Jack Russell dog

The age of dementia onset in dogs varies greatly from individual to individual.

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Age cognitive dysfunction in dogs: causes and symptoms

By Dr. Helen Donald BA BVetMed MBA MSc MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

With most older dogs having some degree of age cognitive dysfunction, it's good to know exactly what is and how to help your pet.

Cognitive dysfunction or decline is a common and progressive disorder seen in older dogs. It can have a major effect on their behaviour and moods.

What causes canine cognitive dysfunction?

Cognitive decline is associated with old age and it is estimated that two thirds of dogs of 15 years or older have some degree of dysfunction, with subtle signs starting in dogs as young as six. The cause is not known, but chronic illness or stress may increase a dog’s chances of suffering from cognitive decline.

How do you treat cognitive dysfunction in dogs?

There is sadly no treatment that can reverse cognitive decline, but there are ways to control some of the signs and slow down its progression. You could try a specialist veterinary diet or ask a vet for advice on supplements containing antioxidants that are believed to be helpful such as vitamins C and E, and essential fatty acids. There are also a number of prescription drugs such as selegiline that may improve brain function, or anti-anxiety drugs for dogs with sleep disturbances.

Is canine cognitive dysfunction fatal?

Cognitive dysfunction is not of itself fatal, but some dogs become reluctant to eat, or they may get lost, even on routes they know, putting them at risk of other problems. Sometimes living with a dog with dementia can become too difficult for the owners and a vet may recommend euthanasia.

What are the signs of dementia in dogs?

Vets use the acronym DISHA to describe the common symptoms of dementia. Disorientation – getting lost on familiar routes and forgetting training commands; reduced Interaction and increased Irritability; Sleep disruption; House-soiling; and Anxiety and reduced Activity. Occasionally some dogs will become more active and may pace restlessly, or vocalise, howling or barking for no obvious reason.

Are dogs with dementia suffering?

Some dogs with dementia can become quite confused and distressed. You might notice that your dog with dementia seems increasingly withdrawn and anxious, and may develop obsessive behaviours such as compulsive licking or chewing. This can be distressing for both the dog and their owner.

Does dog dementia come on suddenly?

Very occasionally signs will become apparent quickly, for example following a problem with blood supply to the brain but, generally, the onset of dementia is slow and progressive. The initial symptoms can be quite subtle changes in behaviour and it isn’t until more obvious signs, such as house-soiling, start that dementia becomes noticeable.

At what age do dogs get dementia?

The age of onset varies greatly from individual to individual, and some owners are slow to spot the signs unless their dog has to perform particular tasks or work. About half of all dogs will show some signs of dysfunction by the time they are 11 years old.

What causes sudden neurological issues in a dog?

Neurological conditions can suddenly happen for many reasons and you should always consult a vet immediately, if you suspect a problem. Infections, poisons, metabolic disorders, blood clots and injuries can all cause sudden neurological signs such as seizures, collapse or weakness.

Can a dog recover from neurological problems?

The chances of recovery depend on the cause of the problem. Some conditions can be treated with drugs or surgery, but others may have a major impact on your dog’s quality of life, in which case a vet may well recommend euthanasia.

What are the signs of a brain tumour in a dog?

The signs of a brain tumour usually depend on its location and which part of the brain it is affecting. Seizuring is often the first sign in dogs or there may be more subtle signs such as an increase in aggression or repetitive behaviours. You may notice a change in your dog’s vision or its balance and coordination. Tremors, abnormal eye movements, walking in circles or a head tilt are also common signs to look out for.

What are signs of neurological disorders in dogs?

The signs of any neurological disorder may be similar to those of a brain tumour unless they are affecting the spinal cord or peripheral nerves, in which case you may notice weakness or paralysis just in one part of your dog’s body.

How do you prevent dementia in dogs?

You can’t do much to prevent your dog getting dementia, but there’s good evidence that keeping your dog mentally stimulated is helpful. Make sure that an old dog gets plenty of exercise, as much as its physical condition allows, and introduce more games and training to your daily routine. You could also try toys with hidden treats that encourage a dog to problem solve in order to retrieve the treat.

When should I see a vet?

See a vet immediately, if your dog develops sudden paralysis or abnormal movements or starts to seizure. You should also consult a vet if you think your dog is developing signs of dementia. You know your dog best, but there are tests a vet can do to see how well your dog is coping. Any change in behaviour or mood should be checked out.

What should I ask a vet about cognitive dysfunction in dogs?

A vet may not be able to offer your dog a cure, but ask them to recommend treatments that will slow down or delay any progressive condition. Testing and treatment can be expensive and your dog is likely to need regular check-ups, so ask a vet for an estimate of the costs involved. Eventually your dog may need to be euthanised, so it is best to be prepared. You could also ask a vet to tell you what key signs may tell you that your dog has reached that point.

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