Dog Dementia: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

It can be sad to watch our beloved companions age and grow increasingly confused – but knowing what you’re up against can can help you keep them happy and safe to the very end.

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Mercury, my Chihuahua-mix, turned 17 years old this year, making him (by far) the oldest dog amongst all of my friend’s dogs. When people see him, I’m always proud that they can hardly believe he’s as old as he is. Despite his age, Mercury is still in great physical shape and maintains an active life. 

Though Mercury is still very active I can tell he is slowing down and there are days when, just for a moment, he seems a bit confused. Our vets indicate that this is a normal part of aging, but it has me worried. 

It’s been estimated that more than 14% of pet dogs over the age of 8 show some symptoms of age-related cognitive dysfunction – and a whopping 68% of dogs aged 15 to 16 years have symptoms of cognitive impairment. 

Some pet owners might joke about “doggie Alzheimer’s,” but it’s a real thing. The degenerative brain disease that is very similar to Alzheimer’s in humans is properly called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD). 

Gaemia Tracy, DVM, is a neurologist at NorthStar Vets in Washington Township, New Jersey. He says that dogs with CCD generally exhibit behavioral changes ranging from a loss of housetraining to aggression, and often appear confused or disoriented. All dogs are at an equal risk; there are no known associations between breed or size and the risk of developing CCD. Dr. Tracy notes that he generally sees signs of CCD developing in affected dogs after the age of 8 to 10. 

SYMPTOMS

Dog owners are usually the first to notice that something is wrong or different with their dogs. Common symptoms to watch for include pacing, turning in circles, staring into space, or seeming lost and confused. In many cases, the dog’s temperament changes. Dogs who have been generally friendly may begin to show aggression – and typically aggressive dogs may become unusually friendly! 

Dogs experiencing an onset of CCD may also start to have difficulty navigating stairs or seem confused about how to get around furniture. CCD may also lead to dogs isolating and seeking out less attention, or generally become more fearful or anxious.

Veterinarians use the acronym DISHAA to describe typical symptoms of CCD. This stands for:  

  • Disorientation – Examples include getting lost in familiar places, doing things like standing at the hinge side of the door waiting for it to open, or getting “stuck” behind furniture.
  • Interactions – Changes in how or even whether the dog interacts with his people. He may withdraw from his family, and become more irritable, fearful, or aggressive with visitors. In contrast, the dog may become overdependant and “clingy,” in need of constant contact.
  • Sleep – Changes in sleep patterns (such as being wakeful or restless in the middle of the night), vocalization at night.
  • Housetraining – Increased house-soiling and/or a decrease in signaling to go out are common. Or a dog goes outside for a while and then eliminates in the house right after coming inside, or soils his crate or bed.
  • Activity level – Decrease in exploration or play with toys or family members, and/or an increase in aimless pacing or wandering.
  • Anxiety – Increased anxiety when separated from owners, more reactive or fearful to visual or auditory stimuli, increased fear or new places. 

Recently, the letter “L” was added to the end of the acronym:

  • Learning/memory – Decreased ability to perform learned tasks, decreased responsiveness to familiar cues, inability/slow to learn new tasks. 

Dylan Fry, DVM, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (DACVIM), a neurologist at NorthStar VETS, also notes that it’s important to watch for new compulsive behaviors (such as pacing) from your senior dog, as these, too, could be symptoms of CCD. If your dog is exhibiting any of the above symptoms or has developed a behavior or personality change, it’s a good idea for your dog to be seen by a veterinarian so you can discuss your concerns about CCD and rule out any other conditions like arthritis or other pain, vision, or hearing changes that may cause similar symptoms.

HOW IS CCD DIAGNOSED

Before your veterinarian can diagnose CCD, he or she will discuss the symptoms you are seeing at home and possible alternate causes. Your veterinarian is likely to do a thorough examination and blood work to rule out other causes. 

“CCD is a diagnosis of exclusion,” says Laurie Bergman, VMD, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), a veterinary behaviorist with New Jersey’s NorthStar VETS. “First we have to rule out possible medical causes of these changes, including endocrinopathies (thyroid disorders), pain, and changes in sensory function.” 

Dr. Bergman notes that the time it takes to get a proper diagnosis can be frustrating for dog owners, but warns that even if your dog shows what seems like clear symptoms of CCD, the symptoms could be tied to a different condition. Tumors, inflammation, and infection in the brain can mimic the symptoms of CCD; if a dog is showing symptoms of CCD that can’t be connected to other conditions, veterinarians may recommend using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to confirm the diagnosis. MRIs can show specific changes in a dog’s brain, such as atrophy or shrinking, which can aid in the diagnosis. 

