Dogs

How to care for a senior dog with dementia: Tips and advice for loving pet owners

As a veterinarian and a long-time pet owner, I know that caring for an older dog is not easy. Senior dogs often need special attention and care, and when they develop dementia, it can be especially challenging. It’s a complicated situation where the owners often feel overwhelmed, lost, and helpless. 

Understanding canine dementia is the first step in caring for a senior dog with this condition. If you can recognize the signs and if you understand what’s going on, you can work with your veterinarian to develop a treatment plan for your pup. 

In other words, the more you know about this disease, the better equipped you are to help your dog. 

The good news is that with the right approach, we can help senior dogs with dementia manage the symptoms and maintain their quality of life. 

So, let’s get started – here are some essential tips on how to care for a senior dog with dementia and how to support your dog’s cognitive health and overall well-being.



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While I am a veterinarian, this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. If you have any medical concerns about your pet, consult your vet immediately. Always seek professional assistance if you are unsure of your pet’s health.


old cocker spaniel lying on a soft dog bed

Understanding Canine Dementia

Canine dementia, also known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease similar to human Alzheimer’s disease. This degenerative brain condition affects brain cells and neurons, leading to disorientation, confusion, and anxiety in dogs.

Causes of Dementia in Dogs

The cause of canine dementia is not really known, but it’s believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. 

As dogs age, their brain cells and neurons begin to break down, leading to the development of amyloid plaques in the brain. These plaques interfere with the normal functioning of the brain, leading to cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

It is estimated that around one-third of dogs over 7 years old show signs related to canine cognitive dysfunction. A study done in the USA showed that 28% of dogs over 11 years old and 68% of dogs over 15 years old showed at least 1 sign associated with CCD. 

But here I must say that giant breeds age much faster than small dogs. So it’s possible that a giant dog can show signs of dementia much sooner. 

It’s safe to say that while many geriatric dogs start showing signs of dementia at some point in their lives, the onset is very individual.

senior dog lying on a pillow

Recognizing the Signs of Dementia in Senior Dogs

The signs of dog dementia can be subtle and may develop slowly over time. Some of the common signs of dementia in dogs include:

  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Anxiety and restlessness
  • Loss of house training
  • Loss of interest in playing or socializing
  • Increased barking or vocalization
  • Forgetfulness
  • Staring into space

Senior dogs with dementia may become disoriented and confused, seeming lost even in familiar surroundings. 

They might exhibit altered sleep patterns, experiencing restlessness at night and increased daytime napping. 

Moreover, their interactions with family members may change, becoming withdrawn or detached, or display increased clinginess and seeking constant reassurance.

Recognizing these signs early on allows you to seek veterinary attention promptly. And as with any other disease, the sooner you take your dog to the vet the better. 

How is Canine Dementia Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of canine dementia is based on clinical signs and ruling out other possible causes of behavioral changes.

During the examination, your vet will perform a comprehensive physical and neurological assessment to rule out any underlying health problems that could be contributing to the dog’s symptoms. 

Other diagnostic tests may also be recommended, including bloodwork and imaging studies like X-rays or MRI to rule out other neurological disorders.

Your vet will have to rely on your observations of behavioral changes and may ask for a detailed history of the dog’s symptoms and progression. They may use specific questionnaires or checklists designed to evaluate cognitive function in dogs. These assessments can help gauge the severity of the cognitive decline and track changes over time.

printable pet planner

Canine Dementia Treatment Options

I know how difficult it is to watch your beloved pup struggle with dementia. Sadly, dementia is a progressive disease that cannot be cured. 

However, nowadays we have treatment options that can help manage your dog’s symptoms, delay the progression, and improve his quality of life. 

As with any other disease, early diagnosis is key in managing the condition. If you suspect that your senior dog may be developing dementia, it’s important to get him evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Blood tests and other diagnostic tests can help rule out other underlying conditions that may be contributing to his symptoms.

Overall, there are several treatment options available for dogs with dementia. By working closely with your vet, you can develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your dog’s specific needs.

Here are some of the most common treatment options for canine dementia:

Medication

Medication can be an effective way to manage the symptoms of dementia in dogs. 

Anipryl (selegiline) is a medication that has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of cognitive dysfunction in dogs. It works by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain, which can help improve cognitive function.

Anti-anxiety medications can also be helpful in managing symptoms such as restlessness, pacing, or anxiety attacks.

Nutrition and Supplements

Nutrition plays an important role in managing symptoms of dementia in dogs. Several supplements can also be helpful in managing the symptoms of dementia.

