stay at your home? It will be a lot less disruptive then putting your dog in kennels.
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.
A wonderful and incredibly helpful resource
In addition to all the information you’ve gotten here, one resource senior dog parents have found incredibly helpful is a book called Remember Me? Loving and Caring For a Dog With Canine Cognitive Dysfunction by Eileen Anderson. I highly recommend it.
Everything you need to know about dementia in a dog – conclusion
I know how scary, sad, frustrating and cruel dementia can be, and the toll it can take on the caregiver and everyone in the household. I hope you see no matter what you are dealing with, you are not alone.
Does your dog have dementia? Who diagnosed it? What treatments have your vet recommended? Please share your experiences in the comments below, it will help so many others.