Dementia Symptoms Increasing in Older Dogs

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker and comments by Diane Weinmann

Not many years ago, people with aging dogs focused only on keeping their pets healthy from the neck down, forgetting that such issues as weight control, possible arthritis and major organ support only go so far if their dog’s brain health is overlooked. Including your dog’s brain health in the overall picture is even more important as they get older, especially since more and more reports are emerging that show a “startling” number of older dogs starting to show signs of dementia.

According to veterinarian Melissa Bain, professor of Clinical Animal Behavior at UC Davis, canine cognitive dysfunction, or CCD, usually starts when the animals reach 9 or 10 years of age, and there are five typical signs that point to a dog’s cognitive decline:

  • Loss of house training or other previously acquired knowledge
  • Changes in sleep habits and reversed sleep cycles, e.g. sleeping all day
  • Failure to recognize their owners or other pets in the household
  • Anxiety in the form of excess panting, shivering, moaning and/or nervousness
  • A decrease in purposeful activity

Dog owners should also know about other signs to watch for. Witnessing certain behaviors may help you recognize something is happening with your dog’s cognitive abilities, especially if you’ve never seen them before. Examples that may indicate CCD, otherwise known as geriatric dementia, include:

  • Getting lost in the house
  • Getting stuck behind furniture
  • Becoming overly aggressive

Vetstreet1 notes other signs that indicate something might be wrong; such as noticing your dog staring at walls for long periods of time, repetitive behaviors like walking in a circle or pacing, changes in hearing and vision, and/or vocalizing at inappropriate times. My ancient Boston terrier, Rosco (over 18 years old in this picture), would often get “stuck” in the narrow space between the toilet and the wall and was unable to navigate himself out without assistance, a common sign of CCD in older dogs.

One of my friends has a 14 year old golden retriever who is just beginning to show signs of geriatric dementia.  He normally doesn’t leave her side—no need for a leash but just recently he wondered down the drive way and started walking down the sidewalk seemingly confused.  She called him and asked where he was going.  He seemed to come out of a fog, looked at her and realized he was leaving the yard then came back to her.  This is an example of the type of behavior you can experience when your dog begins geriatric dementia.

What Causes Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

Helping your companion animals maintain bright, strong brain function throughout their senior years is even more important as you start noticing changes. If changes look as if they’re a mental or behavioral problem, it may actually be physical. Three main signs of age-related changes in dogs that cause gradual impairment stem from three main contributors:

  • Oxidative stress from free radical damage is physiological and impacts your dog’s brain tissue more than any other parts of their body, and can be evidenced both by decreased cognitive function as well as nerve disease, similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
  • The formation of lesions on the brain may include nerve-damaging beta amyloid deposits, proteins that form “senile plaque” buildup that interferes with the transmission of brain signals.
  • Alterations in brain metabolism can diminish due to decreased availability of oxygen and energy, at least in part due to environmental stressors, including your dog’s diet.

Although human and canine brains are significantly different, they have remarkably striking similarities both anatomically and physiologically, and the way the diseases manifest themselves appear “almost identical,” Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital explains further:

“More, dogs’ brains react to dementia treatments exactly as human brains do, making them ideal human dementia testbeds. As with human dementia, causes of CCD are not well known.

But accumulations of sticky proteins called beta-amyloid plaques around neurons, and the breakdown of neurons resulting in so-called neurofibrillary tangles, are considered leading causes. As in humans, both phenomena impact the brain by interrupting nerve impulse transmission.”2

Studies estimate that more than 60 percent of dogs between age 15 and 16 can show at least one symptom of CCD, but according to Bain, one reason more dogs have been showing signs of mental aging in recent years is simply because dogs are living longer due to advances in veterinary medicine.3


Danish Study: ‘Support’ Is Key for Dogs With CCD

A Danish study during which 94 dogs 8 years of age were investigated with a CCD questionnaire and observational sleep studies, subsequently published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, notes that vitamin E was investigated as a potential marker of CCD. The researchers reported:

“Four key clinical signs dominated in dogs with CCD: sleeping during the day and restless at night, decreased interaction, disorientation at home, and anxiety … CCD did not influence survival negatively. Small breeds did not show better survival than large breeds and there was no difference between sexes.

A few key questions addressing sleep-wake cycle, interaction, and signs of confusion and anxiety can be used as a clinical marker of CCD. Special attention should be paid to anxiety in dogs with CCD because it may be especially stressful to both dog and owner. Dogs with CCD seem to have a good chance of living a full lifespan if supported by the veterinarian and the owner.”4

Significantly, most veterinarians are becoming more aware of CCD and asking questions earlier rather than later in the lives of the dogs they treat, but some experts maintain that as many as 80 percent of older dogs have CCD that is both unrecognized and undiagnosed.5

How a Dog’s Diet Influences His or Her Health, Including Cognitive Health

Rather than assuming it’s an age-related cognitive issue, investigating the underlying cause of what appears to be CCD with the help of a professional veterinarian is important, especially if the dog in question is young, such as 5 or 6 years old.

