Dementia is a distressing disease of older dogs. Symptoms include memory loss, anxiety and confusion. Around 50% of dogs over 12 years old have symptoms of dementia, rising to 68% by age 15. Although any breed of dog can develop dementia, it’s most common in smaller breeds. This may be because they generally live longer than larger dogs.
Dementia is a common condition affecting older dogs. It’s similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans and the symptoms can be just as distressing for everyone involved. There’s no cure for dementia. Medication from a vet can help to slow down the progression of the disease. Keeping your dog physically fit and mentally active reduces their risk of getting dementia early and may also help to slow down progress of dementia. Patience and supportive care will help your dog with dementia to enjoy the quality of life for as long as possible.
What is dementia in dogs?
Dementia is also called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CCD or CDS).
- It’s a progressive disease affecting the brain.
- Dementia is more than simply ‘old age’.
- The cause isn’t fully understood.
- Dogs with dementia have abnormal proteins in their brains called beta amyloid and Tau.
- Other factors are likely to influence how quickly the disease develops and progresses.
Dementia: causes and development of symptoms
- Abnormal proteins build up on nerves in the brain
- Parts of the brain that control memory, learning and anxiety begin to decay
- The behaviour and habits controlled by damaged nerves fail as the disease progresses
- Dogs diagnosed with dementia will get worse over time. Most will die within 2 years
- There’s no cure for dementia, but our understanding of the disease is improving all the time.
- Medication can improve symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease.
- Keeping your dog physically fit and mentally active reduces the risk and progression of dementia
Symptoms of dementia in dogs
- Forgetting toilet training – accidents in the house.
- Disorientation- getting lost in the house, staring into space.
- Becoming less playful and more irritable.
- Not recognising ‘familiar’ people and places.
- Sleep/wake cycle disturbances – awake all night, sleeping all day.
- Pacing, barking, howling or whining.
- Being more clingy and suffering from separation anxiety.
Dementia itself does not usually cause pain. But many dogs with dementia also suffer painful conditions such as arthritis in later life, and dementia can aggravate these. Compulsive pacing will hurt arthritic joints.
Dogs at higher risk of dementia
The biggest risk factor for dementia is advancing age.
- Getting older: risk increases by 50% with each year of age.
- Having poor hearing or sight means fewer messages reach the brain to keep it occupied.
- Being neutered.
- Terrier and toy breeds: non-sporting dogs are 3 times as likely as other breeds.
- Being inactive – dogs who don’t exercise are over 6 times more likely to be affected by dementia.
- Having other long-term illnesses: arthritis, liver disease, kidney disease, and an underactive thyroid gland.
Is my family at risk of catching Dementia?
Dementia affects individual dogs or people. You and your other pets are not at any risk of catching dementia from your dog.
Diagnosis of dementia in dogs
There isn’t a single test for dementia.
Vets diagnose dementia in dogs based on the following:
- Changes in behaviour
- Changes in habits
- Physical examination
- Ruling out other illnesses
How do vets treat dementia in dogs?
There isn’t a cure for dementia.
The treatment goal is to improve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
Treatment options include:
Medicines for dementia from a vet
- Selegiline improves the symptoms of dementia, especially housetraining, sleeping patterns and activity levels
- Propentofylline may help your older dog’s energy levels by improving blood supply to their muscles, heart and brain.
- Antidepressant medicines: treat the anxiety symptoms associated with dementia. These medicines are used “off licence”. This means they are human medicines vets use for dogs under special circumstances.
Special prescriptions foods
- Antioxidants to protect nerves and other tissues from damage.
- Special types of fat (medium chain triglycerides) to give the brain extra energy.
Special supplements which contain natural chemicals to help with:
- Supporting liver and brain function
- Helping nerve cells to communicate with one another and improving your dog’s memory, learning and willingness to interact
- Essential fatty acids
Home remedies to support dogs with dementia
Anything which helps to relieve anxiety or stress:
- diffusers that promote a calming effect
- compression shirts
- herbal remedies
- It’s hard to live with house-soiling, constant pacing, whining, sleep disturbances and separation anxiety. But negative responses, like frustration or annoyance, will only add to your dog’s stress and anxiety and make things worse.
