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Chewy EditorialHealth / Symptoms & Solutions

Dog Dementia: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

A year ago, Mel and LaVere Ames’ dog, Rosie, developed a strange habit: She began walking in circles. Round and round she’d go as if she were striding on an invisible merry-go-round. At the time, LaVere didn’t know it was a sign of dog dementia.

“It was so strange,” LaVere says. “She would do it in the garage, in the yard around a tree and even in the living room. Poor thing would just keep going in circles. I don’t know how she didn’t get dizzy and fall over.”

Concerned, LaVere took her beloved pet to her veterinarian, who diagnosed the 11-year-old Pomeranian with something surprising.

“She had dementia, what my veterinarian called canine cognitive dysfunction,” LaVere says, recalling that she thought, “Can dogs get dementia? I had no idea there was such a thing!”

Can Dogs Get Dementia?

Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), also known as cognitive dysfunction in dogs or cognitive dysfunction syndrome in dogs, is a degenerative brain condition that leads to dementia, altered behavior and altered thinking, says Daniel Hicks, DVM, MS, DACVIM, a veterinary neurologist with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Tacoma, Washington.

“CCD is analogous to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in people,” Dr. Hicks says. “Due to these similarities, scientists use CCD as a model for studying AD in people. Both conditions share similar brain lesions when studied at the microscopic level.”

In both veterinary and human patients, scientists have yet to identify an underlying cause or predisposition to explain why cognitive dysfunction develops, says Trevor Moore, DVM, DACVIM, a veterinary neurologist at the Veterinary Neurology Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

“But there are some consistent microscopic changes in affected patients of each species, most notably beta amyloid plaque formation,” which is when toxic protein accumulates in the dog’s (or human’s) brain cells and, over time, disrupts normal brain activity, Dr. Moore says.

These neurotoxic proteins build up after years of tiny brain traumas, Dr. Hicks says.

“Small bumps on the head, mild inflammation, brain vascular accidents and neurotoxin ingestion are all examples of various types of ‘injuries’ a brain can receive over a lifetime,” he says.

Like Rosie, affected dogs tend to show symptoms in their geriatric life stage, older than 8 or 9 years old, Dr. Hicks says, but cognitive dysfunction syndrome in dogs can occur as young as 6.

“It is estimated that 14 to 30 percent of older dogs will develop CCD,” he says. “Predicting which dogs are at risk has been tricky. Epilepsy appears to be an important risk factor. However, currently, there are no reliable predictors.”

Dog Dementia Symptoms

Because it’s tough to predict who will develop canine cognitive dysfunction and when, identifying dog dementia symptoms—particularly progressive cognitive impairment—is key to early diagnosis, say experts.

“Onset and progression of CCD tends to be insidious in nature,” explains Dr. Moore. “Diagnosis is typically achieved based primarily on historical complaints of progressive cognitive impairment.”

If your pal is having trouble remembering things, learning new tricks, concentrating or making decisions, it’s time to take them to your veterinarian right away for a screening. Below are some other dog dementia symptoms that warrant a vet visit, according to Dr. Hicks.

The most common symptoms reported by dog parents include:

  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Reversal of sleep/wake cycle
  • Reduced interaction with their owners

Less commonly reported—but equally problematic—symptoms include:

  • Reduced activity
  • Pacing, wandering for no reason
  • Inappropriate urination or defecation
  • Difficulty finding dropped food
  • Failure to recognize parent
  • Abnormal or excessive barking
  • Getting lost in familiar settings
  • Recent seizures

In the exam room, your veterinarian will test for specific neurologic functions, which may be seen in these abnormalities:

  • Compulsive circling (just like what Rosie did)
  • Altered response to visual cues
  • Very resistant to any type of restraint
  • Abnormal eye movements

If your veterinarian suspects canine cognitive dysfunction or another brain disorder, they may order blood work and an MRI scan of your dog’s brain to look for telltale signs of the disease, says Dr. Hicks.

“This helps establish a proper diagnosis and develop an accurate treatment plan and prognosis,” he says. “It is always important to address the entire body system. Since dogs with CCD are older, it is not uncommon for them to have more than one medical issue. A comprehensive treatment plan should address these problems as well as symptoms of CCD.”

Dog Dementia Treatment

When Rosie’s veterinarian diagnosed her with canine cognitive dysfunction, LaVere learned about a range of dog dementia treatment options that could help improve her pal’s quality of life, including special diets and supplements, medications and cognitive enrichment exercises.

Dr. Hicks notes that although no single treatment works in all cases, a multi-modal approach can be helpful.

“Treatment typically begins with dietary changes and enrichment exercises,” he says. “Medications may be added if needed. In most cases, response to treatment takes months, and owners should be patient while introducing new treatments.”

Let’s dive a bit deeper into some of these dog dementia treatment options.

Diet

Diet, says Dr. Hicks, can have a major impact on cognitive health. In fact, he adds, studies have shown that in dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction, dietary intervention can improve cognitive function and slow or halt cognitive decline.

“Generally, foods that provide high levels of certain nutrients, especially antioxidants and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats are beneficial,” he says. “Additionally, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are important. Vitamins B, C and E, L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid and carotenoids from green leafy vegetables also make the list. I generally recommend specially formulated diets that contain these special nutrients already.”

He says Hill's Prescription Diet b/d Brain Aging Care and Purina One SmartBlend Vibrant Maturity 7+ are produced just for senior dogs who need a boost in their brainpower.

Regardless of which diet is chosen, Dr. Hicks says, it's also useful to add medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) to a dog’s diet.

“The simplest way to do this is to add a nutraceutical oil containing coconut and palm kernel extracts,” he says. Zesty Paws Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil for Dogs, for example, delivers vitamins and MCTs from 100 percent certified organic coconuts.

Medications and Supplements

Prescription and over-the-counter medications can help, too, depending on the severity of the dog’s symptoms, say experts.

“Medication may be prescribed along with dietary intervention and cognitive enrichment right away,” Dr. Hicks says. “In other situations, medications may be used only if improved symptom control is needed.”

Dr. Moore says the most frequently referenced treatment option is a prescription drug called L-deprenyl, AKA selegiline.

“There has been research to suggest it can improve cognitive function and delay progression of CCD,” he says. “Unfortunately, there is a drastically variable response with this drug and many patients show no response at all.”

Other drugs, like trazodone or fluoxetine, can be used to counteract anxiety, sleep cycle problems, pacing, vocalization and delirium, Dr. Moore adds. Valerian root and dog appeasing pheromones can also be used, he says.

The tricky part, says Dr. Hicks, is customizing a drug treatment plan for the patient.

“The response to treatment is highly variable,” he says. “I often start with a therapeutic trial using L-deprenyl (selegiline) for the first one to two months. Levetiracetam may added next along with SAM-e and melatonin if symptoms fail to respond to L-deprenyl alone. For difficult-to-control symptoms, expect a longer medication trial period.”

Cognitive Enrichment

Keeping your dog’s mind stimulated can also help with dog dementia symptoms, says Dr. Moore.

“Other treatment strategies include environmental enrichment, including regular exercise and frequent introduction to new toys,” he says.

Dr. Hicks agrees, adding that low-impact activities like long walks are a great place to start.

“It is also helpful to introduce new toys often and increase social interaction with other well-behaved dogs,” he says. “Some canine physical therapy facilities are equipped to help dogs with CCD. They can provide physical exercise, such as water treadmill or swimming, as well as mental activities, such as rails and mazes. Some facilities may have group time geared for older dogs, where they can interact in a safe environment.”

LaVere says that Rosie’s favorite day of the week is doggy playdate day, when she meets with a group of senior dogs at a local dog training facility. Several of them, she says, also have dog dementia.

“It’s a safe, fun place for Rosie and her gray-muzzled friends to play and romp—as well as they can, anyway,” LaVere says. “I can see Rosie’s little brain working away. It’s almost like she’s a puppy again!”

Preventing Dog Dementia

To reduce your four-legged friend’s chances of developing dog dementia and extend their life expectancy, Dr. Hicks points to good dog parenting—including regular exercise, social stimulation, new toys and new mental games.

“I currently recommend dietary changes for dogs older than 7 or 8 years old and cognitive enrichment activities as standard pet care at home regardless of whether your dog has symptoms of CCD,” he says. “They are all part of healthy living with your dog.”

He also encourages dog parents to discuss a good comprehensive health care plan with a veterinarian.

“Stay current with health monitoring including routine blood panels, parasite screens and physical exams,” he says. “Hopefully, by doing these things you’ll be able to maintain a healthy and enriching life for you dog.”

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