Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Can Old Dogs Get Alzheimer’s Disease?

Aging dogs can show mental symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease

No one knows exactly why dogs or humans decline in their abilities when they age. One theory suggests that as the genetic material (DNA) reproduces itself in each new cell, the successive transcriptions become less accurate, sort of like making copies of copies of copies on a photocopier, where each one gets progressively grainier and harder to read. Damage to the DNA can also come about due to natural radiation damage from cosmic rays and more terrestrial sources (such as breathing in air pollutants or fumes from certain solvents) which in turn might lead to faulty enzyme production. When this happens it will often result in cell deaths in the nervous system and elsewhere. Other theories of aging blame simple wear and tear, suggesting that various physical and neural systems break down from frequent use, and may break down even faster if they are put under stress. Other theories suggest that aging results from the accumulation of metabolic waste products in the cells or the increase in unstable chemicals (free-radicals) that interact with molecules in the cells and interfere with their functioning.

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aging dog canine alzheimer's disease cognitive dysfunction
Regardless of the source of aging effects, the brain and nervous system of dogs (and people) change markedly as they age. Old dogs have smaller, lighter brains than young dogs. The change is quite significant and the older brain might be up to 25 percent lighter. It is important to note that this change is not necessarily due to brain cells dying off. Actually, we mostly lose parts of the nerve cells, the branches (dendrites and axon filaments) that connect with other nerve cells. These connections to other cells start to break down with age. If we could consider the brain as a complexly wired computer, it would be the same as if various circuits in the central processor simply stopped functioning because connections were broken. For the most part, it is the loss of these connections that reduces the size and the weight of the brain.


With age, there are also chemical changes occurring in the brain that affect behavior, memory, and learning. In dogs and humans the mitochondria, little strand-like structures in the nucleus of cells, are responsible for converting nutrients into energy. As dogs and humans age, mitochondrial efficiency decreases. The mitochondria begin to act as if they have become leaky, since they now begin to release "free radicals," chemicals that oxidize compounds essential for normal cell function. The loss of these compounds places the cell at risk. As the tissues degenerate, protein deposits called "amyloids" accumulate in the brain. High levels of amyloids, especially when associated with clusters of dead and dying nerve cells, are taken as part of the evidence that the individual is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Studies conducted at the University of Toronto by a team of researchers including psychologist, Norton Milgram, have shown that dogs with high levels of amyloids in their brains have poorer memories and difficulties learning new material, especially if it involves more complex thinking and problem solving. This equivalent to Alzheimer's disease in dogs is called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.
Like Alzheimer's disease, physical evidence, found only in autopsies, reveals the same sort of degenerative brain lesions in dogs and humans. With age, dogs, like humans, naturally accumulate deposits of beta amyloids. This starch-like protein builds up, becomes waxy, and forms plaque. As plaque builds up, it clogs the brain and inhibits the transmission of signals from the brain. In both Alzheimer's and Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, the level of this accumulated plaque predicts the severity of the mental or cognitive impairment.


There are some noticeable changes in dogs with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, which, like Alzheimer's, are not a normal part of aging. The main symptoms can be easily summarized by the acronym DISH which is short for Disorientation, Interaction changes, Sleep changes, and House soiling.

Signs of Disorientation often include:

  • Stops responding to well learned commands
  • May even stop responding to his name
  • No longer remembers household routines
  • May stare blankly into space or at walls
  • May pace or wander aimlessly, and outside may wander out of his own yard and act lost or confused
  • May seem to walk in aimless repetitive patterns, such as around a table or from room to room
  • May appear lost or confused, even in familiar surroundings, and sometimes may seem to get stuck in corners, under or behind furniture, have difficulty finding his way out.
  • Sometimes, previously well tempered dogs may appear to become easily agitated and may be barking a lot for no apparent reason.

Symptoms of decreased Interaction skills include:

  • Often the first thing that you notice is that the dog no longer seems to care about being petted and may even walk away even when being petted and receiving affection.
  • Previously sociable affectionate dogs may no longer try to get attention
  • The dog no longer goes to greet visitors or even family members

Typical changes in Sleep patterns include:

  • The dog may sleep more during the day
  • The dog may sleep less at night and instead wander around in the dark

Sometimes symptoms include apparently forgetting Housetraining:

  • Some dogs stop signalling that they want to go out
  • Some dogs may begin to have "accidents" indoors. These "accidents may even occur just a short time after being outside
  • The dog may seem to forget the reason that they are outside, simply wandering around aimlessly and not eliminating

Observing such changes in a well-loved older dog can be very distressing for his owner and family, however the good news is that there are some things that can be dog to slow and perhaps even reverse the effect Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. It has long been known that keeping your dog mentally active can help (see Building a Better Brain for Your Dog). However in my next blog entry I will tell you about a surprisingly simple way to make your dog's brain healthier and more efficient and to stave off the effects of aging on your dog's mental abilities.


Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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