- Older dogs may not have much energy on walks but they’ll want to spend more time checking out all the interesting smells
Keep to regular routines: Your dog will cope best with familiar walks, meal times and surroundings. Minimise changes and plan in advance if these can’t be avoided.
Give your dog more toileting opportunities: If your dog is soiling in the house, take them for shorter walks more often or provide special areas for them to toilet in the garden or indoors
Increase daytime activity: Keeping your dog more active during the day may help them to rest at night. Reducing stimulation in the evening may help to reduce nighttime pacing and disturbance
Play and stimulation: Your older dog may not be able to play in the same way as a puppy, but keep them interested and active with familiar toys and games
Provide protected rest areas: Older dogs with dementia won’t want to be bothered by young children or puppies some (or any!) of the time. Giving your older dog a quiet area to sleep undisturbed will make life safer and more comfortable for everyone
Adapt visual cues: You may need to change the commands and signals you use to communicate with your dog if they have forgotten the usual ones or no longer understand them.
Make allowance for other illnesses: Make it easier for an older dog with arthritis to get up and move around. They’ll struggle with slippy laminate or vinyl. Provide a shallow step to make it easier to get outside and a soft harness for support on walks.
Living with a dog with dementia
Make practical allowances for your dog being slower, confused, forgetful and clumsy
- plug in night lights
- provide additional water bowls around the house
- use corner protectors on sharp edges to prevent injury
- avoid redecorating or moving furniture around
Avoid change or prepare well in advance if unavoidable (travelling for example)
- Use stress relief measures (Thundershirts, pheromone collars and sprays, prescription medicine from a vet)
- Plan for additional toilet breaks
- Take along a familiar bed or blanket
Give them space when they don’t want to interact. Your dog may not want to play or even want cuddles. Let them choose and be there for them when they are ready for attention again.
Quality of life in dogs with dementia
Dementia is a progressive illness. It can’t be cured. Dementia will worsen over time and eventually will end in death. Death may be due to dementia itself or to another illness. And one illness may worsen the other.
It’s very hard to see a loved one decline and seem to be in distress. You start to wonder if they have any quality of life. If your dog doesn’t have quality of life any more, it may be kindest to bring their life to a peaceful end with an overdose of anaesthetic (euthanasia).
When to say goodbye
You may worry how you’ll know when it is time to say goodbye as your dog’s illness advances
It’s a decision that’s very hard to make and distressing for everyone involved. The best any of us can do is focus on what’s best for our beloved companion. We can start by thinking about their quality of life. Do good things outweigh the bad?
The following is a link to guide you through assessing your dog’s quality of life.
Tips for reducing the risk of dementia in dogs
Dementia is a disease of ageing. We don’t fully understand why it happens and we can’t prevent it happening. Some dogs will be at greater risk of dementia due to their breed or other illness. The good news is that owners can do a lot to reduce the risk of early-onset dementia and to slow its progression.
Keep your dog as active and fit as possible with regular walks.
Keep your dog mentally active with games, toys, and playing with people and other dogs.
Keep on top of your dog’s preventive care, including vaccination and regular worm and flea treatments.
Feed your dog the best diet for their age, health and lifestyle. A healthy balanced diet contains all the nutrients, vitamins and essential minerals to keep your dog’s body in top condition, including their brain.
Treat other illnesses.
- Take your dog for regular check-ups with a vet
- Give prescribed medicines as directed by a vet
When to worry
When to worry about your dog with dementia
Signs that dementia is worsening
- Stopping eating
- No longer interacting with you
- Not going out for walks or toileting
- Becoming irritable or even aggressive
- Being unable to settle or rest
- Suffering episodes of collapse or have seizures
Your dog may also deteriorate rapidly, either due to advanced dementia itself or when dementia happens with another illness.
Find your nearest vet if
- Your dog has collapsed
- Your dog is unresponsive
- Your dog has become dangerous to others or himself
Joii can help with advice on
- Medicines can help dogs with dementia
- Games and exercise to keep your dog’s body and brain active
- How to support a dog with poor memory and confusion
- How to care for an anxious dog
- If you’re worried your dog is distressed
- To talk through options for end-of-life care
- To talk about euthanasia and what it means
- To find out what happens afterwards
- With Bereavement Support