Dementia in Dogs

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Author: Alison Laurie-Chalmers, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets Inverness

What is Cognitive Dysfunction in dogs?

Essentially cognitive dysfunction is an inappropriate loss of mental function which is not associated with any other medical condition. It is similar to early dementia in humans and results in loss of perception, loss of awareness of and interaction with family members and the environment, memory loss and learning problems and delayed decision making.

What signs should I look out for?

Signs to look out for include:

  • Loss of recognition of people and places
  • Decreased interaction with people and other animals
  • Forgetting learned behaviours e.g. house training
  • Disorientation
  • Changes in the sleep/wake cycle (seen as sleep disturbances particularly during the night)
  • New anxieties
  • Vocalising more than usually

If you are concerned that your dog may be affected, the first port of call should be with your Vet for a check-up. It's important that other medical conditions, which could affect mental function, are ruled out before a diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction can be made.

This will require a full physical examination along with a detailed history of when and what symptoms you have noticed. Your Vet may also suggest running some routine blood and urine tests to rule out conditions such as diabetes, liver and kidney disease, or an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). If the health checks are all normal then canine cognitive dysfunction may be the cause of your ageing pets change in behaviour. If the behavioural issues are becoming significant then a consultation with a pet behaviourist may be required.

What will happen if my dog is diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

When all health checks have been made and a diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction is made there are several different approaches to treatment and usually a combination is most effective.

Firstly, your Vet may suggest using a medical treatment to try to help improve mental function and restore some vigour. Alongside this, a change in diet may also be recommended. As the goal is to limit further damage to neurons in the brain, the diet should include higher levels of antioxidants and some experts suggest the addition of omega 3 fatty acids. Supplements are also available now to add in to the diet to provide these additional factors.

In addition, your dog may need ongoing behavioural therapy - as it is very difficult to help dogs with cognitive dysfunction learn or re-learn behaviours.
Enrichment of the dog’s environment may also play an important part in improving quality of life and stimulating cognitive processes. So for example providing new toys, increasing contact with people and other animals, taking walks in different places and maybe even getting a younger playmate can all be stimulating enough to help improve your older dog's mental function. 

There could be life in the old dog yet!