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Dog dementia... what you need to know

Written by FOTP Team


older dog

Dog dementia is a cruel affliction, and our hearts go out to every dog and their owner suffering from it.  Here’s some good news: there is actually a lot that you can do to make your older dog feel more comfortable and secure.  We’ve rounded up the best ideas for helping your dog during this difficult time, from medication and supplements to natural therapies like massage and aromatherapy.  Let’s start with spotting the signs of dog dementia...

“When she was about 13, our Springador started standing in front of the kitchen door, staring at it aimlessly,” says Anna.  “It seemed as though she’d forgotten what to do, or why she’d gone to it.  Sometimes she walked into a corner and became confused.  It only happened occasionally.  She also had completely lucid phases, when she would walk and carry sticks just like she used to.”

Dog dementia doesn’t happen overnight.  The symptoms can be subtle, but it’s devastating to see a happy and energetic dog go through it.  Unfortunately, it’s also quite common for dogs aged 9+.  

When you notice changes in your dog, it’s always wise to book an appointment to discuss them at the vet.

You will need your vet to make a diagnosis of canine dementia.  That’s because some of these symptoms can also occur with different conditions.  For example, incontinence can be caused by bladder disease or decreased renal function.  Pacing can be caused by muscular degeneration or joint disease.  Confusion or imbalance can be prompted by problems with vision or hearing.  

So dog dementia or CDS can only be diagnosed after many other things are ruled out.  Your vet might perform cognitive tests (seeing if your dog is responsive) as well as blood tests, urine analysis and ultrasounds to form a diagnosis.  While it’s not a decisive list, these symptoms might indicate that your dog has cognitive dysfunction:

  • Soiling their bed or other unusual places
  • Disorientation: struggling to navigate around the home, going the wrong way or becoming confused – for example, approaching the wrong side of a familiar door
  • Less interaction with owners
  • Incontinence 
  • Pacing – this is a key clinical indicator
  • Separation anxiety
  • Being restless, irritable or sleepless (with more sleep during the day)
  • Being slower to recognise people or things.

In canines, Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome can be compared with Alzheimer’s for humans.  It is caused by impairment to brain function.  Requiring 20% of the body’s total oxygen supply, the dog’s brain is susceptible to oxidative damage when its protective function starts to fail.  This oxidative damage causes cognitive decline, and associated behavioral changes, in dogs. 

In their 2019 paper, King et al studied the symptoms of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.  CCDS affected 31% of dogs aged 10+ in this study, which was conducted through questionnaires completed by a randomised sample of dog owners.  

“Among the most frequent parameters found in dogs with CCDS were sleeping more during the day (85%), weeping when left home alone (70%) and the need of constant contact (62.5%).”

Because of better veterinary care, we now have more older dogs than ever – just like the human equivalent.  This elderly population needs special attention.

Your vet will provide the best advice on treating dog dementia.  But you’ll probably want to do anything you can to help.

Before we get into the medication and supplements, there are some dog dementia treatments or solutions that you can try at home:

  • Improve the layout (with fewer obstacles) in your main living rooms
  • Keep a regular routine to avoid confusion
  • Add motion-sensor lighting for evening and night-time wanders
  • Add ramps to help your dog get up steps in the garden or into the car
  • Lay puppy pads near the doors in case your dog is trying to get out for a wee
  • If your dog has aches and pains, invest in a better bed – there are orthopaedic and memory foam beds on the market
  • Spend close, physical time with your dog: it boosts the production of happy-hormones
  • Increase stimulation by providing food puzzle toys, bones, or walking little and often. This will help to limit night-time restlessness. 

Senior dogs have different nutritional needs to younger dogs, so your dog’s diet needs a review every few years.  

