19 Potential Signs of Dog Dementia (Canine Alzheimer's, Cognitive Dysfunction)

Knowing the signs of dog dementia is important because the earlier you intervene, the better. There are several options to manage the condition and slow down its progression. Discover 15 signs of canine Alzheimer's' disease.

19 Potential Signs of Dog Dementia (Canine Alzheimer's, Cognitive Dysfunction)

Knowing the signs of dog dementia is important because the earlier you intervene, the better. There are several options to manage the condition and slow down its progression. Discover 15 signs of canine Alzheimer's' disease.

Early intervention is important when it comes to canine dementia.

Akchamczuk via Canva

The Importance of Recognizing Early Signs of Canine Dementia

Canine dementia, also known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) or "Canine Alzheimer's" is a condition that is known for affecting senior dogs.

More and more dogs are being diagnosed with this disorder, considering that, with many improvements made in veterinary medicine, our dogs are living much longer than before.

Similarly to what has happened with humans, increased longevity in dogs has translated into more widespread conditions associated with senility, in particular, a higher prevalence of cognitive problems.

It's unfortunate, but when older dogs start exhibiting the very first signs of cognitive decline, it's often chalked up as just being a normal sign of aging, when in reality, these are warning signs of a disorder known for having a significant impact on older dogs and their owners.

Early identification is therefore crucial, considering that early intervention may ultimately help slow down the progression of this condition.

Did You Know?

Statistically, 28% of dogs 11 to 12 years of age and 68% of dogs 15 to 16 years of age show at least one sign of canine dementia.

— Source: Neilson JC et al. 2001

19 Potential Signs of Dog Dementia

Did you know that canine cognitive dysfunction is under-diagnosed in up to 85% of potentially affected animals?

As the condition progresses, early signs, which are generally mild, progress into more evident ones.

For classification purposes, the signs of dementia in dogs are divided into several groups. This has led to using the acronym DISHA.

  • Disorientation (D)
  • Altered interactions (I)
  • Sleep-wake cycle changes (S)
  • Problems with house training (H)
  • Sudden changes in level of activity (A)

Let's take a closer look at several of these potential signs.

Signs Associated With Disorientation

Here I've outlined several signs of canine cognitive dysfunction that are associated with confusion and disorientation.

1. Staring Into Space

It's not unusual to see a dog with dementia staring into space. The dog may sometimes be looking at the ceiling or wall.

This is likely triggered by a dog's sense of disorientation and confusion, which can cause him to feel lost in familiar surroundings, and this is common in dogs with dementia.

It may also result from dogs' decreased level of interest in their surroundings and apathy, leading them to sometimes stare at things for a prolonged period.

2. Barking at Ceilings

The barking may be the result of a dog's disorientation and confusion. By barking, affected dogs may be venting their feelings of anxiety or frustration as they try to make sense of their surroundings.

Changes in an older dog's vision can also sometimes trigger them to perceive things that are not actually there.

3. Getting Lost/Stuck in Corners

Just as people with Alzheimer's at times get lost and can't find their way back when taking a stroll nearby their homes, dogs with dementia may get lost in familiar surroundings, such as when they are inside the home.

As they struggle to navigate their home, they may get stuck in corners or tight spaces. Their disorientation causes them to forget where they are, and they may struggle to find their way out.

4. Wandering Aimlessly

Wandering around with no purpose may take place as a result of the affected dog's sense of disorientation. By wandering, these dogs may seek a way out of a place that they may perceive as unfamiliar surroundings.

With changes in their spatial perception, affected dogs may get lost as they no longer are capable of relying on familiar landmarks or objects.

If the aimless wandering happens at night, this may take place as a result of disruptions in their sleep/wake patterns, making them become active at night rather than during the day.

Wandering may also take place as a result of anxiety or agitation. The pacing around allows the affected dogs to cope with their stress.

5. Not Recognizing Familiar People

This is often the most heartbreaking sign of canine dementia. No longer recognizing owners is likely due to the changes in brain function that happen with this condition.

