I consider myself somewhat of an expert on dementia symptoms in dogs. This brain disorder gradually began affecting my beloved Toni in her 16th year of life.
Toni was our Canine Kid for 18 wonderful years, and when my husband and I think back on all the dogs we’ve had over our time together, Toni is the one we have the most treasured and loving memories of.
We got her as a puppy, when an unknown someone left her on the doorstep (literally), of the veterinary clinic where I worked.
She was a spaniel mixed with this and that, a joyful creature who enjoyed robust health for most of her long canine years with us. But dementia crept into her brain late in her life, and started affecting her memory, comprehension and perception. Luckily, she was such a big part of our everyday lives that my husband and I were able to spot the symptoms relatively early.
What is Dementia in Dogs?
The clinical term for canine dementia is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD). The clinical term for human dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease. Not surprisingly, the known cause of both are similar. (I say ‘known cause’ because there is very much that is not known about both.)
Simply put and as far as the latest research can tell us, sticky protein deposits (beta-amyloid proteins) accumulate in brain tissue. These deposits are actually called “plaques.” Not exactly the plaque that forms on teeth but you can well imagine how this would interrupt normal, healthy brain function. They are destructive to nerve cells and brain tissue and ultimately result in what we know as Alzheimer’s Disease in humans, and Canine Cognitive Dysfunction in our precious pooches.
How Common is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?
Statistics say that about 50% of dogs over the age of 11 exhibit at least one symptom of dementia (CCD), with 68% of dogs over 15 years showing at least one sign. Another study approximated that slightly over half of dogs with at least one clinical sign will develop more symptoms within a year.
It’s important to note here that giant dog breeds age more quickly than smaller breeds. A Great Dane or St. Bernard may develop dementia as early as 6 years of age.
Let me just say right up front that this condition is not considered reversible (although ongoing research always offers hope). It is a progressive disease, which means that it gets worse over time.
But there are certain things you can do to slow the progression of the disease as well as manage it. This will help you minimize your Old Friend’s symptoms, and make both your lives happier at this phase of her life.
Your dog’s dementia (CCD) happens gradually and in stages. If you can be on the lookout for specific changes as they happen, you’ll be better equipped to deal with it. As with most diseases in both humans and animals, early detection is the best protection.
Dementia Symptoms in Dogs
Since dementia in dogs (or CCD) is so slow to develop, the symptoms come upon your dog very gradually. Unless you know what to look for, it’s easy to miss the signs.
I.) The first stage of the disease is mild, and usually involves changes in your dog’s sleep-wake cycle patterns. You may have heard of ‘sundowners syndrome.’ This is when your pet becomes more anxious as night approaches. She becomes restless and paces, or she may stick as close by your side as possible. Often the animal paces or remains anxious through most of the night. This behavior usually results in sleeping throughout the daytime hours (which further adds to her restlessness at night).
Toni became a ‘Velcro Dog’ and stayed with me wherever I went after sundown. Sometimes she’d want me to let her outside, and when I’d open the backdoor, she’d just stare out into the night. I got the feeling that unless I nudged her outside or back in, she’d stand there indefinitely.
You may also notice slight changes in her social interactions with you, other people, and other animals. She may show decreased affection to you or other family members, even other lifelong canine companions. She might seem listless much of the time and her activity level drops.
II.) Stage two symptoms are moderate, but obviously worse than stage one. It’s at this point that most pet owners stop attributing these weird behavior changes to their dog “just having a senior moment,” and realize that something more serious is happening with their pet.
Pet parents are starting to notice alternate patterns of listlessness and restlessness. She’s starting to have occasional accidents in the house whereas she was always so well housebroken. She’s less responsive to commands and doesn’t always come when you call her.
At times, she seems disoriented and gets confused or ‘lost’ when walking through the house or yard that should be so familiar to her. She becomes either more withdrawn, or more clingy. Whereas she used to dance with excitement when you brought the leash and harness out, now you can barely interest her in a walk.
III.) At stage three, pet owners are seeing severe, dramatic behavioral changes. These can include such things as barking at nothing throughout most of the night, getting ‘stuck’ in corners or behind furniture, irritable behavior to the point of being aggressive, and all aspects of house training seem to have become a distant memory.
Your dog may be trying to walk across the living room and become stymied by a chair or a potted plant. In some instances, a dog may even forget that she’s already eaten, and will want her supper (again). And most heartbreaking of all, at times she doesn’t seems to recognize even you.
The progression of CCD is different for every dog and there is no way to predict how long each stage will last or when the symptoms will begin to worsen. But once the clinical signs are present, progression from one stage to the next typically happens within a year.
The earlier this disorder is detected and diagnosed, the better the prognosis.
The best thing to do if you notice even the subtlest signs of dementia, is to have a talk with your veterinarian as soon as you can. He or she will likely want to rule out any other diseases that may cause behavioral changes before making a diagnosis of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. The doctor can then evaluate how far along the condition is, and what the best treatment options are.
