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Dog Dementia: Symptoms, Treatment, and Management

Canine dementia is a debilitating disease which mostly affects older dogs. Learn how to recognize the symptoms, how to treat and manage them, and how to decide when to put down a dog with dementia.

Has your older dog been acting a bit strangely? If they’ve struggled to respond to commands, enjoy playtime, or recognize your voice and touch, they may have canine dementia. Much like Alzheimer’s, a disease that typically affects older humans, dog dementia can affect an individual’s quality of life and sense of self.

Dog dementia is similar to human dementia. It tends to affect the elderly, and it may cause afflicted individuals to suffer from confusion, memory loss, poor coordination, and lethargy. Preventative measures may help, but owners may still have to euthanize dogs with severe forms of dementia.  

Though no pet owner wants to find out that their beloved pup has dog dementia, awareness could result in a slightly extended lifespan and increased quality of life during the last years of a dog’s life. Still, owners must be prepared to request euthanization when dementia has progressed past a manageable point.

What Is Dog Dementia?

Dog dementia, also known as canine dementia or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), is very similar to the human variety. Generally, dementia is a neurological disorder that can trigger personality changes, bouts of aggression, memory loss, and significant coordination problems. 

It’s a devastating disease, no matter whether it’s affecting humans or their four-legged friends. In most cases, symptoms of dementia will not present themselves until a dog has reached old age. 

Consequently, canine dementia is often associated with aging dogs. However, age alone isn’t enough to cause dog dementia. After all, not all older pups end up developing dementia in their golden years.

What Causes Dog Dementia?

Sadly, the precise causes of dog dementia aren’t entirely clear. Still, by examining the factors that contribute to dementia in humans, we can hypothesize why some dogs end up developing CCD later in life.

Human Dementia

About a century ago, the average life expectancy for US citizens was only 54 years old. Nowadays, that number has risen to 78.7 years. And while modern medicine and society may be adept at keeping up with these inflating life expectancies, the human body has fallen behind.

By the time the average human body has reached 55 years of age, its DNA has started to decay and degenerate. This process never reverses, and it doesn’t slow down with time. The slow decline in a person’s physical and mental health is often attributable to this natural process. 

The average age for the onset of dementia is about 83.7 years. That’s five years more than the average life expectancy. Consequently, there may be a connection between dementia and the rapid increase in human lifespan. Our bodies may not be evolutionarily capable of sustaining themselves to our current life expectancies’ upper reaches. 

Notably, the life expectancy of beloved household pets (primarily cats and dogs) has risen in tandem with the average human life expectancy. As our canine friends have transitioned from rat-catchers and guards to adored family members, their quality of life has drastically improved.

Canine Dementia and Increased Life Expectancy

In 1900, the average dog lived less than six years. In modern times, the household’s fluffy fido may live more than fifteen years. Still, the size of any particular dog influences its life expectancy. 

Smaller breeds tend to enjoy the longest lives, while the more massive dog breeds might only live to seven or eight years of age, even with superior care. But it’s important to note that the average life expectancy of household dogs has doubled within the last forty years. 

For the most part, this significant rise in life expectancy is terrific news, as it’s a sign of widespread improvements in quality of life and care. However, increased dog life expectancy does have a few notable downsides, including canine dementia. 

It can be challenging to recognize and treat CCD if you’re unfamiliar with its symptoms. Owners that can notice the warning signs sooner rather than later have a better chance at making their pup’s last few years or months more comfortable. Pet parents with earlier notice may also have better luck finding treatment options that help relieve some of their dog’s most agonizing symptoms. 

old dog lies on patio

What Are the Symptoms of Canine Dementia?

There are quite a few potential symptoms of canine dementia. In many ways, they mirror the symptoms exhibited by human dementia patients. Some of the most common signs of dog dementia include:

  • Anxiety
  • Lethargy
  • Poor Sleep
  • Inappropriate Interactions
  • Blank Staring
  • Decreased Appetite
  • General Confusion

As you may have noticed, many of these symptoms are typically chalked-up to run-of-the-mill aging. An elderly dog might naturally be less excited to roughhouse, and as their eyesight declines, they might end up staring at random objects or walls. 

But if your older dog shows signs of confusion, poor appetite, anxiety, and aggression, they may be experiencing the symptoms of canine dementia. It’s crucial to seek a professional veterinary diagnosis to confirm any suspicions you may have, but this brief guide could help you spot any red flags a little sooner. 