Affected dogs are often disoriented and confused and this may impact their ability to remember things and recognize familiar faces.

Changes in an older dog's vision or hearing may also somewhat impact their ability to recognize their family.

6. Not Responding to Commands

Canine dementia causes changes to the way dogs think and remember.

These brain changes may cause dogs to suffer from memory loss and disorientation, leading them to no longer respond to familiar cues such as sit, down or come when called.

If the dog responds to the cues, he or she may show signs of difficulty in executing them.

It's important to rule out pain and discomfort in these cases. If a dog is slow to sit or reluctant to lie down, this can be due to achy joints rather than cognitive changes.

An older dog sitting "sloppy" with the back legs spread out sideways may be suffering from some orthopedic condition.

On top of not responding to familiar cues, dogs with dementia also struggle to learn new tasks.

Staring into space may be a sign of cognitive decline, but it can also be triggered by a variety of other reasons.

Housetraining Challenges

As dogs get older and undergo cognitive changes, they may no longer be able to adhere to the housetraining rules that have already been established for most of the dog's lifetime.

7. Having Pee-Poop Accidents in the House

Dogs suffering from canine dementia may start leaving messes around the house. The accidents may take place in random areas of the house.

It's important to not get upset with the dog for having accidents, as it's not under the dog's control, and once dogs sense negative feelings, this will only increase their anxiety which will ultimately make matters worse.

8. Accidents After Coming Back From Outside

It may feel frustrating taking your senior dog out in the yard or on a walk to potty, only for him or her to potty indoors right after stepping back inside.

This can occur because, when dogs with dementia are sent outside to potty, they may feel very confused or disoriented, and may therefore remember about going potty only once they are back inside.

9. No Longer Signaling

Affected dogs may no longer approach the door to signal their need to be taken outside, or in their confusion, they may be seen going to the hinged side of doors when asking to be let out.

10. Accidents in Unusual Outdoor Areas

If your dog always went potty in the grass or a particular area of your yard, don't be surprised if, as he gets older, he starts going potty on your deck or on concrete.

11. Accidents Where the Dog Sleeps

Dogs with dementia may start having accidents in the areas they sleep. This goes against a dog's natural instinct to not soil where they eat, sleep or drink, but as mentioned, in dogs with dementia, cognitive changes take place causing them to no longer be capable of adhering to their housetrained habits.

It's important to differentiate whether accidents where the dog sleeps are triggered by concomitant medical issues such as lack of urinary sphincter control that is often seen in elderly spayed female dogs or as a result of neurological issues.

Dogs who have been perfectly housetrained may lose their ability to signal their need to go potty as they grow older

Changes in Social Interactions

Dogs with dementia may no longer interact as they used to with people or other dogs or pets sharing the household. There are several social interaction changes you may observe.

12. Appearing Distant

Affected dogs may appear distant, almost as if they are in another world. They may no longer show enthusiasm in participating in activities they used to enjoy such as playing, going on walks or being petted.

A dog with canine dementia may elicit attention such as asking to be petted, but may then walk away.

13. Increased Irritability

Dogs with dementia may no longer tolerate children and other household pets and they may become more and more irritable.

In some cases, the irritability may turn into aggression, with the affected dog lunging, snapping, and even biting.

It's important to rule out several medical conditions known to cause aggression in dogs, such as discomfort or pain.

14. Intolerance for Being Left Alone

On the other hand, some dogs, rather than becoming more distant and aloof, may become needier. They may seek their owners more and more and may become clingy, following them around the house and sleeping at their feet.

Dog owners are often surprised to notice that their elderly dog suddenly shows signs of anxiety, like when left alone. The onset of separation anxiety in older dogs is not unusual.

As dogs get older, they may struggle being left alone

Changes in Sleep/Wake Cycles

One of the main signs of canine dementia is changes in a dog's sleep/wake cycles. As it happens to humans, old dogs are prone to "sundowning," which refers to a state of confusion taking place in the late afternoon and lasting into the night.

