How to Know if Your Dog Has Dementia

old black dog sleeping on a dog bed
Older dogs like warm, soft beds. Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock

Like people, when dogs age, they start moving a little slower and developing a few aches and pains. But sometimes, there are signs your pet is experiencing more than just normal aging. He may have dementia.

Known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome, canine dementia affects about half of all dogs over the age of 11, reports PetMD. By the age of 15, nearly 70 percent of dogs show at least one symptom.

"People are often surprised that their pets can develop something like human Alzheimer's. But really, our brains are not that different from dogs'," veterinarian Lee Harris writes in the Washington Post. "The cellular changes of canine cognitive dysfunction would be recognizable under the microscope to any human brain pathologist: Plaques of beta amyloid — protein fragments believed to be the result of 'oxidative stress' — lead to distinctive 'neurofibrillary tangles' within the damaged nerve cells, and shrinkage of the brain appears in areas where memories are made and behaviors are shaped."

While a person with dementia may forget where he lives or have trouble recognizing familiar places, a dog with dementia may not remember where he's supposed to go to the bathroom or forget how he's expected to behave.

Symptoms of canine dementia

golden retriever barking or howling
Dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome will often howl or bark for no reason. Mikkel Bigandt/Shutterstock

Dogs with dementia experience many of the same symptoms that humans do. Those can include:

  • Changes in the sleep-wake cycle (waking up at night, sleeping during the day)
  • Anxiety and restlessness
  • Less interest in being social
  • Repetitive behavior, like pacing
  • Decreased activity
  • Problems with disorientation (getting lost in the house or yard)
  • Loss of appetite

Other more animal-specific problems might include:

  • Excessive howling, whining or barking
  • Elimination issues (going to the bathroom indoors)
  • Excessive licking
  • Aggression
  • Staring at walls

If you notice unusual symptoms, it's important to tell your vet early, veterinarian Patty Khuly writes in VetStreet. Some symptoms can be managed and can help ease your pet's transition into his older years.

Treatment and lifestyle changes

senior beagle taking a walk
Keeping your dog active may help fight off signs of dementia. BAD/Shutterstock

Pay attention to your pet's hearing and vision. Losing those senses can be particularly disorienting and make life more challenging for your pet and for you. If your dog is having trouble with hearing, try teaching hand signals along with voice commands, suggests Khuly. If vision is an issue, don't rearrange the furniture or rugs in your house. That way, pets are somewhat comforted by knowing their way around a familiar setting. Cataract surgery may also be an option for some pets. Ask your vet if it's right in your situation.

Khuly also suggests taking a few other simple steps to make life easier for aging pets:

Stick to a schedule. Knowing what comes when helps ease discomfort and helps map out a pet's day.

Ease anxiety. Figure out what helps with your dog's stress. Some pets respond to music or aromatherapy. Others can battle stress with a long walk. It's also a good idea to get your dog accustomed to a crate if he isn't already. That can become a safe haven when he's feeling anxious. You may also want to talk to your vet about anti-anxiety medication.

Consider a veterinary behaviorist. These specialists can help address the needs of stressed-out and disoriented older pets.

Harris says there are treatments to slow dementia in dogs, but as in humans, they're most effective when they're started before any signs of cognitive dysfunction emerge. Obviously, that's tricky to do. He mentions that several supplements — including DHA, which is an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, and SAMe — have been shown to provide some help for slowing aging issues in the brain. Seleginine, which is a derivative of a medication used in people to treat Parkinson's disease, is approved by the FDA to treat canine cognitive dysfunction.

"In my personal experience, I have not seen dramatic results with this medication, but it is usually prescribed in the later stages of dementia, when it may be 'too little, too late,'" Harris writes.

The same lifestyle advice prescribed for people is also suggested by veterinary experts for aging pets: a healthy diet (rich in omega-3s), lots of exercise and staying mentally active. Old dogs can learn new tricks and no one — two- or four-legged — benefits from being a couch potato.

Eventually, it may reach a point where your dog's anxiety and disorientation combined with health issues may mean a serious discussion with your vet about what's best for your pet.

"This is the point at which most compassionate owners I've dealt with have made the difficult decision to euthanize their long-time companion," Harris writes. "Although dementia is almost never fatal on its own, cognitive dysfunction and physical health problems are a debilitating combination."

Until then, however, follow the tips above and do your part to keep your aging friend as young at heart as possible.