Dementia in Dogs: 5 Signs To Look Out For


If your dog’s behavior has been changing slowly over time—for example, if he no longer greets you at the door when you come home, or seems to forget the route of his daily walk—he could be suffering from canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). CCD, similar to Alzheimer’s in humans, is the technical phrase for dementia in dogs.

Of course, the fact that your dog’s behavior has changed could be the result of other problems. For example, if he doesn’t chase his toys the way he once did, the cause might be arthritis. Only your vet can properly diagnose what’s wrong with your dog, but you need to be a partner in that diagnosis, providing your vet with accurate and detailed information about what you’ve observed.

How Common Is Dementia in Dogs?

Dementia in dogs is more common than you might think. In fact, most dogs experience some degree of CCD as they age. The Behavior Clinic at the University of California studied the phenomenon, concluding that 28% of dogs aged 11 to 12 years displayed one or more signs of cognitive impairment. That number increased to 68% for dogs aged 15 to 16 years.

The precise causes of CCD are not known. Some researchers attribute the development of the disease to an accumulation of abnormal proteins in the brain. This can lead to a build-up of plaque which causes damage to nerves, resulting in deterioration of brain functions, including learned behaviors, certain motor functions and memory.

When Is It Time to Take My Dog to the Vet?

According to Dr. Denise Petryk, a former emergency room vet, most dog owners don’t know that their pet is suffering from CCD until the disease is properly diagnosed by a veterinarian. She recommends taking your dog to the vet when you spot one or more symptoms common to CCD, and provides an acronym to help owners remember the 5 most common signs: DISHA, which stands for Disorientation, (altered) Interactions with family members, Sleep-wake cycle changes, House soiling, and Activity level changes.

  1. Disorientation
    There could be a number of signs that your dog is experiencing disorientation. For example, he might go to the wrong door to get back in the house, or stand at the wrong side of the door. In some cases, dogs with CCD will go to a familiar place in the house, like behind the couch, and not know how to get back out. You might also notice that your dog’s timing is off—for example, he might sleep through his normal wake-up time, or be in the living room staring at the wall instead of his usual sleeping spot at bedtime.

  2. Interactions
    Dogs navigate their environments through learned behaviors, including the ways they interact with family members and other dogs, and rarely deviate from those behaviors unless they’re ill. If your dog who was always friendly and sociable begins to show signs of aggression or irritability, he could be experiencing the early signs of CCD.

    He might also begin to withdraw from some of his formerly favorite activities, no longer bark when someone comes to the front door, or fail to respond when you take out his leash for a daily walk. Again, there could be several reasons for this changed behavior—it could be CCD, but it could also be the fact that he’s in pain from arthritis or some other ailment.

  3. Sleep-Wake Cycle Changes
    It can be difficult to identify changes in your dog’s sleeping behavior—this is especially true for older dogs who can sleep as much as 20 hours a day. If, however, your dog who previously slept through the night is now awake, pacing the house during the time he used to be asleep, it could be related to a disruption in his circadian rhythms, a common sign of cognitive dysfunction.

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  4. House Soiling
    If your dog is house trained, but suddenly begins urinating or defecating inside, it could be a result of cognitive dysfunction. His changed behavior could be the result of memory loss, or he could be messing in the house because he can no longer voluntarily control this behavior. As Dr. Petryk explains, your vet can perform tests to isolate the cause of the problem:
    “After we run tests and rule out a bladder infection, kidney problems, or diabetes, then there’s usually been a cognitive change. If your dog is staring out at the sliding glass door and then poops in the house anyway and it’s not because of bowel trouble, then he’s lost the understanding that he should poop outside.”
  5. Activity Level
    When dogs are suffering from CCD, they often display a decreased interest in exploring their environments or in responding to common stimuli. If they drop a piece of food while they’re eating, they might not be able to find it. This could be related to vision or hearing issues, but could also be caused by cognitive dysfunction. Other changes in activity related to CCD include things like repetitive motions, head bobbing, leg shaking and pacing in circles.

If you notice changes in your aging dog’s behavior, it could be the result of any number of problems. Only your vet can properly diagnose the cause. More importantly, your vet can recommend appropriate treatment to relieve your dog’s pain. For example, if she diagnoses CCD, she might recommend foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which strengthen cell health to slow down the progress of the disease.

At South Boston Animal Hospital, we’ll treat your dog like a member of the family, properly diagnosing his illness and recommending an effective course of treatment to relieve his pain and suffering. For more information or to schedule a visit, contact us today.