You can choose from several ‘Senior’ foods produced by reputable manufacturers – but how will you know which one is best?  Here are some of the ingredients that are clinically proven to support your dog’s cognitive function:

  • Antioxidants:  Look for food that is rich in antioxidants.  They can be found in foods such as carrots, flaxseed, spinach, and complemented by vitamins such as A, C and B12.  “The cognitive scores of the dogs fed a fortified diet and receiving behavioral enrichment were superior to those in all the other groups,” according to Today’s Veterinary Care  
  • Medium-chain Trigylcerides (MCTs): Providing fatty acids, these increase ketone levels in the blood, which in turn boosts the energy supplied to the brain.  
  • Phosphatidylserine: Already found in high concentration in the brain, it’s thought to support neurological processes and may even improve memory.  In supplement form, it may help to reduce disorientation and house-soiling.
  • S-Adenosyl-l-Methionine (SAMe): Found in veterinary supplements, SAMe supports the liver to promote production of serotonin and dopamine.  Given as a supplement, SAMe can improve activity and awareness in older dogs.  

It’s good to know that there are some therapies you can give your dog alongside recommendations made by the vet.  You could look into any or all of these ideas:

Cannabidiol:  Extracted from the cannabis plant, CBD is becoming a popular option for dogs (and humans) with cognitive dysfunction.  It may be a trend, but it’s growing towards widespread acceptance.  CBD works with the endocannabinoid system to balance body function, and is said to reduce anxiety and promote wellbeing.  Anecdotally, many dog owners love it, and the American Kennel Club has even sponsored research into using it for treating epilepsy  If you want to give it a try, be sure that you choose a reputable supplier (with certified products and less than 0.2% THC content), and start with a very small dose.  

Dietary Supplements:  What can you introduce to your dog’s diet to support their health as they age?  Antioxidants (like green tea), fatty acids, and Vitamin E are all proven to support brain function.  And they can play a key role in fighting off cognitive dysfunction.   We’ve bundled 8 proven ingredients into our superstar supplement – The One/products/the-one – which contains green tea and L-Theanine to help promote mental sharpness.  Sprinkle it over your dog’s food for a vitamin boost.  Or you can try Harmony/products/harmony, our supplement designed to help your dog feel calmer.  It is packed with natural ingredients to help soothe an anxious brain.  

Essential Oils:  Have you considered aromatherapy?  Surprisingly (or maybe not, if you already use oils at home), science confirms that essential oils – such as this study, which used lavender to calm dogs during journeys – have a notable effect on dogs.  Another study showed that geranium oil reduced pacing and circling.   As dogs have a strong sense of smell and aversion to some oils, you should be very careful when introducing essential oils.

Massage:  Canine massage is an additional therapy that could be worth trying.  Most doggy-dementia experts recommend that you increase affection towards your older dog; they will benefit from your companionship as they negotiate new physiological changes.  If you’re interested in pursuing the possibilities of massage, the Whole Dog Journal recommends finding a professional; they’ll know how to find trigger points and release knots or increase flexibility.  Over at PetMD, you’ll find four massage techniques to try at home.  

Canine acupuncture:  Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy which involves pushing tiny needles into acupuncture points.  It won’t hurt most dogs and some even find it relaxing.  By targeting nerves, acupuncture can improve blood flow, relax muscles, and relieve pain; its effects can last for longer after each session.   This means that your dog might start with two sessions per week, but they should become less frequent.  Acupuncture might be recommended by your vet to target joint pains.  If your dog can’t tolerate needles, acupressure is a similar technique without the sharps!  

Your vet may prescribe a dog dementia medicine such as selegiline hydrochloride.  This is recommended for clinical symptoms of CCDS and it can improve activity levels, sleeping patterns, and house-training.  As with any new medication, you should look out for side effects if you start to give it to your dog. 

If your dog has anxiety or pain, your vet may prescribe additional therapies such as anti-depressants, pheromones, benzodiazepines, veterinary acupuncture or physiotherapy.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that acupuncture and acupressure can have a positive effect for some dogs with dementia.  Start with your vet’s recommendations and see what other dog owners suggest, too!