Dogs and Dementia: What You Need to Know

Updated on September 8, 2017
Eileen N Dogs profile image

Eileen is an avid blogger and offers expert advice and support for pet owners who have geriatric canines with dementia.

Do You Think Your Dog May Have Dementia?

Mine does. That's why I'm writing this lens.

I'm not a vet and I can't diagnose your dog, but I can tell you the signs of dog dementia, or canine cognitive dysfunction. I can tell you about what's available to help. I can show you what it can look like. I can tell you quite a bit about what it's like to live with a dog with dementia, and give you some tips about that.

Most of all I can assure you that your dog's life is not necessarily over. My dog has had dementia for two years and still enjoys life.

The Look of Dementia

Does your dog do things like this?
Does your dog do things like this?

My Experience With Dog Dementia

Cricket, my 16 year old rat terrier, is diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, or dog dementia. It's also called Old Dog Syndrome.

I was confused about her symptoms for almost a year. The first thing that happened is that she rather suddenly stopped being friendly to her best human friend. We were mystified. She got standoffish and acted almost fearful.

A few months passed and we decided that was just the way it was going to be. Along around that time she started getting weird about doors. She would stand at the wrong side of a door wanting to go out. The hinge side. Then she couldn't seem to move out of the way correctly when I tried to open the door.

Pretty soon after that she started getting stuck in corners and I finally realized something was going on. She has, and had at that time, three other health problems: she was almost completely deaf, her vision was deteriorating, and she had neurological weakness in her back legs. So these problems had masked the dementia for a while, but it finally became obvious. Now, two years later, she has every symptom on the list below, except that she still seeks me out and wants to be close to me.

Symptoms of Dementia

Only a vet can diagnose your dog. But here are some of the commonly agreed upon symptoms of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

  • Gets lost in familiar places
  • Stands in corners
  • Paces back and forth, in circles, or wanders aimlessly
  • Appears lost or confused much of the time
  • Barks for no reason
  • Gets confused about doors; stands at the "hinge" side
  • Performs repetitive behaviors
  • Doesn't remember routines
  • Has trouble drinking or eating (the mechanics of it)
  • Stares into space or at walls
  • Seeks your attention less
  • Has trouble getting on her bed
  • Stops responding to her name
  • Is withdrawn
  • Startles easily
  • Trembles for seemingly no reason
  • Gets trapped behind or under furniture
  • Sleeps less during the night (instead, wanders around)
  • Sleeps more during the day
  • Gets confused about house training
  • Has difficulty learning anything new
  • Gets frightened of or withdraws from people she once loved

Medical Treatment

There are prescription medications that help many dogs recover some cognitive function or maintain functions longer. I'm not going to name them here since it's best to talk to your vet about them, and I think they vary from country to country. Cricket is on medication and it lessened her very goofy periods and made her "with it" more of the time. After two years of dementia she still has not withdrawn from me.

Real Life Glimpses: A Video of Behaviors Related to Dog Dementia

Four of Cricket's dementia related behaviors are shown in this movie. Be sure to notice the very first one, where she gets trapped in a piece of office furniture that one would never assume would be a problem.

Seven Hints for Living With a Dog With Dementia

Here are a few of the things I have learned from life with Cricket:

  • House Safety

    Just like you may have puppy proofed your house when your dog was young, now you need to make your house safe for your old dog. Make sure there are no spaces your dog might get trapped in. Remove things they may stumble over, slots they can't back out of, and places where they might put their head through. (View the first section of the movie to see what I mean.) Be sure you don't have tangles of cables they can get trapped in. Your dog may forget how to back up. I think this may be why they get stuck in corners so much.

  • Food and Water

    Speaking of corners, take advantage of that corner thing! Put their food bowls and water bowls in corners so they don't walk through them and tip them over. I bought a water dispenser for Cricket with a little tank on it that was too big for her to tip over and stuck it at the end of a hall that she tends to pace up and down. I watch Cricket like a hawk to make sure she drinks enough. She has a really hard time telling what the level of the water is, and will hover with her mouth about in inch above the water as I hold my breath, hoping she can drink. Try to get bowls at the optimal level, and avoid really shiny drinking bowls if they appear to confuse your dog about the water level.

  • Toileting

    Observe carefully if your dog loses toileting capability. You still may be able to tell when she needs to go, and work out ways to minimize mess. For instance, Cricket sometimes sits bolt upright in the middle of the bed in the middle of the night. I know that if she does that she needs to go, and I lift her right down to a pee pad that I keep by the bed.

  • Other Dogs

    Be ready to keep her separate from other dogs. As she loses cognitive function and perhaps some vision and hearing, she may not react appropriately in dog social situations. This could put her in danger of being jostled, picked on, or even hurt. For instance, I allow Cricket to be loose in the same space with only one of my dogs, gentle Zani who is only a big bigger than Cricket. But even so I have to keep an eye on things. Sometimes Cricket will head for the same bed that Zani is in, and Zani will yell at her. They are separated when I am not there

  • Doors that Open Inward

    Be careful about leaving your dog in a space with a door that opens inward. She will often be standing there when you try to go in. I have a pair of French doors in my house that Cricket often stands in front of and looks through. Even though she can see me trying to open the door, she just stands there. Sometimes I open the door just enough to put my hand through and throw a treat for her to follow if I can get her attention. I don't know any way to set up a barrier for this; I'd love to know if anyone has a solution. I have just learned to be careful, and lure or gently push her out of the way if I have to.

