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5 Signs of Dog Dementia

by Katherine Tolford


While your beloved senior dog can’t really forget where he put his car keys, it turns out that he is capable of experiencing “senior moments.” If your dog forgets the route on your daily walk or if he’s not enjoying the things he once did, like chasing after his favorite toy or greeting you at the door, he could be suffering from canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), or the doggy version of Alzheimer’s.


Canine cognitive dysfunction can occur for a number of reasons, like an accumulation of abnormal proteins in the brain. This creates a build-up of plaque, which eventually damages nerves and results in the loss of brain function, which can affect your dog's memory, motor functions and learned behaviors.


Most dogs, regardless of breed, experience some form of CCD as they age. In a study conducted by the Behavior Clinic at the University of California at Davis, researchers found that 28 percent of dogs aged 11-12 years, and 68 percent of dogs aged 15-16 years, showed one or more signs of cognitive impairment.


Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, says a lot of dog owners aren’t aware that their dogs can suffer from CCD until they take them to the vet for what they think are physical or behavioral problems.


“The first thing you should do is to talk to your vet to make sure that it’s cognitive dysfunction and not something else. It comes on gradually and owners don't always notice things,” says Dr. Beaver.


“What did your dog stop doing that he used to do? Is he not chasing his ball because he has arthritis? Or is it that he doesn't care anymore? It's important to differentiate between physical and mental causes."


Some symptoms of CCD can overlap with other age related conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and kidney issues, as well as hearing and sight loss. Depending on your dog's symptoms your vet may propose x-rays, blood tests, urinalysis, or other diagnostic tests.


Dr. Denise Petryk, a former emergency room vet who now works with Trupanion pet insurance, says the widely accepted DISHA acronym can help dog owners characterize the most distinct signs and changes associated with CCD.


The term DISHA refers to the symptoms Disorientation, [altered] Interactions with their family members or other pets, Sleep-wake cycle changes, House soiling, and Activity level changes. 


“It gives us the ability to check against a list of things to show that something else isn’t going on. If your dog has one of the symptoms or some combination then we’re more likely to call it cognitive dysfunction.”


Dr. Beaver says to keep in mind that there isn’t necessarily a progression to the symptoms your dog may be experiencing.


“The more signs and frequency we see, the greater significance of the problem. Each sign or symptom doesn’t really signify a particular phase,” she says.


Here’s the DISHA list of possible symptoms that may demonstrate cognitive dysfunction in dogs: