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Cognitive Dysfunction (Dementia) In Dogs

Read our top tips on caring for a dog with cognitive dysfunction syndrome

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Sadly we all know that when people age they can develop dementia, but did you know it happens to our dogs too? In fact, over a quarter of 11-12 year old dogs might be showing signs of doggy dementia, which is known as ‘cognitive dysfunction’. 

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What is Cognitive Dysfunction?


As a society our knowledge of dogs and their care is continuously improving, which means our canine companions are living longer than ever before. While this is great news, it also means we are seeing more cases of diseases typically associated with older age.

As people age they are likely to become a little more forgetful, and perhaps not as ‘sharp’ as in their youth. This can be perfectly normal, but we know that in some people this is severe and associated with disease – in people, we call this dementia. 

Sadly, our dogs can get a very similar problem, which is called ‘cognitive dysfunction syndrome’ (CDS). CDS can affect all breeds of dog, and typically is seen in dogs over 8-10 years old. Very much like our human Alzheimer’s CDS is diagnosed by behavioural changes, as degeneration in the brain leads to loss of learned behaviours and changes in sociability. 

CDS is much more common than you might think – a study showed that 28% of dogs aged 11-12 years old, and 68% of dogs aged 15-16, showed one or more signs of CDS. 

As CDS is degenerative, sadly affected dogs are likely to worsen with time, which is known as cognitive decline. 

How is Cognitive Dysfunction Diagnosed?


As it is very difficult to look at the brain without expensive scanning, CDS is diagnosed using behavioural changes. While some changes in behaviour are expected with old age, it is important to know some of the more worrying signs, so that if your dog has developed CDS you can get supportive care started as early as possible. 

  • Disorientation/confusion
  • Forgetting family members
  • Forgetting normal or familiar walking routes
  • Toileting in the house, especially if your dog forgets to tell you that they need to go outside, or goes outside, forgets to toilet, and then toilets in the house on their return. 
  • Anxiety/restlessness
  • Less likely to get up and greet you when you come home
  • Decreased desire to play
  • No longer following house rules
  • Forgetting training
  • Slow to learn new tasks
  • Changes in sleep cycle (being awake at night and sleeping more during the day)

If you are seeing any of these signs, it’s important to speak to your local Vets4Pets vet.

They can take a good look at your dog and see if the signs may be related to CDS, or if there could be another underlying cause. They may need to do blood tests or other testing to rule out different problems – for example, not getting up to greet you could be due to pain from arthritis.  By taking a full history and appropriate tests, your vet will be able to tell you the likelihood your dog is suffering from CDS.

Can Cognitive Dysfunction Be Treated?


CDS is a lifelong problem, and cannot be cured. Thankfully the signs can be managed, however, and many dogs are responsive to supportive care which can make a huge difference. Just like in people, the right diet and mental stimulation can go a long way to supporting brain health and slowing the progression of degenerative brain disease. 

Some top tips for helping dogs with CDS include:

  • Routine. Routine is much easier for dogs with CDS as they struggle to cope with change. 
  • Exercise. Although older dogs may have other issues that limit exercise, getting out and about is great for mental health.
  • Reduce stress. Dogs with CDS find coping with stress very difficult – this can include going into kennels, meeting new dogs, and gatherings of people. 
  • Medication. Medication can support brain health, so you may want to discuss with your local Vets4Pets vet if medication or supplements might be suitable. 
  • Diet. The right diet directly impacts the brain, and some specialist diets have been developed that provide nutrition and energy that is easier for the brain to use. 
  • Frequent trips outside. Housetraining problems can be very frustrating. Make sure to offer your dog plenty of opportunity to go outside, and reward outdoor toileting. 
  • Regular check-ups. Keep in touch with your vet, and make sure to monitor your dog.