PROGNOSIS 

Like Alzheimer’s in humans, CCD is a progressive illness. Dogs who have CCD don’t get better, but the condition can be managed. While the condition will worsen over time, says Dr. Fry, “the speed at which this occurs is variable.” Many dogs who have CCD can continue to lead comfortable and enriched lives. 

That said, dogs with CCD will require careful supervision and specific management to ensure that they are kept safe. Dr. Loenser notes that dogs with CCD are particularly prone to accidents such as falling down stairs, wandering off, or being hit by a car. “As long as the dogs are kept safe,” she says, “their prognosis is fair.” 

TREATMENT

There is one medication that is widely prescribed for dogs with CCD: Anipryl (selegiline hydrochloride). It been shown to slow the progression of CCD and may improve an affected dog’s brain function. 

Your vet may also discuss additional medications to improve your dog’s quality of life. For dogs who struggle to maintain a normal sleep cycle, Dr. Fry encourages owners to try giving their dogs melatonin, a hormone that can be purchased over the counter in most grocery or health food stores. This can sometimes help dogs adjust their internal clock and sleep more soundly. 

Additionally, anti-anxiety medications have also been shown to be helpful for some dogs with CCD. As with all supplements and medications, ask your vet whether any of these might be helpful for your dog.

WHAT TO DO AT HOME

There are a number of things that you can do at home to support your dog as her condition progresses. The most important task is managing your dog’s personal and household routines to keep her comfortable and safe. 

SIDEBAR: Nutritional Help for CCD

Dr. Loenser specifically advises that guardians should try to limit the amount of change in a CCD dog’s life. It’s really helpful to stick very closely to known routines and to be slow to make any kind of changes to those routines – including everything from who is in the home to furniture placement, mealtimes, etc. 

In particular, if your dog has CCD, you need to protect her from things in your environment that can be dangerous, especially stairs, decks without railings, and other dangers in your yard, as she may have lost good judgment regarding heights. You’ll also need to be especially attentive to your dog when on walks in order to keep her safe; she may wade too deeply into swift water, or step into the path of an oncoming bicyclist. Even if her past behavior and training has long been so good that she has been able to walk with you unleashed in the past, she may no longer have the cognitive capacity to do this safely any more.

A breakdown in housetraining is a common symptom of canine CCD. When dealing with this condition, “understanding goes a long way,” Dr. Bergman says. It’s important to remember that your dog isn’t lazy, spiteful, or trying to be bad, he just doesn’t know better anymore. Belly bands (for male dogs) and doggie diapers (for females) may be needed to prevent house-soiling by a dog who just doesn’t realize that she’s “going.”

SIDEBAR: She Wrote the Book on CCD

ENRICHMENT

It’s tempting to pamper older dogs, but this must include keeping them active. Making the comparison to how it is commonly accepted that “brain games” such as crossword puzzles can slow the onset of dementia in humans, Dr. Bergman advises that regular mental enrichment may slow the progression of CCD in dogs. Any kind of training, exercise, and social engagement can support the mental fitness of aging dogs. 

Of course, you should also be attentive to your older dogs’ physical condition; don’t push them to do anything too strenuous. Low-impact sports like scent work and trick training can be great ways to keep your senior dog’s mind active. 

Food-dispensing toys and puzzles are particularly good for senior dogs, who may not have as much interest in playing any more, but still enjoy their food! For older dogs at risk of CCD, Dr. Dylan suggests trying to keep them awake during the day, if possible, in order to establish and maintain a healthy sleep/wake cycle. 

That sounds challenging – and with multiple senior dogs in my home I’m abundantly aware of exactly how challenging it can be to keep them healthy and safe. CCD is concerning, but it’s comforting to know there are treatment options available to slow the progression of the disease. 

25 COMMENTS

  1. It is my horror and shame I did not get my beloved companion for 16 years euthanized months earlier. she suffered from horrifying and alarming paranoia months before she died due to physical causes and did not deserve this suffering but vet only saw physical suffering. Listen to your dog and heart

    • That is happening with us now. Our cocker spaniel has been showing symptoms off and on for a couple of years now. I feel so bad for him so I think we will to what’s right for him even though it’s hard for us

    • Susan Don’t blame yourself. It’s a very hard decision to make them go through it right now chad keep your dog comfortable and happy please think of all your good memories.

