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Dog Dementia: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Author: Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Published: December 11, 2023

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senior dog sitting in yardDoes your dog not seem to be as sharp as they used to be? Are you noticing behaviors that seem a little off as they age? Just like humans, dogs can experience cognitive decline as they age, leading to a condition known as canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or what is more commonly referred to as "doggie dementia."

Dog dementia is similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans and is characterized by a gradual deterioration in cognitive abilities in senior dogs. Studies have found that this condition can start to develop when a dog is between 8 to 9 years old.

In this article, we'll explain the signs of doggie dementia, explore its causes, discuss diagnosis and treatment options, explore prevention strategies, and provide tips for care and support for our beloved dogs in their golden years. If you are concerned about your dog's mental health, keep reading to learn all you need to know about canine cognitive dysfunction.

Signs of Dog Dementia

You need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of canine cognitive decline, as early detection can lead to better management and a higher quality of life for your senior dog. By being familiar with these signs, you'll be equipped to provide the care and support your dog needs during this stage of life.

Disorientation and Confusion

One of the primary signs of canine cognitive dysfunction is disorientation. You may notice that your dog gets lost or confused even in familiar surroundings, such as your home or yard. They may circle aimlessly, appear disoriented when entering or exiting rooms or get "stuck" in corners or behind furniture. These behaviors can be distressing for both you and your dog.

Changes in Sleeping Patterns

If you observe changes in your dog's sleeping habits, it could be a symptom of dog dementia. A senior dog will typically sleep up to 20 hours a day, including nighttime sleep. Dogs with cognitive dysfunction may experience restlessness at night, wandering around the home, pacing, barking, or vocalizing. They might also sleep more during the day, appearing lethargic and less interested in activities they previously enjoyed. Maintaining a consistent sleep routine and providing a comfortable and secure sleeping environment can help manage these changes. 

Decreased Interest in Food and Waterold dog not wanting to eat

A loss of appetite is another common sign of dog dementia. Your once food-motivated pup may suddenly lose interest in their favorite meals or treats. They may also forget where their water bowl is or how to drink from it.

It's essential to monitor your dog's eating and drinking habits, ensuring they stay hydrated and receive proper nutrition. Discuss any significant changes with your veterinarian, who may recommend specific dietary adjustments or supplements, some of which are mentioned further below.

Pet Water Consumption Calculator

Behavioral Changes

Senior dogs with dementia often undergo notable behavioral changes. They may become more irritable, anxious, or clingy, seeking constant reassurance and attention. On the other hand, they might also become withdrawn or disinterested in social interactions. Uncharacteristic aggression, restlessness, or excessive vocalization can also occur as a result of cognitive decline. Understanding and providing a calm and structured environment can help alleviate anxiety and confusion.

Potty Accidents

Another sign of doggie dementia is a regression in house training. Dogs with cognitive dysfunction may have potty accidents indoors, even if they were previously housetrained. They may forget the purpose of designated potty spots or fail to let you know when they need to go outside. To manage this problem, establish a consistent bathroom routine and consider keeping your dog in a smaller, easily supervised area when necessary. Have your veterinarian check for incontinence issues as well, which can happen with age.

Should you notice any of the signs noted above, consult with your veterinarian as soon as you can. Remember, early detection and appropriate management can have a significant impact on your dog's quality of life.

Watch this video of a Preventive Vet dog, Daisy, exhibiting symptoms of cognitive decline. She starts with excessive barking and progresses to staring and getting stuck in corners and tight spaces. She also shows disorientation while eating. These symptoms started when she was 16 years old and progressed until she passed away at 18.5 years old.


What Causes Dog Dementia?

While the exact causes of dog dementia are still being researched, several factors have been identified as potential contributors to the development of cognitive decline in dogs:

Aging Process: The natural aging process plays a significant role in the development of cognitive dysfunction in dogs. According to one published study, older dogs exhibit both macroscopic and microscopic brain changes associated with cognitive decline. As dogs age, the odds of cognitive decline increase by 52% with each year. 

