Canine Dementia (Canine Cognitive Dysfunction)

What is canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD)?

As our body ages, so does our brain.  A similar situation also occurs in our canine companions. With age, the brain can undergo gradual degeneration.  This process can be accelerated by the deposition of protein plaques within the brain, toxic damage by products of metabolism (free radicals), decreased brain blood flow and decrease in neurotransmitters (chemicals that aid in transmission of nerve signals).  Ultimately the nerve cells (neurons) die, and the brain starts to shrink. This process is also seen in humans with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  This leads to a gradual loss in memory, the ability to process information and to carry out basic tasks. 


What clinical signs do we expect to see?

This is usually a disease that we see in older dogs – often over 10 years of age.  The Acronym DISHAAL is often used to describe a variety of signs we may see:

Disorientation – your dog may aimlessly wander, may get stuck in corners, or appear lost in familiar surroundings.

Interactions (changes in)– Your dog may no longer recognise familiar people/pets, may show signs of aggression when patted, may hide themselves away or they can also become clingy, following you around constantly.  They may lose interest in food or change eating patterns.

Sleep/Wake Cycle – your dog may spend more time sleeping during the day, but may wake frequently in the night with pacing, whining, or barking.

House Soiling – your dog may start to urinate or defaecate inside.  He/she may not indicate when they need to go to the toilet.  

Activity – your dog may sleep more, aimlessly wander and not want to go on walks.

Anxiety – many dogs with cognitive decline become more anxious, especially around change eg new environments.

Learning - They may no longer understand basic commands, or struggle to learn new ones.


How do we diagnose Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

The early signs of cognitive dysfunction can be subtle and can easily be confused with your dog just slowing down with the normal aging process.  Your vet will take a thorough clinical history which may give them an indication of cognitive decline, but they will need to rule out other disease processes causing similar signs eg arthritis, urinary disease, some endocrine(hormonal) diseases or other diseases affecting the brain. A full physical examination plus blood and urine tests are recommended.  Your vet may also recommend further imaging of the brain eg CT, MRI to rule out other diseases of the central nervous system.  Unfortunately, a definitive test for CCD is not available, so it is usually diagnosed by the process of eliminating other diseases, combined with age and clinical signs.


How do we treat CDD?

There is no cure for canine cognitive dysfunction, but there are many ways we can help to slow the progression of the disease and to help to support our dog during the process.


During metabolism (all the chemical reactions that go on within the body) many toxic substances called free radicals are produced.  As the brain ages, it loses its ability to protect itself from damage by these free radicals. Diets high in antioxidants (Vit C, Vit E, selenium, fruit, vegetables) can help to protect the brain from this ongoing damage.  Additionally, omega 3 fatty acids (fish oils), Phosphatidylserine (found in cell membranes) and mitochondrial (cell powerhouse) co factors (eg carnitine and co enzyme Q 10), can help to improve cognitive function and slow down the degenerative process.   These ingredients are found in the canine diet ‘Hills b/d (Brian Diet)’.

The brain’s most important energy source throughout life is glucose, but unfortunately the ability to process glucose decreases with age.  Another energy source for the brain are ketones.  These can provide an important alternative energy source to glucose, which help with brain function and can also decrease the protein plaque formation seen with CDD.  Ketones are found in diets high in Medium Chain Triglycerides eg coconut oil (consult your vet before using).    Ketones are also found in high levels in the canine diet ‘Royal Canin Neurocare’. 


There are numerous supplements on the market available to aid in brain function using the above-mentioned products – antioxidants, mitochondrial co factors, phosphatidylserine, essential fatty acids.  One such product is ‘Aktivait’ made by VetPlus.

Another product is S-Adenosyl-l-Methionine (SAMe).  This works by increasing antioxidant levels and increasing neurotransmitters. This is commercially available as ‘Samylin’ and ‘Denosyl’.

Pharmaceutical Drugs:

Selegiline is a drug that improves the signs associated with dementia, however, it is not available in the veterinary market in NZ. 

Propentofylline (‘Vivitonin’) can aid in increasing the blood flow to the brain to help to improve function.

Your dog may also need drugs to aid with anxiety associated with dementia to improve their quality of life, and additionally drugs to help with disrupted sleep patterns.

Cognitive/Environmental Enrichment:

In the early stages of cognitive decline, the process can be slowed down by enrichment of your pet’s environment.  This may include introducing new toys, food puzzles, encouraging play and interaction, exercising your pet more frequently (only short walks if they have sore joints), or trying to teach them new tricks/commands (using high reward treats as a motivator).  It is also important that they have a safe space to retreat too away from other pets or children if there are frequently anxious.  Exercising them more during the day and minimal disturbance at night may help them to sleep better during the night.  Toileting them frequently and feeding earlier, may help to minimize accidents inside. Many dogs with CCD also benefit with a routine and a stable environment as it helps to minimise anxiety.


In summary

The rate of decline of dogs with cognitive dysfunction is unpredictable, and many owners end up euthanising their dog because of declining quality of life and unacceptable behaviours within two years.  However, early good nutrition and environmental enrichment to improve cognitive decline and minimise stress, can help to slow the progression of this disease and improve your dog’s quality of life in their final years. 

AnimalCare 2002 Limited

Animal Care Vets is actively involved in our local community. We support a number of charities, including the SPCA. We also care for the Hawkes Bay Police dogs. Our customers know by experience that they can rely on us for sound advice on treatment options and that their pet is in the very best hands with our team.