To view the overall picture of your dog’s health, Bain says taking a look at their diet may be a significant key. I couldn’t agree more. She also notes, “There could be anything from hypothyroidism to urinary tract infections to blindness to deafness that all can mimic the signs of canine cognitive dysfunction.”6

These and other physical problems can be addressed to the greatest degree by providing a balanced, fresh food diet that includes “brain food” coming from omega-3 fatty acids, such as krill oil, MCTs coming from coconut oil and plenty of food-based antioxidants (only found in fresh fruits and vegetables), which are crucial for cognitive health.

You may also be surprised to learn that aging dogs require more rather than less protein, but it should come from quality sources and include a variety of living, whole, easily-digestible, moisture-rich fresh meats that are suitable for a carnivore. Animal meat should be the foundation of your healthy dog’s diet throughout his life.

In some cases, a species-appropriate diet for your dog is also about what should be eliminated. Unfortunately, many commercial dog foods are loaded with processed ingredients, such as refined carbohydrates that turn to sugar.

Also, eliminate grains, potatoes and legumes in your aging dog’s diet and pay attention to the amount of fiber your dog consumes, as it’s often just unnecessary filler, displacing crucial meat-based protein your aging dog requires. Additionally, the byproducts of high heat processing, known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, negatively impact the aging process and may play into premature cognitive decline.7

Needless to say, exercise and lots of time outside is also important for dogs of any age. It not only keeps their blood pumping, but keeps them limber and enhances detoxification. Additionally, one of the most important aspects of maintaining cognitive health in aging humans is social interaction, but it’s also true for dogs.

Exposure to other humans besides his or her immediate family is helpful, and being around other animals is beneficial for them, as well. Continuing mentally engaging exercises on a daily basis is also important, including fun nose work games and treat release puzzles.

One of the most important things for dog owners to do is work with an integrative or functional medicine veterinarian early on in the disease process. I was able to manage my dog’s age-related dementia very well because I addressed it immediately, as soon as symptoms became noticeable.

Proactive vets have been using nootropic supplements for pets (used to enhance memory and brain health) for years, including specific B vitamins, rhodiola, phosphatidylserine, lion’s mane mushroom and a variety of specific brain-supportive herbs.


Dementia in Pets

By Dr. Becker and comments by Diane Weinmann

According to the U.K.’s The Telegraph, a growing number of dogs and cats in Britain are suffering from dementia, and veterinarians are warning pet parents that sedentary lifestyles and poor diets are to blame.

An increasing number of dogs are dying of the condition, and cats are displaying “clumsiness” and confusion.

According to veterinarians, an estimated 1.3 million pets in Britain suffer from dementia, with a third of dogs showing signs of mental decline by the age of 8, and two-thirds by the age of 15. In cats, the condition is seen in about half of all kitties 15 and older, and a third aged 11 to 14.

Professor Dr. Holger Volk, a leading veterinary scientist at the Royal Veterinary College, told the Telegraph, “I don’t think that people really realize how serious this problem is.”1 He believes a lack of physical activity and a diet of “cheap pet food” play a primary role in the onset of dementia in dogs and cats.

“We are seeing an increase in pet obesity,” says Volk. “Just as we see health problems among people who are less active so we see the same problems with their pets eating more and getting less exercise and this may lead to an increase in dementia.”

Volk says U.K. pet parents have very little understanding of the problems they create by allowing their animal companions to become inactive and overweight, and this lack of awareness is causing them to miss the signs of declining health in their pets.

Signs of Dementia in Dogs and Cats

According to The Telegraph, signs of dementia in pets include:


✓ Getting “stuck” behind furniture and needing help to get out ✓ Walking in circles
✓ Forgetting what they’ve just done, for example, greeting their owner, and immediately doing it again ✓ Forgetting to eat, or forgetting they just ate
✓ Standing near the hinge side of a door instead of the side that opens ✓ Struggling to find their way around
✓ “Drifting away” from activities

Volk believes the key to preventing or slowing the onset of dementia is to make sure pets get regular, vigorous exercise. “Neurons in the brain go into decline with dementia,” says Volk, “and the more you exercise the more they remain active.”

He also recommends transitioning pets to a high-quality pet food containing fatty acids.

Dementia Rates in U.S. Dogs

Here in the U.S., dementia or cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in dogs and cats has been on the radar of researchers, the veterinary community and many pet parents for at least a decade.

About a quarter of U.S. dogs 10 years and older show signs of brain aging, and over 60 percent of dogs have symptoms by the age of 15.2 However, dogs as young as 6 can begin to experience mental decline.