15. Sleeping Less at Night

This is one of the most disruptive signs of canine dementia because affected dogs may keep their owners up at night, often pacing, howling or barking.

16. Sleeping More During the Day

During the day, affected dogs will sleep soundly for many hours.

An evaluation of the sleep-wake cycles of dogs with dementia revealed that affected dogs spent increasing amounts of time in slow-wave sleep during the day.

Sleeping less at night can be a sign of "sundowners" in dogs

Changes in Activity Levels

Dogs with dementia may undergo changes in their activity levels. They may become less willing to explore and play, lethargic and disinterested in their surroundings, while others may become restless and hyper.

17. Increased Activity Levels

Affected dogs may appear restless and nervous and they may pace and pant. Additionally, new fears or phobias may arise. Older dogs, in particular dogs with dementia, may also struggle with changes in their routines and the environment.

Anxiety and confusion may be the culprit for the increase in activity levels.

It's important to identify whether the dog is fearful of something so as to limit exposure to the fear-inducing stimulus.

18. Decreased Activity Levels

On the other hand, some dogs may become more disinterested and apathetic.

They may no longer explore or investigate new stimuli in their surroundings. They may no longer play or ask to be petted as before.

19. Repetitive Behaviors

As dogs age, they may exhibit several repetitive behaviors such as patterned vocalizations, pacing, licking of substrates or people and aimless wandering.

These stereotypic and repetitive behaviors are usually new for the dog and follow a very patterned execution.

In other words, the aging dog starts pacing with increased frequency, and the behavior is executed the same way and in a set pattern each time.

The fact that the affected dog can be distracted from engaging in the behavior helps differentiate new patterned behaviors from compulsive behaviors, explains board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Elizabeth Stelow.

Dogs with cognitive decline may show increased or decreased activity levels

If Not Canine Dementia, Then What?

Differentiating the early signs of dysfunction from normal aging is not easy. First, it's important to rule out several underlying medical disorders before excluding a diagnosis of dementia.

Veterinarians will usually suggest a complete physical and neurological examination, then bloodwork (complete blood count, biochemical profile), urine analysis, and an abdominal ultrasound to rule out several medical disorders.

Diagnosis of canine cognitive dysfunction is obtained through a process of exclusion. Of course, it is possible for some dogs to have some of these conditions along with actual dementia (comorbid).

What are some conditions that may cause signs similar to canine dementia but are not? Here is a list of possible differentials:

  • Low thyroid levels (hypothyroidism) which is known to cause behavior changes in dogs.
  • Diabetes: can cause increased drinking and urination, which ultimately may lead to accidents around the house.
  • Painful joints from arthritis: can cause dogs to keep changing resting positions, behavior changes (restless, anxious or aggressive), and changes in activity levels.
  • Kidney or liver dysfunction: can cause behavior changes such as confusion, irritability, lethargy or aggression.
  • Neurological conditions (such as cancer and forebrain disease) can cause irritability, aggression and apathy.
  • Side effects of medications: for example, steroids can cause increased water intake and accidents around the house, irritability and aggression).
  • Loss of vision/hearing: can cause confusion, clingy behavior towards humans, reactivity and pee/poop accidents around the house.
  • Digestive issues: may cause accidents around the house, licking behaviors, panting and restlessness.

10 Ways to Make Dogs More Comfortable

If your older dog is showing signs of canine dementia, it's important to have your dog see the vet to institute early treatment. As mentioned, the earlier the intervention, the better chances to manage the condition.

Following are several tips to make life with dogs with canine Alzheimer's' more comfortable.

1. Offer More Trips Outside

To prevent accidents in the house, it's best to take your older dog outside more often. Make sure that your dog actually eliminates before returning inside.

If your dog doesn't eliminate, keep supervising him closely and keep him near the door so that you can promptly accompany him outside as needed.