One of the first (and most noticeable) signs of dementia is increased anxiety. Pet owners who have formed a close connection with their pup are likely to spot this issue immediately.

Anxiety

Dogs that are feeling anxious may cry, bark, growl, or whine. Additionally, this emotion can cause dogs to run and hide or react aggressively. In this way, canine anxiety exhibits itself in much the same way as the human stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight. 

When feeling anxious, a dog may attempt to attack the perceived stressor (fight) or run away from it (flight). If you’ve seen your dog acting strangely clingy or nervous lately, you may want to seek veterinary assistance.

Lethargy

A lethargic pet is often an ill one. When we notice that our beloved dog doesn’t have quite as much pep in its step, it’s time to seek immediate medical care. Lethargy is a sign of dementia, but it’s also a sign of poisoning, diabetes, infection, and heart disease. 

The average dog needs about twelve hours of sleep each day. If your pup suddenly starts staying asleep throughout most of the day or is listless when awake, it could be time to seek help.

Inappropriate Interactions

Most dog owners take pride in remarking about their dog’s gentleness and loyalty. So when you reach down to pet your loving pup and they unexpectedly snap at you or try to bite you, it’s easy to feel shocked. Sadly, inappropriate and aggressive interactions with loved ones is a common sign of canine dementia.

Blank Staring

Sometimes, when an older dog develops dementia, they form a habit of staring blankly at walls, ceilings, or nothing at all. This habit is a symptom of mental decline and can be quite terrifying for pet owners. 

When the dog is in this trance, they may refuse to answer to their name or commands. They may seem entirely mentally absent for a period before ‘coming back’ and seemingly recognizing their owners.

Decreased Appetite

If your elderly dog doesn’t seem as interested in his food bowl as he once was, there could be multiple issues at work. When a dog doesn’t immediately start munching on its food, it could signify a food allergy, a distaste for the specific brand or flavor of food, or a significant infection or illness.

To rule-out any bacterial, fungal, or viral problems, you’ll need to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. After performing a blood test, a veterinarian may be able to identify the cause of your dog’s lack of appetite. From this point, you can begin to discuss potential treatment options, including treatments for dementia.

General Confusion

If your dog can’t seem to find its way outdoors or locate its food dish, it may be feeling a little confused. Failing to respond to voice commands or their name is also a sign of dementia-induced confusion. 

Still, some pups may simply be a little less cognitively-gifted than others. If you have known the dog for a long time, you’ll be better able to notice if there’s been a cognitive decline. Be sure to check with your veterinarian to confirm or deny this symptom.

senior dog lying down in chair

What Can You Do To Prevent Dog Dementia?

While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent dog dementia, there are quite a few things that pet parents can do to promote improved wellness and help their dog potentially avoid this debilitating condition. 

For example, dog owners should provide:

  • Plenty of Exercise
  • A Nutritious Diet
  • Lots of Mental Stimulation

While these might seem like obvious and essential habits, you might be surprised to learn just how much influence they have over the eventual development of dog dementia. A few extra rounds of fetch each day, lots of mentally-stimulating puzzles and games, and a diet that’s rich in vitamins and minerals could be the key to maintaining your four-legged friend’s mental acuity.

Plenty of Exercise

Just like people, dogs need exercise to enjoy a healthy life. When our pups are cooped-up in kennels all day or restricted to limited play, their bodies can begin to grow weak. Over time, this lack of exercise can contribute to obesity, arthritis, and dementia.

Notably, some breeds are very active and require multiple hours of exercise each day. Others may do well with a brief, thirty-minute daily walk and not much else. Be sure to research your breed’s recommended exercise amount or consult with your veterinarian for further guidance.

A Nutritious Diet

A wholesome and nutritious diet may also aid in preventing dog dementia. Some studies have found a connection between low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and increased dementia risk, prompting many pet owners to invest in all-natural dog foods containing fish, hemp hearts, and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Still, dogs should also consume plenty of whole grains, lean proteins, and vitamin-rich vegetables to avoid malnutrition and its tragic consequences. If possible, owners should provide meals in a stimulating fashion. Slow-feeder bowls that require pups to work for their meal are a great way to keep them interested and fit.

Lots of Mental Stimulation

The more mental connections your dog can make, the less likely they may be to develop dementia. A healthy mind is bounding with electrical activity flowing along neural pathways. Dementia, a degenerative neural disorder, weakens these synaptic connections.

