Dogs and Dementia: What You Need to Know
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
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- Is withdrawn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
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Remember Me?: Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Kindle edition by Eileen Anderson.
- Dog Dementia: Help and Support
Hints and support for helping a dog with dementia.