In a relatively young dog, it’s especially important to investigate for an underlying illness or disease before making a diagnosis of age-related cognitive decline. In dogs, we look for one or more of the following five common signs of CDS:

  1. Increased total amount of sleep during a 24-hour period
  2. Decreased attention to surroundings, disinterest and apathy
  3. Decreased purposeful activity
  4. Loss of formerly acquired knowledge, which includes housebreaking
  5. Intermittent anxiety expressed through apprehension, panting, moaning or shivering

Other signs of mental decline include failure to respond to commands and/or difficulty hearing, inability to recognize familiar people and difficulty navigating the environment.

There are three main contributors to the changes in an aging brain that cause a gradual impairment in cognitive functioning: oxidative stress from free radical damage, formation of lesions on the brain and alterations in oxygen and energy availability.

The brain is thought to be more sensitive to the effects of oxidation than other tissues of the body. The damage to your dog’s brain caused by oxidative stress can cause a decrease in cognition as well as degenerative nerve disease similar to, for example, Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

The aging process also involves the accumulation of beta amyloid deposits on the brain. These deposits consist of nerve-damaging protein that forms plaque. This “senile plaque” buildup interferes with the transmission of signals from the brain.

How Feline Cognitive Dysfunction Is Measured

Cats can also suffer a decline in their mental faculties, and many veterinarians and feline experts use the acronym DISH to measure cognitive dysfunction in kitties.

D = disorientation. Kitties with CDS may wander aimlessly, stare at walls and appear lost or confused at times. They may also intermittently fail to recognize family members.

I = reduced social interactions. A cat with CDS may seem confused when his guardian arrives home at the end of the day. He may also show less interest in being petted or sitting in his owner’s lap.

S = changes in sleep patterns. An affected cat may sleep more during the day but turn into an insomniac at bedtime, wandering the house and often crying out for no obvious reason.

H = house soiling/housetraining. Cats with CDS frequently lose their housetraining skills. This happens because they either forget the location of the litterbox, or they are no longer terribly concerned about their own cleanliness or perhaps a bit of both.

CDS in cats hasn’t been studied, so no scientific explanation currently exists for what causes the problem in felines. However, in humans and dogs, the condition is thought to be caused by Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain (the formation of beta-amyloid plaques) or cerebrovascular disease.

In dogs with CDS, it is known that pathological changes in the brain are closely associated with the severity of dementia symptoms, and the same probably holds true for cats.

10 Tips to Help Your Aging Pet Stay Mentally Sharp

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help your dog or cat maintain good mental function for as long as possible, and delay the onset and progression of cognitive decline.

  1. Feed a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet that includes omega-3 essential fats, such as krill oil, which are critical for cognitive health. The perfect fuel for aging pets is a healthy variety of fresh, living food suitable for your carnivorous cat or dog.
  2. Eliminate all refined carbohydrates (grains, potatoes and legumes) to allow more room for excellent-quality protein, full of critical amino acids, to be fed.

Eliminating extruded foods (kibble) means your pet won’t be consuming the toxic byproducts of the manufacturing process, including heterocyclic amines and acrylamides. You can improve digestion and absorption of nutrients by feeding a less processed diet, not to mention improving your pet’s microbiome, which has been linked to improved cognitive health in humans.

  1. Stop vaccinating and start titering. Vaccines don’t “wear out” over time, and more vaccines means more adjuvants and heavy metals that accumulate in your pet’s brain.
  2. Keep your pet’s body and mind active with regular exercise appropriate for her age and physical condition, and mental stimulation (puzzles and treat-release toys can be beneficial). Make sure your dog has opportunities to socialize with other pets and people. Think of creative ways to enrich your cat’s indoor environment.
  3. Provide a SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) supplement as a safe and effective way to stall or improve mental decline. Consult your holistic veterinarian for the right dose size for your dog or cat. There are also commercial cognitive support products available.
  4. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have been shown to improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the amyloid protein buildup that results in brain lesions in older pets. Coconut oil is a rich source of MCTs. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of body weight twice daily for basic MCT support.
  5. Other supplements to consider are jellyfish extracts, resveratrol (Japanese knotweed), which protects against free radical damage and beta-amyloid deposits, ginkgo biloba, gotu kola and phosphatidylserine — a nutritional supplement that can inhibit age-related cognitive deficits. Consult a holistic veterinarian for dosing guidance.
  6. Keep your pet at a healthy size — overweight dogs and cats are at significant increased risk for disease as they age.
  7. Maintain your pet’s dental health.
  8. I recommend twice-yearly veterinary visits for pets no matter the age, but this becomes even more important for dogs and cats getting up in years. Keeping abreast of your animal companion’s physical and mental changes as he ages is the best way to catch any disease process early.

Ask your vet to perform a blood test to check your pet’s internal organ health to make sure you are identifying possible issues early on. There’s also a blood test that measures inflammatory fats you may want to consider. You can find more information at VRD Health.

These recommendations won’t be tremendously helpful for a pet in the advanced stages of cognitive decline, which is why it’s so important to diagnose and begin treating the problem as early as possible. Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive disease that can’t be cured, but early diagnosis and intervention can slow mental decline and offer your aging pet good quality of life.