Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (Dementia in Dogs)
Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) can affect dogs as they age, and is the canine equivalent of dementia in humans. Nearly one in three dogs over the age of 11 show at least one sign of CCD. It is a progressive condition, for which there is no cure, but there are ways we can slow our dogs’ decline. I am not an expert, so the following is what I have gleaned from my own experience of a dog with CCD, posts on this forum, and information from elsewhere on the internet.
Symptoms can be very mild at first, but include:
- extreme irritability
- decreased desire to play
- excessive licking
- seeming disregard for previously learned training or house rules
- slow to learn new tasks
- inability to follow familiar routes
- excessive barking
- lack of self-grooming
- loss of appetite
- changes in sleep cycle (e.g., night waking, sleeping during the day).
This can be the first symptom of CCD to be noticed, but also one of the hardest to cope with. As in humans, your dog may become agitated as darkness falls at the end of the day. They may whine, bark, pace, and ask to be let out multiple times. This often only happens for a few hours, and then your dog finally settles – though it can also occur later in the night. It is very hard to see your dog apparently distressed when you can’t seem to reassure them, and the lack of sleep for nights on end very hard to bear.
If you suspect your dog has CCD, the first step is to consult your vet to rule out any other conditions that might cause the symptoms – for example, any form of pain can make it hard for your dog to settle. Your vet can consider if further diagnostic tests are needed, and advise you on treatment.
There is no ‘cure’ for CCD, and no one-size-fits-all approach to helping your dog, but many different approaches which may help. The following have been reported to benefit for some dogs:
Medications & supplements
Note that some supplements and medications interact, so discuss with your vet before trying these.
- Vitofyllin: Prescription only, for the improvement of peripheral and cerebral vascular blood circulation
- Aktivait: A nutritional supplement that may help central nervous system and brain function
- CBD oil
- Gabapentin: Prescription only; has a number of uses in dogs, but also has a calming effect. My dog has been on this for a few days and has started sleeping through after previously barking, wanting to go out, etc., from 10pm to 1am. The effect lasts around 8 hours, so he’s not drowsy the next day. Long may it last!
- Sedatives: There are a number of sedatives that could be tried for night-time disturbances. However, they can be hit and miss, and have unwanted side-effects. In some dog, they may actually increase anxiety (‘paradoxical reactions’).
- Special diets to improve memory, learning ability, etc. Typically supplemented with antioxidants, vitamin E and C, selenium, flavonoids, beta carotene, carotenoids, omega-3, and carnitine.
Be aware of the possible side effects of any medications. Gabapentin, for instance, can cause coordination problems, which the owner might assume are simply a further sign of ageing, particularly if the dog’s legs are already a little unreliable.
- A healthy and stimulating environment, with routine play, exercise and (re)training will help slow the progression of cognitive decline. The more they use their brain cells, the fewer they’ll lose. Consider snuffle mats and other food dispensing toys, as long as they don’t frustrate your dog. Treat them to a few new toys, and cast your mind back to the games and tricks you taught them when they were young.
- Many dogs with dementia become less confident in the dark, compounded by their eyesight beginning to fade. Try leaving a dim light on for them at night (may need to be brighter than just a nightlight), and also make sure they have enough light to navigate through your house.
- Make sure your dog is comfortable – they might benefit from a house coat/pyjamas and an orthopaedic bed. Pain meds night also be appropriate – ask your vet.
- Give your dog plenty of opportunities to toilet, as their bowels and bladder may be less reliable.
- SAD lamps (therapy lamps, e.g. Lumie) have been shown to help some people with dementia, so may help with CCD.
- Sleep with your dog if it comforts them. If it helps them sleep, it’ll help you sleep too. Take it from me, it’s much better than dragging yourself out of a nice warm bed to let them out, then going back up again, and then hearing them cry two minutes later…
- Keep to your normal routines as much as possible. Also, don’t rearrange the furniture – even if their eyesight is still OK, this might be enough to confuse or disorient some dogs.
- Don’t be afraid to indulge your dog if they become more needy and this helps them. Now is not the time to insist that they should cope with being in a room on their own, though try to stick to normal routines as much as possible. If possible, share ‘dog duty’, both day and night, with other family members.
- Getting outside in the fresh air is great for your dog’s mental health (and yours too!). The sunlight can help maintain the circadian rhythm, and there are so many great smells. Even if they do just spend 20 minutes sniffing a particularly interesting spot in a hedge, or settle down for a snooze on the verge of a busy road, that’s fine.
- Quality of life: There may come a time when the effects of CCD means your dog’s quality of life is very poor. Don’t feel guilty about deciding that euthanasia is the best option for them.
- The book Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction by Eileen Anderson may be worth a look – the author has been recommended by a forum member.
Caring for a dog with CCD can be very challenging. Lack of sleep, and trying to live your life when your dog can’t settle, is hard. You may feel alone, but you really aren’t – most people who get a puppy expect lack of sleep, puddles, etc. for the first few months not realising that the later years can be even harder, but there are a lot of people who go through this. Be sure to look after your own needs as well as your dog’s. Feel free to post on the forum about what you are going through, even if you just need a good moan and moral support. And of course, if you find anything that works for your dog which I haven’t covered above, let me know so I can add it!