Dementia in Dogs

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Key takeaways

Dementia, or Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), is an age-related degenerative disease which affects memory and learning in dogs.

  • Dogs with CDS present with a wide variety of progressive symptoms, including disorientation, anxiety, abnormal interactions, disturbances in sleep/wake cycle, learning or memory changes, house soiling, and changes in activity levels
  • Investigation of CDS involves patient history and physical examination in combination with elimination of alternative diseases through laboratory testing and diagnostic imaging
  • CDS cannot be resolved, but some treatments improve brain function or slow the decline, such as environmental enrichment, supplements, and medication
  • Prognosis in cases of CDS varies depending on severity and age of onset
  • Younger dogs where symptoms are recognised early can be treated effectively, whereas severe cases in older dogs sometimes result in euthanasia
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A closer look: Dementia in Dogs


CDS is a challenging condition for both the dog and owner as behavioral changes, such as house soiling and alterations to sleep/wake cycles, can have a negative impact on quality of life for both parties.

CDS is not a painful or a fatal condition, however, dogs with advanced CDS are sometimes euthanized due to poor quality of life. CDS often presents alongside other chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis, which is also progressive and impacts quality of life. CDS is not an emergency, but dogs with symptoms benefit from early veterinary assessment to slow progression.

With management and accommodation, dogs with CDS can continue to live happy lives for a time. Regular veterinary monitoring and check ins are necessary to assess quality of life and ensure essential geriatric and end of life care needs are met.

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Risk factors


Symptoms vary significantly in dogs, both in terms of presentation and severity. Symptoms also vary in how quickly they progress with age. It is common to confuse CDS with normal signs of aging.

Age is the main predisposing factor, with many dogs over the age of 12 having symptoms of CDS. CDS can occur between 7-9 years old in large breed dogs whereas small breed dogs usually show symptoms between 11-12 years old.

Some dogs, such as Beagles, may have a genetic predisposition to CDS, while in other dogs it is sometimes associated with other neurodegenerative diseases.

Possible causes


CDS shares many features with human Alzheimer’s disease, including progressive onset, and similar alterations in brain chemistry. As the body ages, the signaling pathway in the brain deteriorates, leading to cognitive decline.

Main symptoms


Symptoms may be further characterized as follows:

  • Disorientation: Difficulty recognizing people, locations or objects
  • Sleep/wake cycle disturbance: Sleep most of the day but appear restless at night, often wake early looking for food
  • House soiling: Loss of house training, which is distinct from urinary or fecal incontinence. In cases of incontinence, the affected animal is house soiling without control over the bladder or elimination of feces.
  • Activity changes such as lethargy, or less interest in walks may be noted. CDS often presents alongside osteoarthritis, which may also contribute to limited mobility and exercise intolerance.
  • Learning and memory changes: Repeatedly performing certain actions such as asking for food or attention

CDS may also elicit anxiety in dogs. This is usually associated with changes in the household such as new objects, sounds, or people.

Testing and diagnosis


There are no specific tests for CDS and diagnosis is based on a description of symptoms alongside investigation to exclude other triggers of similar symptoms. Investigation includes:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood work
  • Urinalysis
  • Diagnostic imaging

Steps to Recovery


There is no treatment for CDS. Treatment is supportive and aims to slow progression and maximize quality of life. Treatment options focus of several strategies:

Environmental management:

  • Avoid changes in the environment
  • Maintain a predictable routine
  • Provide a safe space in the house
  • Remain on leash in unfamiliar environments
  • Avoid slippery flooring
  • Play games frequently with treat-based training to encourage memory

Nutrition: Prescription food or nutraceuticals containing enhanced levels of vitamins and minerals that support brain function.

Medication:Medications aim to promote blood flow in the brain, increase brain activity, and protect the brain from ongoing damage.

Treatment of other conditions in geriatric dogs such as osteoarthritis also helps support quality of life and slow overall impact of aging.

CDS is a lifelong condition and the disease is progressive. Prognosis varies depending on the severity. Early diagnosis and treatment improves prognosis, particularly in mild cases, whereas severe, untreated cases often result in euthanasia within two years of onset.

Prevention


CDS is not a preventable condition but a reduction in the speed of decline is possible with early diagnosis and treatment.

Is Dementia in Dogs common?


CDS is a common condition in dogs which becomes increasingly common with age.

Typical Treatment


  • Environmental management
  • Nutritional support
  • Medication
  • Treatment and management of other associated conditions

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