As I look back now at my precious little dog who passed away at 17 years old, I realize that she was showing signs of dementia. For Haley, it wasn’t a consistent state, though. At times she would seem perfectly normal. At other times, she would do things like back herself into a little nook we had in the kitchen and be unable to get out; or she would circle the room continuously until I picked her up and put her in my lap. Or she would stare at the wall for no reason. I thought at the time that it was because she didn’t see well, but in hindsight, I’m pretty sure there was more to it than that. In my research, I have learned that it’s very common for a dog owner not to recognize the symptoms of dementia in their dog, easily justifying their symptoms as being due to aging, arthritis, or poor eyesight.
Just like us, our dogs may develop dementia as they age. Sometimes referred to as doggie Alzheimer’s, or CD – Cognitive Disfunction, the age at which it begins to show will vary from dog to dog. PetMD says that dementia is usually apparent in 50% of dogs over the age of 11, and 68% of dogs over the age of 15. Dementia can take on many forms, affecting our dog’s social interactions, routine, orientation, motor functions, and obviously, learned behavior.
What causes our dog to have dementia?
Technically, dementia begins with a buildup of protein deposits, called plaque, in the brain. Plaque is caused by oxidative stress, just like we humans have in response to free radicals throughout our body. This plaque damages nerve cells and causes shrinkage of the brain in parts affecting memory and behavior. Dementia in dogs can be genetic, or simply a result of individual metabolic processes. As we age, it becomes harder and harder for our bodies (human and canine) to fight free radicals, resulting in a continual degenerative process which can lead to dementia. At first, the signs of dementia may be very subtle. In dogs, it tends to progress quickly, which may be because the length of their life span in general. How long can a dog live with dementia? The good news is that there is some evidence to believe that dogs with dementia live just as long as dogs who do not have the disease. Unlike our human Alzheimer’s, it is rarely fatal.
There is not one singular test to find out your dog has dementia. It’s more of a process of elimination. If medical tests show there are no other health reasons why your pet has the symptoms being displayed, then dementia will be a consideration.
How to tell if your dog has dementia
There is a widely accepted acronym used by veterinarians to help dog owners recognize the signs associated with dog dementia: DISHA
D – Disorientation
I – Interactions (with family and other pets)
S – Sleep changes
H – House Soiling
A – Activity changes
- Disorientation – Just like Haley working herself into our kitchen nook and not being able to get out, she had become very disoriented. Your dog may get lost in unfamiliar places… You may let them out in the yard to go potty and they act as if they don’t know where they are. Another sign of disorientation is the stare… staring at nothing, staring at the wall, just staring for long periods of time. They may become very anxious because everything seems so strange to them.
- Interactions – I am thankful that Haley’s dementia did not affect her interactions with us. She always knew who I was and seemed to take comfort in that. Sadly, some dogs get to the point that they do not recognize family members. They may snap at neighborhood dogs that they have had positive interactions with in the past. Your once friendly dog may suddenly become irritable or aggressive around children or strangers.
- Sleep Changes – Your dog may begin to pace the house at nighttime. Their circadian sleep cycle may become disrupted and you’ll see them sleep all day and stay awake all night. They may also seem very confused and anxious in the evenings and at night.
- House Soiling – My dog would be appalled at the thought of doing his business in the house… yours is probably the same way. Unfortunately, with dementia, they may begin to “potty” in the house. Maybe they forget how to give you “the signal” that they need to go outside. Or maybe they get to the point where they don’t even realize that they are defecating or urinating. Your vet will need to determine if this symptom is purely because of dementia, or if there is another cause for it. Urinating or defecating in the house is a common symptom of various other diseases.
- Activity changes – This category can cover a multitude of symptoms. From barking for no reason, to changes in appetite, lack of response to your voice, withdrawal, restlessness, lack of interest in their favorite toys, or any other behaviors that are unusual for your dog. Once again, many of these symptoms are common in other diseases. Your vet will help make that determination.
My “newest” dog, believe it or not, just turned 12 this past month. I am now working to head-off cognitive decline. I have read that it is recommended you begin as early as 7 years of age to do what you can do to prevent your dog’s cognitive decline. If you’re like me (and I’m guessing you are), I would have done anything to help Haley who gave me so many years of love and companionship. We can make a real difference in maintaining our dog’s quality of life despite their cognitive condition.
What can we do to help ward off cognitive decline in dogs?
Keep your dog active. Maintain a consistent exercise routine, based on your dog’s age and physical health. Keep them at a healthy weight.
Teaching your dog new skills and keeping them mentally stimulated will go a long way towards deterring or preventing cognitive decline. Regularly review their prior learned obedience commands. Equip them with doggie puzzles to challenge their mind.
Provide your dog with the best nutrition you can possibly afford. The foundation for good health is a nutritionally balanced diet. Make sure your dog’s food contains proper amounts of omega 3 fatty acids which are essential for cognitive health. Visit your local specialty pet food supply store and talk to them about what foods are best for your dog’s size, age, and health.
Maintain regular Wellness checks with your vet. As your dog enters its senior years, semi-annual, rather than annual visits are recommended. Talk to your vet about any changes you see in your dog.
Your dog has dementia already. What can you do to maintain a high quality of life?
In addition to all the suggestions listed above, the following tips may also help:
- • Try not to change your dog’s routine. If changes are necessary, introduce them slowly and gradually.
- • A vitamin supplement may help. Consider upping their omegas intake, and/or increasing antioxidants. Talk to your vet about Natural supplementation. For example, melatonin may help your dog get its sleep-cycle back to a normal rhythm.
- • Consider alternative treatments. Herbs, acupuncture, essential oils. Find a holistic Veterinarian in your area.
- • Talk to your vet about medication. There are several drugs on the market that have been effective for treating dementia in dogs.
Try to think of ways you can assist your dog in maintaining his normal activity. For example, in attempting to keep Haley from slipping on our hardwood floors in her old age, we placed rubber runners throughout the major pathways in our home. As it turns out, this is sometimes recommended for dogs with dementia as it helps them find the path to the kitchen, or to their bed. Another example would be to switch your dog from dry food to wet food to help them with their diminished interest in food. Another idea would be to play calming music to reduce anxiety in your dog. “Spotify” has a channel called “Dog Music”, providing “relaxing music for dogs”.
Lastly, let your dog know that you are there for them. Give them comfort and reassurance. Just spend quality time with them, holding them, petting them, talking to them. Give them the confidence and security that their minds have denied them.