Once he goes potty outside, make sure to praise and reward him with a treat.

2. Increase Daytime Activities

If your dog wakes up at night a lot, try to increase your dog's daytime activities.

Provide brain games, take your dog on "sniffaris" (walks where dogs are allowed to sniff as much as they want), give your dog food puzzles and opportunities to "scavenge."

It also helps to keep blinds or windows open so as to let the light in, suggests board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Margaret, E Gruen.

3. Provide the Perfect Sleep Environment

At night, provide an environment that is conducive to sleep. Keep the area quiet, keep lights off and provide a comfy bed.

Your vet may prescribe supplements or drugs that can help reset your dog's sleep–wake cycle (more about this discussed below).

4. Provide a Spot to Retreat to

If you have children or other pets, make sure your older dog has a safe and quiet area he or she can retreat to.

This should be your dog's "do not disturb" area, where no children or other pets should be allowed to enter.

5. Stick to a Routine

Unpredictability can impact dogs in negative ways, and even more so in older dogs. It's best to stick to a routine and avoid any drastic changes that can cause anxiety.

6. Keep That Brain Busy

Provide behavioral enrichment through additional training, exercise, rotation of play toys, brain games and food puzzles.

7. Ask Your Vet About Supplements

Your vet is the best source to ask whether certain supplements may help your aging dog.

When my Rottweiler turned 11, I reported to my vet some changes I noticed in his behavior. He was sleeping a lot more, would ask to be petted and then go back to sleep. He was also a tad bit distant and withdrawn.

She believed that the signs didn't point to cognitive dysfunction yet to the point of needing to put him on meds, but to monitor him closely in the following weeks for more signs and then report back to her.

I asked her if it was OK in the meantime to give him a supplement I'd read about. It was Gray Muzzle Brain's Best Friend by Ark Naturals. She told me it was OK, and I started noticing some improvements in the next few weeks.

Most likely, the omega-3 fatty acids, acetyl-L-carnitine, resveratrol, L-theanine, Ginkgo biloba were helping his cognitive functioning.

8. Ask About Diet

There are several diets nowadays that are purposely crafted to ameliorate a dog's cognitive functioning.

Ask your vet whether your dog may benefit from diets like Prescription Diet Canine b/d (by Hill's Pet Nutrition), Essential Care Senior by Purina, and Pro Plan Bright Minds (by Purina),

9. Discuss Meds

There is ultimately no cure for cognitive dysfunction in dogs. It's a progressive condition that can only be managed. However, along with environmental changes, behavior modification, and medications, it is possible to slow down its progression.

There are nowadays several prescription medications designed for dogs showing signs of canine dementia.

Selegiline hydrochloride (Anipryl) is currently approved as a treatment for canine cognitive dysfunction. It's classified as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).

Other meds that vets may prescribe include serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which cannot be used with an MAOI and several sleeping aids (melatonin, benzodiazepines, trazodone).

10. Treat Concomitant Conditions

Sometimes symptoms of underlying medical conditions and signs of cognitive dysfunction in dogs may overlap, making it challenging for dog owners to effectively address the root cause of their dogs' problems.

Therefore, it's important to correctly identify and treat any concomitant underlying medical conditions that may play a role in contributing to cognitive dysfunction in dogs.

By ultimately treating these conditions, it is possible to improve your dog's overall health and well-being, while also potentially slowing down the progression of cognitive decline.


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  • Ozawa M, Inoue M, Uchida K, Chambers JK, Takeuch Y, Nakayama H. Physical signs of canine cognitive dysfunction. J Vet Med Sci. 2019 Dec 26;81(12):1829-1834. doi: 10.1292/jvms.19-0458. Epub 2019 Nov 1. PMID: 31685716; PMCID: PMC6943310.
  • Today's Veterinary Practice: Management of Dogs and Cats With Cognitive Dysfunction

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli

(Excluding for the Headline, this article ("story") has not been edited by MiBiz News and is published from a web feed or sourced from the Internet.)