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Recognising Dementia in Older Pets

We often get clients joking that they think their dog or cat might be going senile. The truth is, they probably are. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) – or ‘doggy dementia’ as it’s known – is extremely common in old dogs, and cats suffer from a similar condition.

In one study every large-breed dog over the age of 13 was found to have symptoms, and 9 in every 10 small-breed dogs had it at 13 years of age. That’s a huge proportion, and yet canine dementia is something that a lot of people aren’t aware they need to be on the look-out for.

Just like Alzheimer’s in people, CCD is thought to be caused by damage to brain cells as they age, causing changes that restrict the brain’s ability to store and retrieve information. Over time, the brain cells become less resistant to damage and some of the connections can be lost, resulting in confused behaviour. Dogs and cats with cognitive dysfunction also have less of the chemicals dopamine and serotonin than normal pets, which means that the neurons in their brain can’t communicate properly.

It is extremely important to be on the look-out for signs of dementia in any aging pet, as early treatment can ease or even reverse the signs. Animals with dementia will be confused. They might ask to be let out, then forget what they went out there for. They may get lost in familiar environments or get stuck in corners or behind furniture. They might pace more than usual and their sleeping patterns will probably change, meaning they suddenly start moving around or whining/meowing in the evenings. They may find it harder to find dropped food as their sense of smell is often affected. Over 50% of dogs with dementia in one study showed increased anxiety, especially separation anxiety and fear of loud noises. They can also find it hard to recognise familiar people or animals and respond normally, which can lead to aggression. It is also possible that they lose their house training or forget simple commands.

Although this is a long list, the simplest rule is that any change of behaviour in an older pet could be a sign of something wrong! Behaviour changes are easy to dismiss as ‘old dog senility’ and ‘grumpy old cat’ or even ‘selective deafness’ but if you found yourself nodding to more than one of these symptoms it’s probably best to book an appointment with one of our vets to get your pet checked out.

Our vets will examine your pet and rule out other common old-age problems such as arthritis, kidney problems, heart problems, Cushing’s disease, and vestibular syndrome. We might also recommend a blood test to rule out some diseases. This is because it’s important to try to distinguish dementia symptoms from signs of other common old-age diseases. Pets with dementia don’t tend to drink or urinate more than usual – this is more likely to be a sign of other problems. They also don’t present as wobbly, ‘drunk’, collapsed, or with a head tilt – this is also likely to be something else and definitely warrants checking out as soon as possible.

Once we’ve diagnosed the problem, we can suggest some treatments. There’s usually more than one thing going on and a holistic approach is most likely to be effective. This will mean changes in your house and routine to make life easier for your pet, as well as medications to help rejuvenate the brain. Once we’ve decided on a treatment plan together, we’ll recommend monitoring visits with the nurse or vet to discuss how things are getting along and whether any further changes can be brought in to help your pet with old age.

The important thing to remember is that dementia signs come on quietly, so keeping alert for symptoms is the best way to catch it early and ensure your dog or cat has a happy old age. If you think your pet has any of the symptoms discussed above or any behavioural changes, call us today to get your appointment booked in – you’ll be surprised what a difference it can make!


Extra note

If the practice would like to link to a CCD questionnaire for owners to print off and bring in to their appointment there is a really good one here:

I would recommend that they give some specific instructions such as:

Do you think your dog could have dementia? Print out the following form and fill it out before your appointment with the vet – it will help us to identify the signs your dog is displaying and allows us to assess the severity of your dog’s symptoms. If you aren’t sure about any of the answers, feel free to leave them blank and we can discuss it with you to come to an answer. The form contains three columns so you can monitor your dog’s response to treatment.