      DeAnna i’m going through that with him now it’ll probably be sometime this week that we have to do this it’s a hard decision but he doesn’t seem to be improving and walking into things getting off all hours of the night just barking.

      Prayers to both of you.

  2. I just put my dog to sleep over the week end. Her dementia was getting worse. I have many months of sleepless night just caring for her listening to her crying and being so disorientated. She was paralysed a year ago and I kept her going as she has good appetite . I couldn’t put her to sleep and managed her with wheelchair and hydrotherapy. But she couldn’t move her hide legs anymore or support her weight at her front legs. We kept her as comfortable as possible although she has terrible bedsores. We got air beds for her and reduced her painful bedsores. The sleepless nights and hearing her crying really broke my heart . I couldn’t console her and i did everything for her . In the end, with her age of 16 and no quality of life at all was too painful just to keep her going for my own sake. I spoke to my vet and he told me i have done beyond what could be done. It is best i let her go then hanging on to her suffering . When I read your comments, I really could relate to your feelings and experience. It was hard, i cried my eyes out and apologied to Fluffy a thousand times that i was sorry to let her go. I held her till her last breath. It still hurts to do this.

    • Juliette: You sound like such a loving, caring Dog Mommy. God Bless You for All You did for Your Fur Baby. You DID Do Much More for Your Beloved Fluffy than Most People Would be bothered doing.
      I DO Know How Much Work is Involved. But, You do what You Have to do, Out of Love. You Do NOT Need to Apologize to Your little girl. She KNOWS that You Love Her; and that You did Every- Thing in Your Power to Help Make Her more comfortable. She Is NOT in Any Pain, any more. She is running and playing – and, Waiting For YOU!! Heaven would Not be “Heaven,” if ALL of Our Fur Babies were not there, just waiting for All of Us. God Bless You, Dear Lady. Your Fluffy IS “with You,” right now. 💝🐾

  3. These stories are so sad. My 14-yr.-old, as of this month, Golden Retriever-German Shepherd mix has been recently diagnosed with CCD. She exhibits many of the symptons mentioned in this article. She is also dealing with arthritis in her hips and two vertebrae. We are making it a family effort to care for her.

  4. I have tears pouring down my face reading these stories. My best mate is facing his last days and it’s me that can’t cope. He is my world, but I know I have to do the best for him. He is almost 15 😭

  5. I have cried also at these sad sad story’s about your pets my dog is 10 years old and I dread the day for anything like this my other dog was PTS 1 nd half ago and still cry every night for him now I no I have to go threw this pain again does not get any easier a feel for all of yous but at the same time its what’s best for your animals it’s just so heartbreaking how a dog hasnt really got a long life god bless yous all and stay strong to anybody that has to go threw this with there animals xx

  6. Hello again everyone. It is with great sadness that I inform you about the passing of my dog, Alley. As I mentioned above, she was dealing with many issues. We took her in to see the vet this morning because she didn’t have much of an appetite over the weekend and her breathing seemed a bit rapid and, at times, didn’t sound normal. To the best of his ability, the vet figured Alley had suffered from either a stroke, or neurological damage possibly caused by a brain tumor. In either case, she had neurological damage. We thought she was just having a bad Saturday. It’s hard to lose a dog that you loved so much. I’m glad to be in the company of dog lovers on this website. You gals and guys understand what I’m going through.

  7. All of the stories above are just heart breaking, losing your constant companion, your baby is so hard. We went through it 2 years ago when our 11 year old Scottie Rosie had bladder cancer. Our boy Scottie who is 14 tomorrow was diagnosed with Bladder cancer last year and we have in recent weeks decided to take him off Chemo as he was having more bad days than good, he is now great apart from he’s confused. It’s not at the point where he can’t find his way out of a corner but more night voclaisation and staring blankly, he also gets really upset when he can’t see me. I am unsure whether to speak to his vet and ask him about medication for his confusion or leave him be as the tumours in his bladder are now growing and a decision will have to be made possibly in 4-6 weeks. I am beside myself with what is best for him. My heartache will always take a back seat to his wellbeing.

  8. I have just found out my baby boy cookie has dementia.
    He also has kidney disease and onset arthritis.
    He has been disoriented of late , this is the worst news ever , I cannot imagine my life without my boy he is 15 this August.
    My heart goes out to you all ! I now am feeling this kind of unbearable pain , especially knowing I can’t do anything for him 😢

  9. My dog has cataracts and my vet said it’s very possible that she has some dementia symptoms because she can’t see. Has anyone heard of dogs with both?

