Just like humans, dogs’ bodily functions and systems can start to decline as they get older, increasing the chance of developing an age-related illness. You probably know someone or are impacted by someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s and may be wondering, “Can dogs get dementia, too?” The answer is yes, and it affects dogs in a similar way to how it affects humans.
We’ve rounded up some commonly asked questions around dog dementia to help you navigate what can be a sensitive and emotional time. Read on to learn more about the causes, signs, treatment, and management of this cognitive disorder.
Dog dementia is a cognitive disorder, also known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), that affects the aging and functions of a dog’s brain, causing effects similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Changes in comprehension, behavior, memory, and learning are common and CCD may affect as many as 35% of dogs over the age of 8.3
The exact cause of dog dementia is unknown, but scientists believe it may be caused by some of the same biological, genetic, and environmental factors that can trigger dementia in humans.4 This means that canine dementia can also be caused by brain trauma and genetic conditions, not just a cognitive decline in senior dogs.
Since dogs can’t verbally let us know exactly what’s wrong, dog owners and vets have to rely on signs and changes in behavior to diagnose canine dementia. Often, symptoms are mild at the onset of CCD and grow more noticeable over time.5 There’s no specific age that dog dementia starts, but you may notice signs around the age of 10 years old for larger breeds and 12 years old for smaller breeds.6
Some dog dementia symptoms and signs include5,6:
- Disorientation and confusion: This can be aimless wandering or staring, looking lost in familiar surroundings, and forgetting routines, their name, familiar people, or normal commands.
- Interaction with people and pets: This can look like irritability or aggression towards others, along with acting differently around people and other pets than normal.
- Sleep/wake cycles become altered: Your dog is up pacing, barking, or whining at night and sleeping a lot during the day.
- House soiling: Your dog losing control of their bladder is a common sign.
- Lack of activity: Your pup shows a decreased desire to play and a resistance to new people, places, or things
- Lack of self-grooming or appetite
- Slow to learn new things
The first signs of dog dementia may appear as them sleeping more during the day, becoming less active, and seeming confused or disoriented, but every dog is different.6
There’s no specific test to diagnose canine dementia, but veterinarians use a cognitive assessment called DISHAA in addition to asking you about your dog’s behavior to make a diagnosis. The six areas of DISHAA — Disorientation, Interaction, Sleep/wake cycles, House soiling, Activity, and Anxiety — are evaluated and scored to diagnose and indicate the severity of CCD that may be present.
However, some of the common symptoms of dementia in dogs may also indicate other types of health conditions like endocrine diseases, arthritis, or metabolic disorders.5 Your vet will likely utilize bloodwork and diagnostic tests to rule anything else out before testing for CCD.
Dogs with canine dementia may be able to live a happy and full life depending on their treatment plan, being able to follow through on that plan, and how your dog responds to it.3
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for dog dementia.3 But there are treatments available that focus on improving your dog’s cognitive functions and managing symptoms to help increase their quality of life. Most treatments involve combining medication, dietary and lifestyle changes, nutritional supplements, and surgery to help slow its progression.5,6 Talk with your veterinarian to come up with a treatment plan that’s right for your pup.
It may be hard to tell if your dog with dementia is suffering, especially if it’s early on and they aren’t showing any symptoms yet. Once they’re diagnosed with dementia, your pup may suffer from the confusion, disorientation, and frustration that comes with things becoming harder for them to do. Forgetting certain people, having a hard time understanding new information, slight disruptions in routine, and feeling lost in familiar places can all be frustrating for a pup with dementia.
This is why it’s important to stick to your dog’s treatment plan — it can help minimize their frustrations and maintain a good quality of life.
Caring for a dog with canine dementia may not be easy. The disorder has likely caused them to form new habits that may not fit in your normal routine or schedule and you may not be able to do the same things you once enjoyed together. But you can still make many beautiful memories with your senior dog. Here are some things you can do at home to help your pup live a full and happy life with dementia.
Restrict unsafe areas in your home or yard, and provide easy access to their favorite toys or places. Leave nightlights on if your dog likes to take a stroll around your home in the middle of the night, or try taking them on a walk right before bed to help them sleep more.
Utilize low intensity enrichment activities to increase your dog’s mental stimulation. Things like food puzzles, walks focused on smelling everything along the path, and scent-work games that involve hiding a treat are all great options for pups that may also be adjusting to sight or hearing loss.
Take your dog outside for potty breaks or walks more often to help with stimulating their senses and brain as well as give them more chances to relieve themselves and prevent accidents indoors.
Designate a space in your home where they can go to the bathroom if they can’t make it outside between potty breaks. Since new training is required, this option may be harder for a dog with dementia to learn.
Respect your dog’s desire (or lack of desire) to interact with people and pets, instead of forcing them to do something they don’t enjoy.
Walks and eating should be kept at the same times and lengths as best as you can. The placement of your furniture, including their bed(s), shouldn’t be moved around a lot for their safety and to decrease confusion. Try to avoid changing up your schedule to minimize any of their anxiety.
Since the specific cause of canine dementia isn’t known, it can be hard to know exactly how to prevent it from happening to your furry family member. But observing any changes in your dog’s behavior and setting up a vet exam can help when it comes to early diagnosis and management. This may slow the progression and give you and your pup more good days together.
That being said, there are some action steps you can take throughout your dog’s life to help give their brain a boost, and keep it healthier for longer. Some of these things include:
- Feeding them a nutrient-dense diet and giving them brain health supplements while avoiding toxic foods, substances, and environments
- Keeping their mind sharp by teaching them new tricks or giving them opportunities to learn or experience new things
- Regular exercise
- Socializing them regularly
- Minimizing stress when possible
Whether you’re looking to increase your dog’s brain health through preventative measures, going through the diagnostic stage, or treating and managing your pup’s dementia, the costs can feel overwhelming. With a MetLife Pet Insurance1 policy, you may be able to get some of those costs covered, from special diet food and holistic care to diagnostic tests and medications.2
Enrolling in a dog insurance plan while your dog is young ensures that you’ll have the protection you need, when you need it. But don’t think it’s too late to enroll in a policy if your dog is already a senior — it may still be worth it. Get started today with a free quote.