By providing plenty of mental stimulation, challenging your dog’s problem-solving skills, and practicing training commands with them, you could help them avoid dementia. Be sure to get creative with your brain-building tasks, or your dog may not feel adequately challenged. For example, it might be a good idea to switch up your mental challenges each day or each week.

senior dog with head on blanket

How Can You Help Your Dog Manage Dementia Symptoms?

If you discover that your aging dog has dementia, then you’ll want to consider adopting some specialized care techniques. Some of the most helpful things you can do include:

  • Create a safe space
  • Take daily walks or “strolls”
  • Enforce consistent routines
  • Use dog puzzle toys
  • Keeping veterinary appointments

Even though no one hopes for a dementia diagnosis, there are ways to manage your dog’s symptoms and help them enjoy their best life. To start, you’ll need to create a safe space for your dog that’s dedicated solely to him or her.

Create a Safe Space

When a dog develops dementia, they may begin to forget where their bed, water, food, and bathroom are. This development can become extremely frustrating for both pets and their owners. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: Creating a dedicated safe space for your dog.

This area doesn’t need to be very elaborate or extensive. It should be located in a relatively out-of-the-way spot, such as a secondary bathroom or roomy closet. Just be sure that your pup can easily access their safe space, or they may never learn to use it!

If you’re struggling to create the perfect security space for your dog, you might want to consider investing in an indoor dog house. There are many different options to choose from, ensuring that you find one that’s ideally-sized and well-suited for your home and dog.

Take Daily Strolls

All good dogs need an energizing walk around the block, and pups with dementia are no exception. But you may need to take it slow and gentle while walking your aging dog. Dementia can impact a dog’s sense of balance, causing them to wobble or misjudge their steps. But dogs need exercise and fresh air, so it’s vital to continue walking your dog each day.

But instead of making a habit of daily walks, it might be better to try making a habit of daily strolls. While the concept is essentially the same, the change of wording may help you remember to take it easy and have a little extra patience around your pup. Let your dog dictate the pace and allow them to “stop and smell the roses.”

Enforce Consistent Routines

Maintaining a sense of stability might be one of the best things you ever do for your aging dog. Sudden changes in routine can cause elderly dogs to feel confused, uncertain, and afraid. When a dog gets into this mindset, they may lash out with aggressive behaviors.

But if you’re able to wake up, feed your dog, take it on a walk, and perform most of your tasks in the same sequence or at the same time each day, your pup may feel more relaxed and comfortable. Naturally, this won’t always be possible. 

Still, it’s crucial to do your best to establish and maintain some type of routine. Not only may it help your dog handle its symptoms more easily, but a consistent task pattern could also be an excellent source of comfort for you and your household as well.

Use Dog Puzzle Toys

Dogs that are dealing with cognitive decline might need a little extra stimulation to keep their minds active. Pet parents can do quite a few things to help their pups stay sharp. Puzzle toys are a popular option, as owners can incorporate tasty treats while limiting any potentially aggressive behavior.

Owners can also build a gentle obstacle course for their dog, continue training them to perform tricks, and hide dog toys around the pup’s safe space. Most dogs enjoy rooting around beneath rugs and furniture in search of treats and toys, and the activity can help them stay focused and alert.

Keeping Veterinary Appointments

If your dog has received a dementia diagnosis, you’ll want to begin scheduling regular appointments with your veterinarian. Pet parents should be attending at least one vet visit per year, but those caring for dogs with dementia will need to schedule more regular checkups and examinations. 

older dog stares at camera

When Should You Euthanize a Dog?

Deciding to euthanize your dog isn’t an easy one. Strictly speaking, the decision to euthanize should only ever be taken after discussing the issue with your pet’s veterinarian. But your veterinarian may recommend euthanasia if your dog:

  • Is in a significant amount of pain
  • Cannot defecate or urinate without assistance
  • Cannot eat or drink without assistance
  • Does not respond positively to social interactions
  • Has no chance of recovering from their condition

While it’s heartbreaking to consciously choose to end your loyal and beloved dog’s life, it may also be in the dog’s best interest. If there’s no chance of recovery and the poor pup’s symptoms continue to worsen, it’s often more humane to spare them further pain by scheduling a painless euthanasia procedure.

Though this process is bound to be a sad one, it can also provide you with one last opportunity to bond with your dog. Too many owners feel that the mental anguish of seeing their pet pass away is too much. They then opt-out of being in the exam room during the procedure.

When this happens, the pup may not understand what is happening. It may feel confused and abandoned during its last moments of life. Even though dog dementia may destroy a pup’s memory and cause them to confuse you for a stranger, it can still be very beneficial to your dog as well as you to be there with them when they pass on.

