Dog Dementia: What Are the Symptoms and Treatment?

The human-animal bond is precious and if your aging dog is diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, or CCD, it can be heartbreaking news. As a certified vet tech, I’ve heard countless stories from pet parents about their senior dogs pacing or getting caught behind doors. Many feel completely alone and they’re not sure how to explain the symptoms, other than “erratic behavior” they don’t think is due to blindness or just old age. Nighttime seems to be the worst part of the day, according to some pet owners, who describe their animals as having total disorientation.

I’ve noticed my own senior dog Bruiser looks confused at times and seems to bark at nothing, but only in the evening.

Read on to find out more about dog dementia, including early signs of CCD.

What is CCD or dog dementia?

Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is a disease prevalent in dogs that exhibit symptoms of dementia, similar to Alzheimer’s disease as it appears in humans. In the dog’s brain, the protein beta-amyloid accumulates, creating protein deposits called plaques. Some articles refer to this as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).

How to diagnose CCD 

Senior dog expert Hindy Pearson has conducted extensive research on CCD and explains that diagnosing it can be difficult and the vet exam is key. “There isn’t a test to diagnose CCD, but a diagnosis is typically made based on the exclusion of other possible explanations for your dog’s changed behavior. Your vet will want to hear exactly what you’ve been observing, then they will conduct a physical examination of your dog,” she writes.

In other words, tests will determine next steps. Sometimes the diagnosis might just be pain or arthritis.
Video courtesy of Hindy Pearson of Caring for a Senior Dog.

Major symptoms of dog dementia

A wonderful resource for pet owners with questions about CCD is a small non-profit in Western Washington that cares for senior dogs, Old Dog Haven. According to their article about dementia, symptoms to look out for include:

  1. Pacing, anxiousness and disorientation
  2. Staring for long periods of time, getting lost in corners and seeming to be lost in familiar places
  3. Peeing/pooping in the house: First, rule out any medical issues first as this can be common with other diseases
  4. Withdrawing: This could be as simple as ignoring beloved family members
  5. Barking for no reason: This is what our senior dog, Bruisy, does sometimes and I’m watching this behavior
  6. Appetite changes, which can be both loss of appetite or increased hunger
  7. Sleeping pattern changes: Watch for behavior like sleeping during the day and being awake and confused at night.
  8. Not responsive to your voice: Rule out hearing loss first.
  9. Any other behaviors that might be unusual for your dog.

Dog dementia treatment options

  • CBD oil is proving a new and exciting alternative to drugs for many pet owners. Not only is it effective for anxiety but for serious conditions including epilepsy. Many independent pet stores now carry it.
  • Natural supplements: melatonin is a great alternative. My dog Bruiser takes 3 mg each evening to help him relax.
  • Essential oils are often used to help. More in this post. 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Consider switching your dog to a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other  antioxidants. Some good studies have demonstrated that antioxidants may enhance brain health.
  • Herbs: You can treat with lemon balm, gingko, bacopa, and gotu cola. Talk to your vet or holistic vet about these herbs.
  • Selgian/Anipryl: Consult with your vet about this option. The ingredient Selegiline hydrochloride—known also as Selgian and Anipryl—has been shown to be effective for dementia in dogs by prolonging the activity of your dog’s remaining dopamine. This improves memory and helps dogs think more clearly.

There are a wide range of treatment options. Seek out support groups on social media, too, where many pet parents gather to discuss what they’ve tried.

Tips on how to make life easier 

  • Follow a predictable daily routine.
  • Make gradual, rather than sudden, changes in your routine.
  • Use runners to help pets maintain orientation and help with navigation around the house.
  • Swimming and puzzle toys can be helpful for canine enrichment. We are a huge fan of puzzle toys in our house for all our animals.
  • Through a Dog’s Ear: Calming music is proven to reduce anxiety in dogs and has been a very useful tool for many pet parents.

As always, be sure to consult with your vet before trying any of these treatment options.

Further Reading: 

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