Canine Dementia (Canine Cognitive Dysfunction) and Geriatric Dog Mental Health

Your dog may not lose the car keys or forget to pick up milk at the supermarket, but your dog can indeed have “senior moments” if he’s a geriatric pup. If you notice your dog forgets the route on the daily walk or he’s just a bit more weary-seeming and not taking as much pleasure in things that once made his entire body wag like greeting you at the door when you get home. Isn’t frolicking with his favorite toy or can’t seem to focus on a game of tug-of-war for more than a single ” tug,” your older old could be experiencing canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), the canine version of Alzheimer’s Disease without the terrible end that results for that human disease.


Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, CCD

Canine cognitive dysfunction occurs for multiple reasons, including an accumulation of abnormal proteins in the brain that comes with advancing or advanced age in a dog. This creates a build-up of plaques, which eventually damages nerves and results in the loss of brain function, which can affect your dog’s memory, motor functions, and learned behaviors. These plaques are similar to those found in human Alzheimer patient brains when they are examined.


Nearly All Dogs Experience Some Form of CCD

Nearly all dogs, regardless of breed, do experience some form of CCD as they age. In a study conducted by the Behavior Clinic at the University of California at Davis, researchers found that 28 percent of dogs aged 11-12 years, and 68 percent of dogs aged 15-16 years, showed one or more signs of cognitive impairment. CCD is a normal part of canine aging whereas Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that does not affect the majority of older humans.

A lot of dog owners aren’t even aware that their dogs can suffer from what is dementia until they take them to the vet seeking treatment for what they consider physical or behavioral problems but are just how dogs grow seriously old and are the changes a geriatric dog experiences. The first thing you should do is to talk to your vet when you notice physical or behavioral changes in your older canine companion. Cognitive Dysfunction comes on very gradually and sometimes we owners can miss the onset and not see the neurological or personality changes until our dog that we’ve had for 14 years suddenly seems to have had his entire personality vacate his white-muzzled face.

There are physical and mental causes for behavior changes. Has the chewy pig lost his interests to run after it because his joints ache from arthritis or does he really not any interest in the toy you have had to replace twice a year for the past six years? Knowing why the change occurred is vital to making sure your dog has any underlying health problems treated if physical and to make his life and golden years the best they can be. Possibly keep him holding mentally steady with a few changes in how one interacts with an elderly dog who needs more mental stimulation to be the dog you know is inside that body.


Specific Symptoms of CCD

Specific symptoms of CCD overlap with other age-related conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and kidney issues, as well as hearing and sight loss. Your vet may propose x-rays, blood tests, urinalysis, or other diagnostic tests based on your dog’s symptoms when evaluating your dog’s condition.



The DISHA acronym can help dog owners identify the most distinct signs and changes associated with CCD and is widely accepted and used by veterinary medicine professionals.

DISHA refers to the symptoms of -Disorientation, [altered] Interactions with their family members or other pets, (altered), Sleep-wake cycle changes, House soiling, and Activity level changes.

Using DISHA as a guide allows vets to narrow down and make a proper diagnosis of CCD. If a dog presents with more than just one of these symptoms, a diagnosis of CCD is more likely if medical issues are not causing DISHA behaviors.

There is not a progression to the symptoms your dog may be exhibiting. The more signs and frequency of the symptoms present points to a more serious problem with cognitive dysfunction but these symptoms are not progressive and CCD in dogs does not have phases like human cognitive degeneration is classified with.


Here are DISHA Criteria that shows cognitive dysfunction in dogs:



One of the most common and upsetting behavioral changes pet owners can notice is that their senior dog becomes lost and disoriented in their usual and familiar environment.  An example of disorientation is when a dog goes out into the yard, and he goes to the wrong door or the wrong side of the patio door to come back in. The part of the brain that identifies location and orients the dog has been affected.

A dog can also have difficulty with spatial awareness. He may get stuck behind the chair and need help getting out or be confused and upset he is stuck at the top of the stairs, and he is unable to remember how to get down. It is a bit like making a wrong turn and forgetting how to get home or where the car is parked in the parking lot even if you always park in the same spot or section and can be quite frustrating and scary.  If your dog has a habit of always be in his dog bed at the time you go to bed, finding your dog in a completely different area and staring the floor, the dog’s natural good sense of time and patterns may be altered. It could also be affected by medical issues such as diabetes and brain tumors so taking your dog to a vet as soon as possible if you notice disorientation is vital to ensure it is a cognitive issue instead of something medical.



Canine cognitive dysfunction can affect your dog’s social interactions with people and other animals. Your once friendly and loving dog can undergo personality changes and now is irritable, nervous around familiar people and may even begin growling at children and other animals. A dog that has CCD can also be unpredictable and lash out and bite. This behavior change can be the result of serious. If a dog is in pain, they often can respond to being in discomfort by being defensive or aggressive, and a vet needs to rule out a painful physical condition like arthritis in an older dog to see why he is acting out and being aggressive whenever he moves or is touched.