How Can I Help My Dog With This Disease?
Now that you know how common CCD is, when it’s likely to occur, and what the early warning signs are, it’s important to keep a sharp eye out for symptoms in your senior dog. It can’t be stressed enough that if CCD is caught and diagnosed early, the prognosis is much better than if diagnosed later on in the progression of the disease.
But wherever your dog is in the spectrum of symptoms of CCD when your veterinarian makes the diagnosis, here are some over the counter recommended treatment options that you can discuss with the good doctor:
Melatonin is a naturally occurring neurohormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain of both humans and animals. It has long been used as a natural supplement to promote sleep in dogs and in humans, and can work like a charm to get your dog back on her regular sleep-wake cycle.
Many pet parents prefer to use melatonin rather than sedative pharmaceutical drugs that might contain harmful chemicals that produce unwanted side effects. Although melatonin can be purchased over-the-counter at any pet supply store, it has not been approved by the FDA for use in dogs. Ask your vet if he or she recommends it to help your dog stay asleep at night, and awake during the day.
Many veterinarians (both holistic and mainstream) highly recommend cannabidiol (CBD) oil for treating Canine Cognitive Dysfunction in dogs. One Australian holistic vet said that it was the best medicine he’s seen yet for dementia in dogs. (I surely would have tried it for Toni if it had been around back then.)
Puzzle Toys ~ An active brain is a healthy brain and encouraging your dog’s brain to remain active in the face of this disease can be very effective in warding off it’s symptoms.
There are many busy brain teasing puzzles out there for dogs of all ages, from puppies to geriatrics. But be careful not too get one too complicated. Here’s a senior pet parent favorite:
Stick to a Routine Schedule ~ Regarding your dog’s daily activities, try to stick to a predictable, routine schedule, done in the same order each day. When she’s confused and disoriented, knowing what is coming next can go a long way in re-orienting her.
Try to get up at the same time each day. Take, or let her outside at the same time. Go to bed at about the same time each night. Stick to a feeding schedule, a leash walk schedule, a treat schedule, even an affectionate brushing or petting schedule. When she knows what to expect, this will help ground her.
Don’t Change Her Familiar Environment ~ Keeping her environment consistent is along the same lines as sticking to a routine schedule. Can you imagine how bewildering and upsetting it would be for her if you moved all the furniture around now? Likewise, keep her bed, toys, and food and water bowls in the same ‘safe’ place.
Reduce Her Anxiety Levels ~ Keeping her environment and activities as calm, familiar and predictable as possible will help alleviate her anxiety for sure. But there are other options that can be effective in contributing to canine calmness. Many veterinarians practice acupuncture and acupressure with traditional Chinese herbs.
Music therapy, aromatherapy, and thundershirts are other successful methods used to induce tranquility in out pets. Learn more about dog calming products here.
Always remember this: When it comes to calming your precious pet, never underestimate the sound of your own soothing voice, and your own gentle touch.
Medications to Treat the Symptoms of CCD ~ Ask your vet about certain medications that are effective in treating CCD and its symptoms. Anipryl (selegiline) is a drug that treats Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (FDA approved) with good results.
The doctor may also want to discuss other anti-anxiety medicines for your dog to offset some of the symptoms associated with the disease.
Regular Exercise and Interaction Are Still Important ~ You should still interact with your dog fairly often and give her regular physical and mental stimulation. Keeping her brain active will help maintain her cognitive function while fighting off the effects of CCD.
But be mindful of her limitations. Stick with toys and simple games she’s always liked, and keep your interactions fairly short. Likewise, keep your walks short and brisk, and always on familiar, predictable territory.
What is My Dog’s Life Expectancy with CCD?
The good news is that Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is rarely fatal on it’s own. Studies show that a dog that develops CCD can live just as long (on average) as a dog that doesn’t get the disease. So while it doesn’t affect your dog’s longevity, it does affect her quality of life (as well as yours).
As we’ve seen, there are certainly steps you can take to significantly slow down the advancement of the disease, and counteract the intensity of the symptoms. But as yet, there is no way to cure or reverse this progressive condition.
Most veterinarians working with pet parents of a geriatric dog with CCD say that the dog is usually eventually brought in to be euthanized. This could either be due to worsening of CCD symptoms, or the development of another fatal disease.
I can tell you what our experience was with Toni. When we first started noticing Toni exhibiting symptoms of CCD, she was 4 months into her 16th year. We used most of the above tactics to slow down the disease and its symptoms. She died of unrelated kidney failure 2 months after her 18th birthday.
But the time we had together in between, she was like our slightly-mentally-challenged-pet. Sometimes she was like her old self – affectionate and fairly energetic. Other times she showed typical CCD behavior, which we were able to gladly make allowances for, since we understood as much as we could about the disease.
Thanks so much for visiting My Geriatric Dog. Please leave me a comment about what you thought of this article, ask a question, or share an experience!