  • Handling

    You are likely going to have to handle your dog a lot more as she loses capabilities. If your dog is small, you'll be picking him up a lot. If he is big, you may be guiding him by the collar or harness. Cricket never liked being picked up, so several years back I started giving her a treat every time I picked her up. This is called classical conditioning.The treat helped her accept handling and forget about her discomfort. I am so very glad I did that. I probably pick Cricket up 20-30 times a day, to get her headed the right direction in the yard or unstuck from places. So as your dog gets older, if she isn't used to being handled, practice that and make it a positive experience with treats.

  • Enrichment

    Do whatever you can to keep those problem solving brain cells going. If she knows tricks or other behaviors, try to keep them alive. Set up simple "find the food" games. Don't assume you can fight back the rising tide, but you can probably help her keep what she's got for a big longer.

My Dog's Life Is Not Over

Anyone with an old dog is constantly assessing the quality of their dog's life. Believe me, I do that with Cricket, every day. But I'm careful to set aside my own assumptions and not just sink into "poor Cricket" when I see that she has lost some capabilities as she has gotten older. As far as I can tell, from her point of view, she is fine. She doesn't seem frustrated. She is not in pain. Her appetite is great.

As long as I can help her have a good life, she'll be with me.

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      Mrsvmp 5 months ago

      I'm sat sobbing reading this!

      My baby is 17 and has had Doggy Dementia for some started with the neurological weakening in her back legs, which was diagnosed as arthritis etc for a long time before they decided that it wasn't, due to the development of other symptoms.

      I'm at the point now where I just don't know what to do! She seems to be losing the ability to drink and I'm beginning to wonder whether she's dehydrated. She is peeing more than ever but her nose has become cracked and dried and, just today, she has begun to whistle when she breathes because of it.

      The thing is...she seems to be happy in herself! Still eats like a Trojan, loves her cuddles, sleeps soundly (although during the day admittedly, which I've now learnt is another sign) and I feel like there's more time!

      Having read this, however, and a few other pages on the subject...I'm more confused than ever about whether I might be being selfish by wanting to give her more time!

    • profile image

      Tara 22 months ago

      Heartbroken. Reading this site & realizing our 14 yr old Shadow has so many of these symptoms; a good 80% of your list. We assumed it was just old age ... deafness, cataracts, terrible arthritis (she's a corgi mix - long back and achy hips that send her falling down stairs almost daily). But there are too many behaviors on the list that I see every day.

      One thing I don't see mentioned, but am curious about ... it'll sound odd. Excessive sniffing. Her sense of smell, we think, is about the only good one she's got left. We walk her several times a day to keep her joints in shape and she's slowed down considerably in the last year. Used to pull at the leash. Now we practically have to pull her because she stops every few feet to soak up the smells. Back when we got her (she was 8 when we adopted her), she might stop at obvious spots like lamp posts - my daughter called it checking her pee-mail - but she would prance; head up and smiling. Now I can barely get to the end of the retractable leash before she's found another smell to examine, in detail. She's insistent too. A gentle tug used to be enough to get her to move on. Not anymore. But I refuse to drag her. Because of it all, she's not getting the exercise she needs, her joints stiffen up when she stays any position too long. We've had to put her on (mild) pain relievers to keep her mobile.

      Anyway, just curious if anyone's seen behavior similar to Shadow's compulsive sniffing in their own dogs with CCD. And thanks very much for the information. I'll call the vet.

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      Bernadette 2 years ago

      It makes sense. My dog wants to go out and he will stand in the parking lot just looking. It's as if he forgot what he was doing.

      Thank you

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      Irene 2 years ago

      Hi this is exactly what my dog has -you explained it as I see it with Timmy my 16 yr old jack russell cross. He has had it now for about 6 months and has lost a lot of weight, he eats a small amount of food and struggles with the bowl as he has missing teeth, so I feed him the rest. He paces the rooms and gets stuck like you described. I think I am lucky cos he sleeps through the night and does his wandering in the day. he lives with his brother sox also 16 - he has not got dementia yet, i see small signs with him that I did not notice with timmy in the beginning. thanks

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      Susan Haze 2 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This is an excellent hub about doggie dementia. My dog Sandy had it and you have described it perfectly. She is no longer with us but I would have loved to have seen this hub while she was still alive.

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      Eileen N Dogs 5 years ago

      @hastheitgirl: Thank you so much! I'm glad your jack is still enjoying life, thanks to your efforts.

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      hastheitgirl 5 years ago

      Yep! You hit it right on the nose! I have a 16 year old jack russell, and everything here describes her behavior. She still finds something new for me to doggie-proof almost every day..."Oh-oh- missed this one.... I'm tangled in the Venetian blinds...fix this!" :)

      And I keep the same attitude you do- as long as I can make her comfortable, she will be with me. (Some of her symptoms were recently exacerbated by an increase in her anti-seizure medication, but that is now being brought under control thank goodness by our awesome vet).

      Yes, thank you for sharing. Cheers to Cricket and you!

    • Eileen N Dogs profile image

      Eileen N Dogs 5 years ago

      @RewardedBehavio: Thanks for reading and commenting! I'll keep working on the seniors and you keep up the fabulous puppy posts like this one!

    • RewardedBehavio profile image

      RewardedBehavio 5 years ago

      Lovely post! Thank you for sharing your experience.