Neurological Changes: Altered brain neurotransmitter systems have been implicated in the cognitive decline seen in senior dogs. Studies suggest that dysregulation of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, may contribute to cognitive dysfunction. Imbalances in these chemical messengers can affect cognition, behavior, and memory.

Genetic Predisposition: While further research is needed to fully understand the genetic basis of dog dementia, certain breeds have been reported to have a higher prevalence of cognitive dysfunction. A 2021 study from the Dog Aging Project found that breeds from the terrier, toy, and non-sporting groups (as defined by the AKC) were three times more likely to develop dog dementia than other breeds.

Reproductive Status: Intact dogs were found to be 64% less likely to have dog dementia compared to dogs who had been spayed or neutered. 

Underlying Medical Conditions: Underlying medical conditions can exacerbate cognitive dysfunction in dogs. The 2021 Dog Aging Project study found that neurological eye and ear disorders resulted in being twice as likely to be diagnosed with canine cognitive dysfunction — which is also seen in human Alzheimer's studies. There have been study findings linking idiopathic epilepsy with a higher risk of developing cognitive dysfunction at a younger age. 

Oxidative stress, resulting from an imbalance between the production of free radicals and antioxidant defenses in the body, can damage brain cells and accelerate cognitive decline. This condition often happens in dogs with heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. Oxidative stress contributes to neurodegenerative diseases, including doggie dementia.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Dog Dementia

Diagnosing and treating dog dementia requires a comprehensive approach to address the cognitive decline in your dog. Early detection and intervention can help slow down the progression of this condition, ensuring a better quality of life.

How Does Your Veterinarian Diagnose Dog Dementia?

A thorough clinical assessment by a veterinarian is the first step in diagnosing dog dementia. This involves a detailed history review, physical examination, and assessment of behavioral changes and cognitive dysfunction using standardized tests.
The Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating Scale (CCDR) is a commonly used tool to assess cognitive dysfunction. It evaluates various aspects of cognition, including memory, orientation, and activity level.

It's crucial to rule out underlying medical conditions that can mimic or exacerbate cognitive dysfunction. This may involve blood tests, urinalysis, and imaging studies to identify any potential health issues contributing to cognitive decline. Advanced diagnostic techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a spinal tap, can be used to evaluate brain structure, detect any abnormalities or lesions, and rule out infectious or inflammatory diseases of the central nervous system.

How to Treat Your Dog's Dementia

Unfortunately, there is no cure for dog dementia. But there are things you can do to alleviate symptoms for your dog and prolong cognitive function as they age.

Environmental Enrichment: Creating a mentally stimulating and enriching environment is crucial for dogs with cognitive dysfunction. Mental enrichment is easy to add to your dog's daily routine. This can include puzzle toys, interactive games, trick training, and regular social interaction with people or other dogs (if they enjoy that) to engage and exercise your dog's brain.

senior dog staying active with agility practice
Physical Exercise and Movement: Keeping a senior dog moving is essential to maintain muscle and joint health but also goes a long way in maintaining cognitive function. Senior dogs should get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, but you can break that up into a few minutes at a time to make it easier on them.

Diet and Supplements: Specialized diets and supplements rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and other cognitive-supporting nutrients are available. These can help combat oxidative stress and support brain health in dogs with cognitive dysfunction. Veterinary behaviorists recommend Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind (available without a prescription), Hill’s b/d (prescription needed), and Purina Neurocare (prescription needed) for nutritional purposes.

Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind Dog Food
purina pro plan bright mind


Supplements, though they take some time to take effect, have been shown to provide benefits for brain health. These supplements include:

MCT and fish oil also have great benefits for reducing inflammation and targeting brain health, among many other benefits.

Before giving your dog a new supplement, speak with your veterinarian to ensure it is safe and to talk about dosage. Some supplements affect things such as serotonin levels, which can be dangerous if your dog is already on other medications that affect serotonin. Others may be unnecessary if your dog's food already contains the same ingredients at higher levels.

Medications: Various medications can be prescribed to manage specific symptoms associated with dog dementia, such as selegiline (Anipryl®), pentoxifylline, and memantine, which have been shown to support cognitive function and alleviate certain behavioral changes. Other medications your veterinarian prescribes may target anxiety, sleep disturbances, or other coexisting conditions.

