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Dogs & Dementia: What You Need to Know

Recognizing Canine Cognitive Disorder

Improvements in diets and veterinary care mean that most pets are living longer than ever, so it’s important to adapt diet and care to their particular needs at each stage of life. In addition, we’re also more likely to see more serious age-related health conditions arise. Senior pets require increased attention including more trips to the vet, possible changes in diet, and in some cases, changes in their home environment. However, some age-related conditions such as Canine Cognitive Disorder, also known as Dog Alzheimer’s, will require lifelong therapy along with frequent veterinary care and support to manage.

Causes of Dementia in Dogs

If you’ve ever cared for an elderly loved one, you know that memory issues and confusion are common, but these symptoms can also indicate a bigger underlying health issue. It is the same for dogs. Most dogs are considered seniors around the age of seven. Larger breeds of dogs tend to have shorter lifespans, so they reach senior status earlier than some smaller breeds. As we age, the brain gradually atrophies and cells begin to die, eventually impacting brain function, memory, and mood. Small strokes may also play a role.

While the exact causes of Canine Cognitive Disorder are not fully understood, it’s likely that the same health conditions that trigger Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in people are at work in aging pets as well. Although the initial symptoms of canine cognitive disorder are mild, they will gradually worsen over time, which is known as “cognitive decline.” In a senior or geriatric pet, any change can be serious, so it’s important to talk to your veterinarian at the first sign of a problem to ensure your pet maintains their quality of life.

Dog Alzheimer’s Symptoms

Clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction are found in nearly one in three dogs over the age of 11. By the age of 16, nearly all dogs will display at least one sign. Some dogs with dementia will begin to display aggression, most likely due to confusion and fear. The most common symptoms of dementia in dogs that you need to know include:

  • Disorientation/confusion
  • Anxiety/restlessness
  • Extreme irritability
  • Decreased desire to play
  • Excessive licking
  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Forgetting previously learned training or house rules
  • Slow to learn new tasks
  • Unable to follow familiar routes
  • Excessive barking or howling
  • Lack of self-grooming
  • Fecal and urinary incontinence
  • Changes in sleep cycle

Diagnosing Canine Cognitive Disorder

If you observe any of these or other behavioral changes in your dog, notify your vet immediately. A full veterinary physical exam, along with blood tests, ultrasounds, or other diagnostic tools can help your vet determine what may be happening with your pet. From there, a treatment plan can be formulated to meet your pet’s needs to help slow the cognitive decline and keep them as healthy and happy as possible during their senior years.

Caring for Dogs with Alzheimer’s

As scary as it is, a diagnosis of Canine Cognitive Disorder is not an immediate death sentence. There are many steps you can take to help slow cognitive decline including maintaining a healthy and stimulating environment for your pet and sticking to a regular daily routine of exercise, meals, and playtime. Your veterinarian can recommend a balanced diet that includes key supplements such as antioxidants, vitamins E and C, selenium, flavonoids, beta carotene, carotenoids, omega-3, or carnitine, which can help improve and support your dog’s cognitive function. At night, keep your dog in a small, familiar area for their comfort and safety. Night lights and orthopedic foam beds can help keep them comfortable and calm, so they can get adequate rest during the nighttime hours. Potty pads nearby or located near the door can help prevent accidents when your pup can’t wait to go out, or you’re asleep.

Ultimately, the life expectancy of a dog with Canine Cognitive Disorder or dementia is hard to predict. If the dog is otherwise healthy, dementia will gradually diminish the pet’s quality of life which can be a matter of months or years. Work with your veterinarian to monitor your dog’s quality of life, partnering with them to keep your senior dog comfortable, happy, and as healthy as possible throughout your journey together!

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[DISCLAIMER] Not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding the medical condition of your pet. If you think your pet has a medical emergency, call or visit your veterinarian or your local veterinary emergency hospital immediately.

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