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Dementia in Dogs

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Dementia is a term that we most often hear with regard to elderly humans so it may be surprising to hear that dogs may also get dementia as they age.

elderly chihuahua dog

This article will answer the most commonly asked questions about doggy dementia:

What is dog dementia?

Dog dementia is very similar to the dementia we observe in elderly humans. Often referred to as canine cognitive dysfunction by veterinarians and animal behaviorists, but in the slang term “dog dementia” by owners, senior pets who are afflicted with this condition experience a deterioration of their mental abilities and cognitive awareness.

What are the signs of dementia in dogs?
According to dogdementia.com, dementia in dogs presents the following symptoms referred to as an acronym in the veterinary world, DISHA, which stands for:

Disorientation

The symptom of disorientation presents itself in many ways, but most commonly, dogs being confused in places they are familiar with.

A dog with dementia may:

  • get lost in their home
  • struggle with navigating doors, stairs, or furniture
  • stare into space or at walls
  • behave in a confused manner in general
  • perform a repetitive behavior such as pacing 

Interaction Changes

One of the most common symptoms of dementia is that the way a dog interacts with family and friends changes.

Dogs with dementia often become withdrawn and do not seek attention from people as they did before. In severe cases, they may no longer recognize their family and friends.

Some doggy dementia patients who used to enjoy the company of other dogs may no longer want canine companionship, to the point of behaving aggressively towards other dogs they were previously friendly with.

Dogs with dementia also usually forget training commands, they may no longer respond to their name, and they may not understand their normal routine like they used to.

Sleep Alterations

Dementia may cause dogs to sleep more during the day and be awake more at night. Your doggy dementia patient may aimlessly pace around the house at night, barking at nothing and become startled easily by their family members.

House Soiling

Canine dementia patients often have accidents in the house. They may not ask to go outside at all, and they may behave as though they were never house trained.

It is important not to punish a dog with dementia for having an accident in the house because in their case it really truly is an accident.

Activity Alterations

Most doggy dementia patients become less active as a result of the changes they are experiencing, most care givers notice this symptom first. It is easy to associate a lower activity level with normal aging, which is why observing your dog is so important to pick up on other symptoms of dementia.

Dogs with dementia often lose their appetite and desire to play as well. Their normal activities usually change; they may not bark when they normally did in the past, they may not bark at all, they may bark more often without a clear cause, or they may exhibit repetitive behaviors.

senior dog laying down

Can dementia in dogs come on suddenly?

Dementia or canine cognitive dysfunction generally comes on gradually, however, the initial symptoms may be minor enough that they are easy to miss if you are not observing your dog. As a result, many dog owners believe the dementia came on suddenly, when in reality symptoms were displayed for a time before the diagnosis.

To be aware of your dog’s condition, observation is key. Knowing your dog well and noticing behavioral changes is how you would notice the symptoms of dementia. When a dog reaches the middle point of their breed’s life span is generally when you should try to be more aware of age-related changes.

What are the stages of dementia in dogs?
According to dogdementia.com, dementia presents in three stages:

1. Mild
Owners may notice their dogs interact with them differently, their sleep pattern changes, they may become confused and their activity level decreases.

2.Moderate
Moderate canine dementia patients forget their house training, become more active at night, and often begin requiring specialized care for their symptoms.

3. Severe
Severe doggy dementia patients exhibit most or all of the DISHA symptoms to the extreme, which makes daily life challenging for both the dog and their family.

What causes dementia in dogs?

Veterinarians have been able to determine what substance present in a dog’s brain which causes dementia, but the cause of that substance’s presence is unknown.

As dogs age, their brains change and deteriorate. Veterinary research has uncovered that the communication between neurons in senior dogs’ brains is negatively impacted by an amino acid called “Beta-amyloid“, which is “plaque” in the brain, similar to plaque on teeth.

According to dogdementia.com, dog dementia or canine cognitive dysfunction and the presence of beta-amyloid amino acids does not have a clear cause. The only common thread among all canine dementia patients is an advanced age.

senior chihuahua in bag

What is the treatment for dementia in dogs?

According to dogdementia.com, dementia occurs in senior dogs as they age, and there is no cure for it. 