Supportive Care: Providing a consistent routine, maintaining regular exercise, and minimizing stressors can help manage behavioral changes and reduce anxiety in dogs with cognitive dysfunction. A supportive and familiar environment is essential for their overall well-being.

Regular Monitoring and Follow-up: Close monitoring and regular follow-up with a veterinarian are crucial to evaluate treatment effectiveness and adjust the management plan as needed. Periodic reassessment of mental status using cognitive assessment tools can help track the progression of cognitive decline.

Living With a Dog Who Has Dementia

Dogs with dementia thrive in a consistent and predictable environment. Establishing a daily routine can help reduce anxiety and confusion. Feed your dog at the same time every day, maintain regular walking schedules, and develop a consistent bedtime routine. A structured routine can provide a sense of security and help your furry friend feel more at ease. Nighttime can be especially tough for dogs with cognitive decline. Provide a calm and quiet sleeping area for your dog, and consider using nightlights to prevent confusion at night.

Ensure your home is safe and accessible for a dog with cognitive dysfunction. Remove any potential hazards or obstacles that may lead to accidents or injuries. Use baby gates to restrict access to areas that could be dangerous, such as stairways, and consider providing ramps up onto furniture or your bed and showing your dog how to use them. Put down rugs or mats to help prevent slipping on hard floors, or have your dog wear comfortable booties to provide stability. Creating a safe and comfortable space will help reduce your dog's stress. Read more tips to help with mobility.

It's essential to try and maintain a healthy weight for your dog, as many dogs with dementia lose weight. Beyond feeding a balanced diet formulated for dogs with cognitive decline, consider canned or wet food options if dry kibble is challenging for them to eat. If your dog struggles to consume large meals, consider offering smaller meals more frequently throughout the day. Ensure that food and water are easily accessible for your dog, making their feeding area comfortable and accessible to reduce any physical barriers or confusion. Consider raised food bowls to minimize neck strain or discomfort while eating.

Enhance the flavor and aroma of your dog's food by adding low-sodium unseasoned broth or a meal topper to entice their interest in eating. Just be mindful of any dietary restrictions or allergies. In some cases, hand feeding or assisted feeding may be necessary if your dog struggles to eat independently. Use gentle encouragement and patience throughout the process, ensuring they have enough time and support to finish their meals.

As your dog's cognitive function declines, they may struggle with understanding training cues or other communication that they used to. Use clear, simple, and consistent verbal cues and hand signals to communicate. Avoid high-pitched or loud tones, as they can cause confusion or stress. Non-verbal cues, such as gentle touch or visual signals, can also be effective in conveying your intentions and reassuring your dog.

senior chihuahua sitting by couch

Get Support

Taking care of a dog with dementia can be emotionally draining. Remember to seek support from friends, family, or fellow dog owners who may have experienced similar situations. Share your concerns, ask for advice, and connect with support groups or online communities. Veterinary professionals can also provide valuable guidance and support for managing this condition.

Living with a dog who has dementia requires patience, understanding, and adaptability. Your dog still appreciates and thrives on the love and care you provide. Cherish the moments you have together and make adjustments to their care as needed. With your support, they can continue to live a comfortable and fulfilling life, feeling secure and loved every step of the way.

Assessing Quality of Life

Assessing the quality of life for a dog with dementia is difficult but very important for their overall well-being. Begin by monitoring their food intake, weight, and energy levels. Observe changes in behavior over time, such as increased disorientation, confusion, anxiety, or restlessness. Watch their mobility and ability to perform daily activities. Additionally, consider their engagement in social interactions and enjoyment of activities they once loved.

You'll want to think about when is the right time to consider euthanasia and speak with your veterinarian for more insight. Regularly evaluating and documenting these factors can help you make informed decisions regarding their care and treatment, ensuring their comfort and maintaining the best possible quality of life. Learn more about how to assess quality of life here.

