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8 Signs Your Dog Could Have Dementia

Dementia isn't just a people problem: Veterinarians explain how to spot dog dementia and what you can to do help your dog.

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Dog dementia is more common than owners realize

Vets typically refer to dog dementia as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). Overall, the incidence of CCD is 15 to 30 percent, Rossman says. Worse? “It’s often underdiagnosed,” says Melissa Bain, DVM, professor of clinical animal behavior at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in Davis, California. On average, most dogs are diagnosed at eight years old. In a study conducted by Bain, 28 percent of dogs aged 11 to 12 and 68 percent of dogs 15 to 16 showed one or more signs of cognitive impairment. Here are the signs to watch for—and what you can do to help your dog. Know more about these common health problems in 14 popular dog breeds.

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Your dog doesn’t seem to be able to focus anymore

Even though dementia in a dog can’t be officially diagnosed, certain signs can indicate your dog might be suffering from this condition that causes a decline in cognitive function. The best way to tell? Watch your dog’s behavior. “Specific behavioral alterations can indicate your dog may have dementia,” says Ashley Rossman, DVM, a veterinarian at the Glen Oak Dog & Cat Hospital in Glenview, Illinois. Aimless wandering or pacing and staring into space are two of the biggies. If your dog isn’t acting right, these are signs your dog might have cancer.

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Your dog doesn’t want to interact as much

Whether it’s with you, other members of the family or canine buddies, decreased social interaction is one of the telltale signs of dog dementia, Rossman says.

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Your dog is more fearful or anxious

One of the main clinical signs of dementia involves being a little more scared of things that may not have bothered your dog in the past. Your dog might even show signs of separation anxiety and follow you around the house more closely, according to the IAABC Journal. (IAABC stands for International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.)

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Your dog is having issues going through doors

Clumsiness can strike with age—and with dementia. It can be part of a disorder called dysthymia, according to experts at Washington State University, and it may mean that your dog has trouble figuring out her way around furniture or through doors or other spaces.

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Your dog is becoming more aggressive

According to the IAABC, dogs with dementia can become aggressive toward people or other pets they know, possibly because they no longer recognize them. On the flip side, these are sure signs that your dog is happy. 

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Your dog has accidents in the house

Your dog may never have had bathroom issues in the house since she was a puppy. Yet with dementia, she might have accidents in the house, even if she’s just gone outside, says Bain. Making mistakes indoors can indicate other issues—it’s one of the signs that could mean your dog is ill.

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Your dog wanders at night

Your dog may have snoozed all through the night for most of his life. Dementia, however, can cause sleep changes, says Bain, including being up all night and sleeping during the day, or not sleeping well throughout the night.

Hungry pug dog with food bowl ready to eat, sitting at dining table in kitchenAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Treating dog dementia

“There are diets and supplements available that slow the progression of the disease,” Bain says. One prescription antidepressant drug called Anipryl is licensed to treat CCD and has shown some success in decreasing some of the signs that dogs demonstrate. Other treatments like supplements with antioxidants, L-carnitine or omega-3 have been shown to have some positive effects, Rossman says.

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Managing dog dementia requires patience

Just as with humans who have dementia, pet parents must learn to be patient. “This is a very trying and difficult disease, and it’s best to be as patient as possible with your dog,” Rossman says, adding that now isn’t the time to change anything in your dog’s schedule. Keep the routines as consistent as possible.

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Simple changes that can help

Drugs and supplements can only go so far in helping your dog and you manage this devastating disease. Yet there are things you can do to address the changes you’re seeing in behavior, Bain says. For starters, make sure that your house is safe, which means you may have to pull out the baby gates again. Also, treat them like a puppy by taking them outside frequently to go to the bathroom and going out with them; when your dog does eliminate outside, reward him or her. You might even keep your dog somewhat confined when you can’t supervise him or her to avoid any issues with eliminating inside. Finally, try to keep them active during the day so they’re more likely to sleep through the night. If you’re spending more time with your dog outdoors, make sure you’re aware of these 28 summer health tips all dog owners should follow.

Karen Asp
Karen Asp, M.A., C.P.T., is an award-winning journalist and author who specializes in fitness, health, nutrition, pets and travel. She writes for RD.com’s pets sections, and also contributes regularly to leading publications including O, Real Simple, Prevention, Eating Well, Forks Over Knives, Better Homes & Gardens, Martha Stewart Living, Happy Paws, VegNews, Woman’s Day, Women’s Health, and many others. She’s the author of two books, her latest being Anti-Aging Hacks, and is a certified personal trainer, athlete with several world records in Nordic walking, plant-based nutrition educator, and vegan mentor for PETA and Vegan Outreach.