    • Yes, my Shitzu has been blind for a few years. She will be 14 next month. We noticed she has been staring into space and very anxious, walks around lost. The vet said these are symptons are dementia and it makes it worse because she is blind.

    • Yes my shih tzu started exhibiting dementia symptoms when she started going blind my vet said it’s very common for the two things to go hand in hand

  10. I made the heartbreaking decision to have my 15 year old lab mix euthanized tomorrow morning. He has cataracts, is almost deaf, has arthritis and now, doggie dementia. He has gotten lost in the yard several times, and stumbles and often falls up the two steps into the house He hasn’t been eating normally and has been losing bladder and bowel control lately too. He pants excessively from confusion and pain.
    I feel so guilty and saddened because he has been such a good boy his entire life. We got him from the pound when he was four months old, and from the time we brought him home, he has been the sweetest, most gentle part of our family. He house broke In A matter of days, and never even chewed anything he wasn’t supposed to.
    Part of the reason I feel so guilty is because he had a good day today, but that’s become more of the exception than the norm. I love him, and don’t want him to be in pain or ashamed of himself when he does have an accident.
    I don’t know what to do after such a good day today, and am feeling conflicted about whether it’s “too soon”…..

  11. My dog Milo suddenly went both completely blind and deaf 3 months ago. He had never been sick a day in his life. He is the result of our Pug and Beagle mating 14 years ago. He was the runt and I made sure he fed when his brothers and sisters finished eating. We kept the first born Boots and Milo. Boots and Lola, the mom, passed at the ages of 11, a couple years ago. Milo was depressed for a long time and would often look for his brother Boots, as well as their mama a year before. Sorry for rambling, but these baby pups were born in our bathroom. My husband literally blew into their faces to help them start to breath when they were born. Ironically, the beagle dad, 17, is still alive and well besides a little arthritis in his hip. Milo started originally started out with a cough and heavy panting. the vet gave me some couch syrup but nothing for the panting. I felt something was wrong so he ordered blood work, which came back normal. He then prescribed a steroid and pain meds which made Milo’s very hungry all the time. I hated the way the steroid and pain meds made him feel..anxious, nervous, excessive panting. I made the choice to take him off of all of it. He did better. For the month after he was off the meds, he still panted quite a bit and would wake me up at 5 am for his breakfast. He ate much more than ever. I think the sudden appetite stemmed from becoming both blind and deaf suddenly. Like survival mode kicked in. Then suddenly and out of the blue, last Thursday, he became slow, non responsive to my touches, more disoriented than before and loss of appetite. I took him to the vet where they ruled out tumors and other disease by doing an xray. Without doing a CT scan or MRI, we decided he has CCD. I have been putting an oil blend on him (ylang ylang, lavender, frankinscense, and peppermint) These oils are for dementia. I also ordered Selegiline, which should be in on Tuesday. I am hopeful. He is eating, drinking, going potty outside. I do have to guide him and sometimes carry him back to the door when he gets lost in the back yard or in the house. When he stopped eating on Friday, I thought that ws it, we would have to make the decision. Our adult kids even came by to say goodbye, but that evening he started eating again. The next day, Saturday, he was doing better. I of course called off the dreaded appointment. Instead I spontaneously said yes to my kids and grand kids when the invited me to go on a picnic by the river. I decided to take Milo. It was like he was alive again. The smell of the river and standing in the water on the rocks, I can’t describe my happiness. I feel this disease is going to take all of us on an emotional roller coaster of ups and downs, hope and despair. Sorry for rambling, grammar, and jumping around with my words. And thank you for sharing your stories, they really help me to feel like I am not alone. Lisa

  12. To all of you dedicated pet parents, I share a comment a vet made in a conversation with me: most people wait too long to give their pet the gift of grace and mercy. Having had to euthanize 16 of our dogs, I still cry when I remember the joy and love we shared. But I also believe that if they could have talked to me they would have asked me to let them go. It takes a lot of courage but it is also the final gift of your immense love and lack of selfishness. And to honor that perfect love, pay it forward by saving another loving animal at the shelter.

  13. Thank you Virginia..my heart is completely broken as I know its coming soon for me. How do I deal with the regrets that I am already experiencing. One morning when he was still in good shape, he kept waking me up at 5am because he went into a new phase of this disease. I got upset with him for that. I think that was one of the last times he was still himself. And what did I do?? I lost my patience for a minute. Ive always spoiled my Milo, but I was tired that morning. That is the one morning that I cant stop thinking about ;(**** and then why didnt I take him camping with us?? We sheltered our dogs to a warm comfortable home, with a nice back yard, an open doggie door, free fed, and he slept on my bed next eo me for all of his life, from the time he was born in our bathroom. But I cant stop thinking about why I didnt take him out more..walks, camping?? I would give anything to have that time back to when he was heathy and could have enjoyed these times…I’m full of regrets right now. He isn’t getting better, and unless Selegiline is a miracle pill, I can’t see him living like this..he’s eating, drinking and going potty on his grass… just for survival. I’m hoping to get it by tomorrow.

