Though many dog owners may not be aware of it, our canine friends can develop dementia too.
Dementia in dogs — also known as canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome — often follows a similar pattern of development as it does in humans, says Gary Landsberg, a veterinary behaviorist and senior veterinary scientific director with the research organization CanCog.
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“Dogs have neurodegenerative disease disorders that they develop with age,” he says. “It can be progressive … but as in the human condition, it doesn't always progress to a more severe dementia.”
Warning Signs of Dementia in Dogs
While symptoms depend on the individual dog, there are some common signs pet owners should watch out for. Landsberg uses the acronym DISHA, which stands for disorientation, interactions, sleep, house soiling and activity changes.
In other words, dogs may become trapped in rooms they are otherwise familiar with; become sullen or depressed; sleep more or less; forget their training; or become more anxious.
“Some of these social interactions and activity changes are some of the first that people might notice,” Landsberg says. Depending on the severity of the case, a dog may exhibit a few or many symptoms.
Landsberg also stresses that many of these signs can be symptoms of other health issues: “All of these signs could be early warning signs for disease or cognitive dysfunction, and therefore should be reported to the veterinarian and diagnosed as such,” he says.
But it can be further complicated, says Sarah Walsh, a vet nurse with the U.K.-based charity PDSA. Sometimes, owners simply associate these symptoms of cognitive disfunction with old age.
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“A lot of pets with dementia might appear to get lost in familiar places, or sometimes they even get trapped in rooms because they forget how to get out,” she says. “A lot of people would just naturally think that's an ‘old dog change’ and there's nothing that [they] can do to help them.”
After the Diagnosis of Dementia
With an accurate diagnosis, however, that’s not necessarily the case. While there is no “cure” for dementia, as with humans, there are ways to treat the symptoms — and possibly slow the onset of severe cases.
Maintaining a nutritious diet is one example. “There are also supplements that you can give to support healthy brain function and special prescription diets that aim to do the same thing and just support the brain to be as healthy as it can be,” Walsh says.
Keeping dogs active and mentally stimulated — by utilizing reward training or enrichment toys, for example — is another way to help healthy cognitive function, according to Landsberg. “I think very simply it's diet and nutrition, enrichment, and maybe medication, of which there are just a few drugs out there,” he says.
But the most important thing for pet owners to do, both experts agree, is to consult with a vet if you notice the above changes in your dog.
“When your pet hits middle age — 6,7 or 8 years of age — it's time to start seeing your veterinarian twice a year,” Landsberg says. “It's time to start reporting any signs that are changing from normal adulthood.”
He also points to online resources that owners can use to assess changes. Such regular assessments may help identify any onset of dementia or other health issues and ensure targeted treatment is implemented as soon as possible.
“It can be really scary to get that diagnosis as a pet owner,” admits Walsh. “But most dogs can have a good quality of life after being diagnosed.”