Preventing Dog Dementia

Preventing dog dementia, also known as canine cognitive dysfunction, is a topic of increasing importance as we strive to provide our beloved pets with optimal health and well-being. While some factors contributing to dementia may be out of our control, there are steps we can take to promote brain health and potentially reduce the risk or delay the onset of cognitive decline in our furry friends. In this section, we explore practical strategies to help prevent dog dementia and keep our canine companions mentally sharp and vibrant.

Promote a Healthy Lifestyle: A healthy lifestyle plays a significant role in maintaining brain health for your dog. Ensure your dog receives regular and age-appropriate exercise to stimulate blood flow to the brain and support cognitive function. 

senior chihuahua mental enrichment with snuffle matProvide Mental Stimulation: Engaging your dog's brain through mental stimulation is crucial for preventing cognitive decline. Incorporate interactive toys, food puzzles, and enrichment activities into their daily routine. Teach them new tricks or cues to keep their mind active. Regular training sessions not only stimulate their brain but also provide an opportunity for bonding with you.

Get more ideas for enriching your senior dog's life in Dog Enrichment: Toys, Games, and DIY Ideas.

Maintain a Balanced Diet: Proper nutrition is vital for overall health, including brain health. Provide a balanced and nutritious diet that supports your dog's cognitive function.

Consult with your veterinarian to ensure their diet is rich in essential nutrients, such as antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins that support brain health. Avoid overfeeding and monitor their weight to prevent obesity, which can contribute to various health problems, including cognitive decline. Get tips to help your dog lose weight here.

Regular Veterinary Check-ups: Schedule regular veterinary check-ups for preventive care and early detection of any underlying health issues. For seniors, they should ideally be seen by their veterinarian every six months, as health changes can happen quickly. Regular wellness exams allow your veterinarian to monitor your dog's overall health, including cognitive function. Early identification of potential health concerns can help address them promptly and potentially slow down the progression of cognitive decline.

Maintain Dental Health: Poor dental health can have a significant impact on overall well-being, including brain health. Dental disease can introduce bacteria into the bloodstream, leading to inflammation that can affect various organs, including the brain. Brush your dog's teeth regularly, provide dental chews or treats that promote oral health, and schedule professional dental cleanings as recommended by your veterinarian.

Minimize Toxins and Environmental Hazards: Exposure to toxins and environmental hazards can contribute to cognitive decline in dogs. Ensure your home environment is safe by storing household chemicals, medications, and other toxic substances securely. Keep your dog away from areas treated with pesticides or other potentially harmful chemicals. Maintain a clean and hazard-free living space to minimize the risk of exposure to toxins.

Maintain Social Interaction: Social interaction and mental stimulation go hand in hand. Regular socialization with other animals, interaction with family members, and exposure to new and stimulating environments can keep your dog's brain engaged and active. Arrange playdates, go for sniffari walks in new locations, or participate in dog training classes to provide your dog with a range of social experiences.

While there is no guaranteed method to prevent dog dementia entirely, taking proactive steps to promote brain health can contribute to reducing the risk or delaying the onset of cognitive decline. Prevention is always better than cure, and by investing in your dog's brain health, you are giving them the best possible chance for a happy and cognitively healthy life.

About the author

Profile picture for Cathy Madson

Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

As Preventive Vet's dog behavior expert and lead trainer at Pupstanding Academy, Cathy focuses on helping humans and their pets build a strong relationship based on trust, clear communication, and the use of positive reinforcement and force-free methods. With over 13 years of experience, she has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of dogs on a wide variety of training and behavior issues. Beyond her one-on-one consultations through Pupstanding Academy, she also teaches group dog training classes at Seattle Humane. Her specialties include dog aggression, resource guarding, separation anxiety, and puppy socialization.

Cathy is a certified Family Dog Mediator, and certified through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, holding both the CPDT-KA and CBCC-KA designations. Cathy is a Fear Free Certified Certified Professional, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, and the Dog Writer's Association of America. She has also completed the Aggression in Dogs Master Course.

When she's not geeking out about dogs, you can find her reading, hiking with her two Cardigan Welsh Corgis, or paddleboarding.