There is a drug that will help lessen some of the effects of dementia called Selegiline. If your vet diagnoses dementia, ask about this drug.

Are there any natural treatments for dementia in dogs?

There are no natural treatments that cure dementia, however, there are several supplements that may help including SAMe,  Denamarin, Solliquin, silybin, vitamin E and Cholodin. Check with your vet for proper dosage and if these supplements are recommended.

Some pet owners have reported some success with alternative therapies such as acupuncture too.

How long can a dog live with dementia?

The biggest concern with a diagnosis of dementia is the quality of a dog’s life declining rather than the life span shortening.

Many dogs with dementia live a normal life span. Some dogs with dementia may even live longer than dogs without dementia, as they often receive extra veterinary care.

Is dementia painful for dogs?

A dog afflicted with dementia is likely not in physical pain. However, the condition brings mental and emotional challenges that greatly impact the quality of life dogs experience.

Dementia brings confusion and disorientation, which makes daily life a challenge.

When is it time to let my dog go?

This decision is the most difficult one you will make as a dog owner. Veterinarians often use the words quality of life when discussing this decision with dog owners.

To prepare to have this conversation with your veterinarian, refer to this quality of life scale.

The best way to determine if euthanasia would be the right decision for your dog is to consider the following quality of life factors:

  • Does your dog seem happy? Or does she behave in a depressed manner?
  • Do your dog’s usual favorite activities still appeal to her? Or does she no longer find joy in them?
  • Is your dog still herself personality wise? Or has her personality changed and she seems withdrawn, “spacey” and disoriented?
  • Does your dog still want to eat and drink? Or is she refusing to eat or drink?
  • Is your dog able to walk? Or is even moving around the house difficult and painful?
  • Is your dog able to breathe normally? Or does she struggle and labor to breathe?
  • Does your dog still recognize you and want to spend time with you? Or does she mostly keep to herself and avoid interacting with you?
  • Does your dog notice if you or any of her other favorite people leave the room? Or does she not react?

No one knows your dog better than you do. If you believe your dog is in pain and no longer happy, the right thing to do is to minimize her suffering with humane euthanasia administered by a licensed veterinarian.

Humane euthanasia administered by a veterinarian first relaxes your dog and makes your dog numb to pain, then shuts down their brain and organs. This is truly the kindest act of love if your dog is suffering.

Never try to euthanize a dog at home or allow an unlicensed veterinarian or non-veterinarian to euthanize your dog for you. Being shot, strangled, poisoned, or any other method they may recommend is not humane.

While no one wants to let their dog go and no one ever really wants to, in conditions can be managed over a long period of time, however, it is important to consider if your dog will suffer if a condition is managed long term. Are you keeping your dog alive for you because you are not ready to let go? Or because your dog is not suffering and still their regular happy self?

Your veterinarian is able to guide you if you are unsure what the best decision for your dog is.

Should I be with my dog during euthanasia?

Should you choose to euthanize your dog, some owners choose to stay in the room and others choose to say goodbye and leave while the veterinary team completes the euthanasia process.

Even though your dog dying is one of the most difficult things in life, know that you have one final chance to show your dog the unconditional love that your dog showed you his whole life.

The kindest thing you can do is be in the room where your dog can see you as they are euthanized. One of my readers worked in a veterinary office as an assistant, and she told me that dogs may become anxious and search for their owners if they leave the room.

That is no way for your beloved dog to spend his final moments. You have been your dog’s comfort throughout life, and by being present, you are offering your dog one last comfort.

If you are scared of witnessing your dog suffer, know that the description “put to sleep” is incredibly accurate. Your dog simply goes to sleep; it is not a traumatic event for you to witness.

You can find peace in knowing that you ended your dog’s physical suffering and that you provided comfort to him in his final moments.

Conclusion

Dog dementia or canine cognitive dysfunction is very similar to dementia in humans. Canine dementia patients are most often disoriented and withdrawn. While this condition does not have a cure, it generally does not shorten a dog’s life span.

The greatest impact of this condition is a decline in a dog’s quality of life and the need for specialized care to be performed by their family members to keep them comfortable.

If you think your dog may have dementia, do not hesitate to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian or an animal behaviorist for assistance.

Cathy

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