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Dog Dementia: What It Looks Like and What Can Done About It

Dogs, like many other nonhuman animals and humans, suffer cognitive decline.

Wallula, Pixabay free download
Source: Wallula, Pixabay free download

A few days ago I received an email from a friend, Rod, that read: "You've met my pal Jack who celebrates his 12th birthday next week. As of late, say the last couple months, Jack has awoken after maybe 30 minutes of seemingly sound sleep. He comes awake in a start, head and ears down, clambering quickly to run from whatever has terrified him in his dream. He goes a short distance and then stops, wide awake. This happens a few times a week and is not dependent on sleeping in a specific location. It had been suggested to give him some melatonin prior to bed to help his sleep pattern, but that does not seem to have much effect. I wondered if you have encountered anything similar. I always try to comfort him after the fact, but so wish there was something I could do to alleviate his terror before it occurs."

I immediately wrote back and said that perhaps Jack is suffering from a form of sundowners syndrome, that can include different forms of confusion, anxiety, aggression, ignoring directions, pacing, or wandering. I was relieved when Rod wrote back and concluded that most likely Jack's behavior was caused by bad dreams.

Rod's email also reminded me of a number other times when I've been told that a dog manifested some of the warning signs of sundowners, and there was little to no doubt that each dog was suffering from some form of cognitive dysfunction. One of my own senior canine companions clearly experienced dementia, and I've seen similar patterns of behavior in wild coyotes, red foxes, and an aging black bear who lived near my mountain home. Thus, I was pleased when I received notice of an important and information-packed essay available online: "Dog Dementia: What is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?" by veterinarian Gurpal Chahal.

I'm sure there are numerous dogs, especially senior and elder dogs, who show different forms of dementia. Friends have told me about changes in the behavior of a canine companion and were at a loss to explain what was happening. I mentioned to them that dogs are mammals and have mammalian brains, so it's not surprising that they, too, can suffer from cognitive decline and other psychological disorders. This simple statement went a long way toward their seeking advice from a veterinarian in how to deal with these changes.

Chahal notes, "The exact cause of this degenerative disorder is not known. Chronic illness or stress may increase a dog’s chances of suffering from cognitive dysfunction, but some or all of the following factors may contribute toward this dysfunction and affect the normal functioning of the dog’s brain." These include a reduction in the number of neurons, a decrease in blood flow to the brain, and the death of neurons. He also notes that it's difficult to pin down when dog dementia may begin. At least half of dogs who suffer some form of decline manifest it by 11 years of age, but it's also been noticed in dogs as young as 7.

Chahal summarizes the symptoms of dog dementia as follows:

  • Disorientation; the pet may be confused and lost in familiar environments like home or park.
  • Changes in sleeping cycle, including night waking or vocalization and sleeping a lot during the day.
  • Changes in interactions with family members, friends, or other animals such as being less enthusiastic to greet them, wanting less attention, and showing signs of aggression toward them.
  • Abnormal behavior and less interest in eating or playing and being unwilling to socialize.
  • Staring at inanimate objects.
  • Being restless with pacing and aimless wandering.
  • House soiling and lack of response to commands are also common. The dog may eliminate in an improper location. The dog may appear deaf to the owner because he does not respond to learned commands.

He stresses that these don't always indicate dementia. These behavior changes can also be caused by separation anxiety, arthritis, declines in hearing or seeing, or kidney or liver disease.

There are a number of medications and nutritional supplements that can be used to treat dog dementia, and a number of other ways that include light exercise, behavior therapy, making their homes more user-friendly, and providing different forms of enrichment. These include "taking them on gentle smell walks and allowing them to sniff, and ensuring they still have interactions with their human family members." (Also see "There's No Magic Formula to Slow Your Dog's Aging.")

I was especially pleased to read about "smell walks," because dogs' sense organs, like their muscles, heart, and lungs, need to be exercised, and we need to make time for them to do so. In Canine Confidential, I wrote about a woman who wondered if not allowing dogs to sniff to their noses' content could cause psychological problems because they weren't getting a true picture of the odor in which they're interested. I continue to ponder this possibility because dogs greatly depend on learning about what's going on via "pee-mail."

We're also told that dogs with cognitive dysfunction don't necessarily live shorter lives, and they can be our loving friends for many years after suffering from dementia.

I learned a lot from Chahal's essay and I hope it reaches a broad global audience. Senior dogs can be awesome companions even if they're psychologically or physically compromised. We owe it to them to give them the very best lives possible, they depend on us to do so, and we should give them everything they need and love and then some. We also can learn a lot from their presence in our homes and hearts, a win-win for all.

Facebook image: Sheryl Lynch/Shutterstiock


Bekoff, Marc. A Salute to Senior Dogs: Elders Can Teach Us New Tricks Too.

_____. Do Wild Animals Suffer From PTSD and Other Psychological Disorders?

_____. Psychological Disorders in Animals: A Review of What We Know.

_____. Pets on the Couch: Do Animals Need Freud and Pfizer? An interview with Nicholas Dodman about his new book on animal psychiatry.

_____. Allowed to Grow Old: Radiant Portraits of Elderly Animals. (A collection of moving images portrays heart, dignity, and unique personalities.)

_____. Special Needs and Senior Dogs Rock: They, Too, Need Love. (Aging, disabled, and injured dogs deserve to live happy and healthy lives.)

_____. Hospice For Dogs: Let Them Have Whatever They Want and Love. (When deciding how to give an ailing dog the best life possible, consult them.)

_____. My Old Dog: Rescued Seniors Show that Old Dogs Rock.

_____. Older Dogs: Giving Elder Canines Lots of Love and Good Lives.

_____. What's a Good Life for an Old Dog? (At the end of life is a tasty treat better than pills with major side effects?)

_____. Secrets of the Snout: A Dog's Nose Is a Work of Art.

_____. How Dogs "See" the World Through Different Odors.

_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, 2018.

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, 2019.


Pierce, Jessica. The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives. University of Chicago Press, 2014.