Other dogs become withdrawn and seem to have depression. They stop associating with their family and doing the things that once gave them joy and made their tails wag.  They may stop barking when people come to the door and seem disinterested in greeting people at the door. A dog may not even react with enthusiasm when you get his leash and are going to take him for a walk. Sometimes it can be as little as a dog not recognizing that their favorite biscuit being offered to them is a treat for them and turning their noses up at their treats. Owners often assume the dog has decided he doesn’t like that treat anymore and will switch to a new treat that the dog also doesn’t recognize. It can be something changing in the dog’s brain and not their tastes.


Sleep-Wake Cycle Changes

Changes in sleep patterns or a disruption in circadian rhythms are one of the more specific symptoms related to cognitive dysfunction. Dogs with CCD that once slept through the night suddenly can be up all night and active, and many dogs reverse their normal internal body clock, so all their regular daytime activities become night activities. A dog that is “up all night” and wants to play and go for walks can be a disruptive symptom of CCD for a household. A nightlight or using a white noise can help a dog re-accustom to sleep at night again. Some medications can also help encourage and establish normal nocturnal sleeping habits and ease a dog’s anxiety.


House Soiling

A dog that was previously housetrained and only on rare incidents had accidents in the house are considered to be house soiling when they begin urinating and defecating in the house and are not seemingly housebroken again. A dog can become incontinent even and lose the ability to hold its bladder and bowels or even forget how to communicate to its owner when it needs to go outside to do its business.  If a dog has incontinence, and once a bladder infection, kidney problems, or diabetes have been ruled out by a vet, it is most likely a cognitive change that is causing the house soiling. A dog that is standing at the patio door that leads to the yard and he defecates looking out at the yard, and he has forgotten that he has to poop outside.


Activity Level

Canine Dysfunction causes dogs to show decrease responses to their environment and less curiosity. They may refuse to come over and play with a toy or respond to being called. They may also be less focused and show an altered response to stimuli. Some dogs can even have trouble eating or drinking or even finding their food bowls. When a dog that has no hearing or sight problems drops a bone and then roots about looking for it when they lose it can be terrifying for an owner to observe and the dog is likely also upset they cannot find the bone they thought they just had or possibly just completely forgot about.

Older dogs typically have a decline in activity, but the reverse can also occur with a dog that has a cognitive dysfunction. Some dogs show neurological change by becoming prone to repetitive movement like head bobbing, leg waving, and pacing. The dog may seem physically agitated and restless and will pace for an hour, and nothing can distract them. This sort of movement is nearly always associated with cognitive dysfunction or brain aging.  If a typically quiet dogs start baying and barking when there is nothing to bay or bark at or begins barking at a pillow as if it was the mailman, a cognitive condition is more likely the cause of the alteration is the dog’s behavior.


Diet, Medication, and Environment

Being a loving pet owner observing your beloved pet lose his cognitive abilities can be a stressful and challenging process. There are some things you to can to ease your dog’s discomfort and to help improve or preserve his quality of life. CCD is not stoppable, but it is possible to slow the cognitive decline down, so one of the DISHA criteria does not become all of them.

Certain commercial and prescription dog foods are formulated to protect from and to slow cognitive dysfunction. These formulas contain anti-oxidants and omega-3 fatty acids to promote and strengthen cell health and which have in studies shown to slow the nerve degeneration caused by aging. Fatty acids seem to provide a neurological protective effect.

A neurological health optimized diet, in concert with environmental enrichment and increased mental stimulation, gives the most significant help for cognitive improvement.  Ways to increase mental stimulation do your dog has to use their brain can keep them from losing it as swiftly if not provided with such things like food puzzles.  Food dispenser toys that encourage activity and play to get the food helps keep them stay mentally active.  Playing and learning keep a dogs mind healthy. Having more scheduled play sessions will stimulate your dog’s brain and improve his learning and memory abilities. A healthy dog without arthritis, and if not aggressive, would enjoy a visit to the dog park where he can have a good run and socialize with peers. Like humans, mental degeneration can be slowed by staying active and having an active mind.

Drugs and dietary supplements can help slow your dog’s decline but requires close vet supervision to make sure that drugs or supplements will not cause problems for the dog in other ways especially if already on medication for a health condition. Vets and owners need to work together to establish a plan for preserving brain function in your pet so they have less difficult and troublesome “senior moments” and you have less distress seeing your dog age.


Regular Check-ups

An older dog over age 8 needs a checkup every six months to make sure the vet has a baseline for the dogs normal behavior and health and can be able to discern illness from normal aging. Always take a list of questions and concerns with you every time you go to the vet for a checkup, so you don’t miss any concerns being addressed. Just make notes on your phone or a pad of paper and make sure your observation go with you and your dog to the vet so you can have peace of mind, your dog be healthy, and so your dog can have the best care possible as it enters its late life as a hopefully happy old dog.



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