  14. My 17 year old shitzu, Moo Moo, is mostly blind, partially deaf, has dementia, and arthritis. She is pacing and sometimes going in circles. She has many medicines. It is so hard to think about putting her to sleep. She still eats and goes potty. She will still give me a kiss hello when I come in. We try to make her comfortable, but most the time it’s difficult to keep her from pacing and constantly bumping into things. The shoulder halo things didn’t really work well. I just want her to be happy. My husband and I know we have a decision to make soon. I hate this.

  15. @laura Shircliff I know how you are feeling. I have a 16yo Schnauzer. He is 80% blind and about 80% deaf. I now have to keep him diapered. He eats and drinks his water fine. I have decided to continue to love on him until he doesn’t eat or drink but before he is in pain. I rock and cuddle him and have to put him in his bed at night. He paces later at night and sleeps during the day. If he gets stuck, he yelps and lets me know. I keep try to the house doggy safe. I close the bathroom and office door where he can get stuck behind the toilet and in wires. I cant imagine my life without him.

  16. It’s sad indeed. My almost 15yrs x Maltese n jack Russell got severely sick yesterday n started barking non stop which he hasn’t done in months now. That frightened us and we rushed him to the hospital only to find out he has dimentia. He paced the entire night just barking. Even when I carried him he continued howling. I cried bitterly. I love him to bits but could not help my baby boy.

  17. My 15 yr old Maltese, Ben has been showing signs of dementia for a year now. He still has his puppy energy, lovable
    enthusiasm and zest for life. Because of all his positives, it makes it that much more difficult to watch his slow decline.
    He has always been an amazing retriever…his ball was the center of his universe. Now when I throw it, most
    of the time he can’t follow it and when he does he doesn’t retrieve it. He prefers to just walk around the yard sniffing.
    Inside, at times I find him staring down at the floor, I crumble but try to distract him and engage him with a toy.

    Forever, Ben has jumped down off my bed, about 3 feet…now he shows hesitation but along with encouragement
    is able to slide down the edge of the quilt a bit then jump. He doesn’t whimper from pain so I’m assuming that his
    hesitation stems from fear…do I want to cause fear in him even though he can still jump ? ? ?
    I praise him for his success and feel that he feels good accomplishing this.
    As far as navigating the deck stairs, sometimes he’s fine…other times shows fear and sometimes slips a bit…interestingly though, if he knows we’re going for a car ride or when anyone is standing at the bottom of the stairs he doesn’t have a problem…seems like mind over matter.

    As far as incontinence, he has peed twice in the house over the past year one of which was tonight. In hindsight,
    he had come to me to let me know that he needed to go out…I didn’t know it because he always comes to me
    for love or play and leads me to the door when he needs to go out. Now I will pay closer attention to his cues :)))

  18. My 9 1/2 year-old pitbull mix about a month ago he started to walk around the house a lot.
    Because I am a foster mom for a dog rescue organization I thought maybe he was feeling anxious because of the pups that come home. I took him to the vet for the physical yearly exam, everything looks good blood work came good they told me anxiety and prescribed him some sedation pills , which I still did not try on him yet, I’m changing the routine a little bit we are taking more walks and spending more time with him, there’s days that are better but other days that he walks very anxious and painting.
    I will request another vet visit I would like for the vet to go more deep and find out what is it I’m very concerned I read that there are some pills to take but I just wanted to confirm that is not stressed or anxious versus dementia

  19. Our 16 year old dog had “Sundowners Syndrome”. The phrase is used with elderly people, but my dog had similar symptoms. It was very hard, since it was not painful for her, that a vet could find. When younger she use to sleep in bed with us, then she stopped coming to bed and slept on the couch. There is where she would sit or lay at night and cry most of the night starting when the sun went down. I would go to her to give her comfort, even sleep on the couch next to her this use to work before it got so bad. Later she acted like I wasn’t even there. I couldn’t stand the crying every night and finally had to give in and put her down. Doctors could not find anything wrong with her that would have caused this. She was also going blind and deaf. She was a little active during the day and still going out to potty and ate her food.

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