You’ll likely be glad that you were there to help comfort your canine companion as they move on. And should you find that you need a little extra support and comfort after the loss of your dog, then go ahead and reach out to friends and family members. It will take time for you to grieve, and that is both normal and healthy.

old dog with grey muzzle standing

Should You Euthanize a Dog With Dementia?

When should you put down a dog with dementia? There are four primary reasons you may decide to euthanize a pet dog that’s been diagnosed with dementia. Those reasons are:

  • Pain
  • Quality of Life
  • Positive Socialization
  • Recovery Chance

The decision to end the life of a beloved household pet is never an easy or uncomplicated one. But suppose your pup is in intense and continual pain, experiencing poor quality of life, showing excessive signs of aggression, or far past any chance of recovery or treatment. 

In that case, it may be time to do the humane thing and relieve your companion of their suffering. Let’s discuss these reasons as they relate to canine dementia. After all, some diseases and disorders cause relatively few painful symptoms and may not negatively impact a dog’s quality of life. 

The question here is, “Does canine dementia cause such significant harm that it could require euthanization?”

Pain

If dementia poses at least one silver lining, it doesn’t often cause a tremendous amount of physical pain. However, dogs suffering from late-stage dementia may experience intense emotional and mental agony. 

Imagine how you would feel if you woke up in a strange house full of people you’d never met before. Now imagine that you had to use the bathroom, but you didn’t know where the restroom was, and you couldn’t speak to any of the strangers around you. 

Add a little bit of clumsiness and incontinence to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for frustration and fear. This experience is shared by many older dogs living with dementia. They may forget who you are, who they are, and where they are. 

Quality of Life

As a human being, you have the right to a living will. In this document, you could state precise desires concerning life support treatment options and funeral arrangements. Many people choose to do this in case they end up in an accident that leaves them fully paralyzed, brain dead, or otherwise incapable of making their own health care decisions. 

Should such a tragedy occur, the individual may wish to be removed from life support sooner rather than later. That’s because a patient who is brain dead will never be able to recover from their injuries. They will never regain consciousness or live everyday life. 

Without an advanced directive, a brain dead individual may be kept alive on a life support machine for several years or decades after brain death. Because this isn’t the type of life or legacy that most people would prefer to lead, it is possible to request immediate life support removal and organ harvesting procedures. 

When a dog is in an advanced stage of dementia, its quality of life is often quite terrible. The dog may not recognize its surroundings, and it may struggle to balance when walking. 

Dogs with dementia could also begin to confuse their owner for a threatening stranger, resulting in a pup that feels lost, angry, and continually upset. That’s not a great life, which is why some owners may choose to euthanize their dog when it reaches this point. 

Positive Socialization

Dogs that were once kind, sweet, and gentle can become aggressive after the onset of dog dementia. They may bite, growl, and snap at household members that get too close. This can be a devastating situation for pet owners that have small children or elderly live-in relatives. 

In many cases, this type of aggression cannot be curtailed or controlled, leading to a decision to euthanize. Additionally, aggressive behaviors and actions may become more intense and frequent as a dog’s mind is further damaged by dementia. 

Recovery Chance

One of the most maddening aspects of canine dementia is the inevitable decline that accompanies it. Dementia is incurable, and it typically becomes more intense as time passes. Unfortunately, dementia is a one-way road. This fact leaves all diagnosed dogs with a 0% recovery chance. 

While pups with dementia may be able to experience a relatively high quality of life during the majority of their last few years or months, they will never bounce back from their condition. This truth is bleak, and it’s one that most pet parents struggle to come to terms with. 

But a dementia diagnosis isn’t an immediate death sentence. There are minimal associations between canine dementia and a shortened life expectancy. Somewhat surprisingly, dogs with dementia may live longer than those without it. This unlikely trend may result from improved veterinary care following a diagnosis.

Conclusion

Dog dementia tends to affect pets that have reached old age. This disease’s exact causes aren’t known, though increased lifespan and poor lifestyle habits might contribute to its onset. The symptoms of canine dementia include confusion, anxiety, lethargy, and unprovoked aggression.

While pet parents can take many precautions to help prevent the onset of dog dementia, these habits don’t necessarily guarantee that a dog won’t develop dementia. Fortunately, there are some treatment options for pups in the early stages of canine dementia. Unfortunately, some late-stage cases may require euthanasia.

Superb Dog Editor

Superb Dog Editor