Dementia is a progressive neurological disease that has been recognized relatively recently in our canine companions. Previously, owners would have explained the signs of canine Dementia away by saying their dog was “just getting old.” Certainly, aging is linked with Dementia, but most dogs do NOT develop Dementia in their golden years.
If you’re concerned your dog may be suffering from cognitive dysfunction /dementia, it is important to raise your concerns with your vet. While there is no known cure, we can help to manage your dog to ensure they maintain a good quality of life.
Common signs of Dementia
Some of the signs of Dementia are vague and easily confused with symptoms caused by other conditions. Therefore, making a diagnosis of Dementia is not always easy, especially in the earlier stages.
Signs to be on the lookout for include:
- Restlessness and pacing
- Unexplained anxiety
- Staring into space
- A change in sleep habits or difficulty falling asleep
- Altered appetite
- Difficulty recognizing people
- Barking or whining for no apparent reason
- Asking to go outside repeatedly
It is essential not to make a diagnosis at home without the expertise of a vet. For example, a dog who is restless and asking to go out into the garden, again and again, may have a urinary tract infection. Similarly, anxiety and a reduced appetite could be caused by dental disease and oral pain.
Though there is no specific diagnostic test for canine Dementia, your vet will try to rule out any other potential cause of their symptoms.
This will include examining their full medical history, as well as assessing your dog in person, and performing both a neurological and orthopedic exam. They may also advise some diagnostic tests such as a blood and urine analysis.
What else could be going on?
This is an excellent question. We must not assume every older dog who starts acting abnormally has canine Dementia.
A wide range of conditions can mimic some of the signs of Dementia and need to be ruled out or in. This is especially true when the signs are in the early stages.
Differential diagnoses for some of these irregular behaviors would include:
- A urinary tract infection
- Chronic joint pain
- Dental disease and oral pain
- A brain tumor
- Liver disease
- Kidney failure
- Toxin ingestion
- Sudden blindness
The first step when new signs crop up should always be a thorough vet check. Many of the conditions listed above are treatable but can cause distress and discomfort if left unaddressed.
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Caring for a senior dog with dementia (5 Tips)
If your vet is confident that your dog does indeed have canine cognitive dysfunction (Dementia), they should discuss with you what you can do to help.
It is important to understand that we cannot cure or reverse this disease but we can help our dog to live with their signs.
1. Altering the home environment
You may find you need to make some small alterations within your home to make it an easier place to live for your elderly pooch. Things like having their bed on the ground floor and blocking access to unsafe areas (like swimming pools or basements) should be considered.
Ensure there is a consistent routine in place, so your dog knows what to expect each day. For example, if they are consistently given their meals at the same time each day and always have a long walk before bed, this can provide a sense of familiarity and comfort. Conversely, skipping walks and feeding them at all hours can cause anxiety and may lead to difficulty with eating and toileting.
Try to keep your dog’s things in the same place so they never have to look for them. This means their bed, food bowl, water bowl, and toys. If we are constantly moving them, your dog may find this unsettling and may give up on looking for them if it becomes too hard.
2. Adjusting your own mindset
It is important to cut your older dog some slack and understand that they may not be able to do the same things that they used to do.
Be patient; your dog is no longer capable of remembering the commands and following the rules they once did.
If they ignore a command or urinate in their bed, this is unlikely to be a sign of defiance. More likely, they are unable to be the ‘good dog’ you know they are.
Cut them some slack and let them know they’re not in trouble by giving lots of praise and positive attention. Be careful not to shout at them or act upset in their presence, as they may find this difficult to cope with and are unable to change their behavior.
3. Keep their brain ticking over
Providing your dog with things to do, like food puzzles and interactive toys, can help keep their brain sharp. Dogs who are left to their own devices and have minimal stimulation tend to deteriorate more quickly than their counterparts.
4. Be there for them
If it is possible, try to be there for your dog and spend time with them. Dogs affected with Dementia often appreciate having someone around to keep them company and provide them with what they need (whether that be frequent bathroom breaks or some cuddles on the couch).
Although we are so accustomed to leaving our dogs home alone, it doesn’t mean it’s okay, especially for a dog suffering from Dementia.
Being there as much as possible will help to keep your senior dog feeling calm, secure and content.
5. Be prepared
Older dogs who have Dementia may sometimes wander off if the door or gate is left open. This is true even if this is not something they would ever have done when younger.
Be prepared by ensuring they are microchipped and wearing a collar with their details. Double-check all contact details on their chip are up to date and, if you have changed your mobile number or address, update the system if needed.
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Is there anything the vet can do?
Talk to your vet about managing Dementia and what treatment options are available. Your vet won’t be able to cure your dog but can prescribe certain diets and supplements that may prove beneficial when given over time.
It is also key that the vet examines your dog and diagnoses and treats any other issues that may be going on.
Older dogs, inevitably, are more prone to certain health conditions such as arthritis and dental disease, which can coincide with Dementia. We need to keep on top of these conditions to ensure our pets’ quality of life remains good.
The rate at which your dog’s condition progresses and how much it impacts their life is highly variable. Some cope well for years and years, while others can go downhill quickly over a matter of weeks.
It is important you have support from friends and family as this can be a difficult condition to cope with by yourself. Your local vet staff should also be able to provide support and recommend local resources.
Sadly, we may need to make a difficult decision when an affected dog no longer has a good quality of life. Euthanasia is a tool available to us to prevent suffering and ensure our beloved pets can pass with dignity. It can be hard to know when the ‘right’ time is, so it is a good idea to discuss this with your family as well as your dog’s vet if you sense the time may be approaching.
Thank you for reading!
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