Antioxidants such as vitamin E can help protect your dog’s brain from damage caused by free radicals. 

Fatty acids DHA and EPA can also help improve cognitive function.

Many vets also use phytotherapy and nutriceuticals to help improve the cognitive functions of senior dogs.

It’s important to work with your vet to develop a nutrition plan tailored to your dog’s specific needs. Your vet may recommend a commercial dog food that is formulated to support brain health or he may recommend supplements to add to your dog’s food.

Physical Therapy and Activities

Many senior dogs benefit from physical therapy and environment enrichment.

Mental stimulation can help improve your dog’s cognitive function and slow the progression of the disease

Physical therapy can be helpful in managing symptoms such as muscle weakness and stiffness.

Different activities can also be helpful in managing the symptoms of dementia. For example, puzzle toys can help stimulate your dog’s brain and improve cognitive function. Regular exercise can also help improve your dog’s overall health and well-being.

geriatric cocker spaniel standing in the grass and a hand patting his head

How to Care for a Senior Dog With Dementia

Caring for a senior dog with dementia can be challenging, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. By providing your furry friends with love, patience, and support, you can help them navigate the challenges of aging and dementia.

Here are 7 tips on how to care for a senior dog with dementia:

1. Create a safe environment

Creating a safe environment is of utmost importance when caring for a senior dog with dementia. It can significantly improve their overall well-being and reduce the risk of accidents and injuries. Dog-proofing your home is the first step in ensuring your pup’s safety. This involves removing potential hazards and making important areas easily accessible.

Secure your stairways with baby gates to prevent falls, and put non-slip rugs or grip mats on slippery floors. Maintain a consistent layout of furniture to help your dog navigate his environment more easily. 

Providing a comfortable and familiar space for the senior dog is essential to reduce anxiety and confusion. 

Having a designated sleeping area can help your dog feel secure, especially if it’s a place he’s always been accustomed to. 

Keep food, water, and resting areas easily accessible and in the same place. 

By proactively creating a secure and supportive environment, you can provide your senior dog with the comfort and confidence he needs to navigate his surroundings and enjoy a higher quality of life.

2. Implement a structured routine

Implementing a structured routine is a fundamental aspect of caring for a senior dog with dementia. It provides a sense of stability and predictability in your dog’s daily life. 

Establishing a consistent daily schedule helps reduce anxiety and confusion for the dog. The routine should include regular feeding times, bathroom breaks, exercise sessions, and mental stimulation activities. 

For instance, feeding should occur at the same time each day. Don’t move your dog’s food and water bowl, as he might get confused. 

Scheduling bathroom breaks can help manage incontinence issues that may arise with cognitive decline. 

Try to go for walks or do gentle exercise at the same time each day. Incorporate mental activities into your daily routine. 

Consistency in implementing the routine is key. Try to maintain the same schedule every day, as any sudden changes can cause confusion and stress for your dog. 

While senior dogs with dementia may display occasional behavioral changes, patience, and understanding are essential when following the routine. Your pup needs you❣️

3. Provide enrichment and mental stimulation

Enrichment and mental stimulation are vital components of caring for senior dogs with dementia. They help keep their minds active and engaged, slowing the progression of cognitive decline and enhancing their overall well-being. 

Engaging toys and puzzles are excellent tools for providing mental stimulation. Interactive toys, such as treat-dispensing puzzles or toys that require problem-solving, can keep their brains active and prevent boredom. 

You can also play simple scent games, where the dog is encouraged to use his nose to find hidden treats or toys. 

Interactive games and activities also play a crucial role in keeping the senior dog’s mind sharp. Playtime with their favorite toys or gentle games of fetch can help maintain cognitive function and improve the bond between the dog and its owner. 

Additionally, incorporating basic training exercises into your routine not only keeps your dog’s mind active but also fosters a sense of accomplishment and confidence. Short, frequent sessions are more effective than long, intense ones. You will also need lots and lots of treats, rewards, and praise ☺️

Regularly changing the training routines and games can prevent monotony and keep the dog engaged. Going for walks in new environments, changing the puzzles, or trying a new game will help prevent boredom and keep your pup alert. 

Along with physical and mental exercise, provide your dog with regular opportunities for social interaction. Visits from friends or family members, as well as supervised playdates with other well-behaved dogs, can help improve your pup’s mental and emotional well-being.

4. Monitor your dog closely

Observe your dog closely for any alterations in behavior. Look for signs of confusion, restlessness, or changes in social interactions. 

If you notice any unusual behaviors, consult your veterinarian promptly. Open communication with your vet is vital to adjust the care plan as needed. 

Be patient and understanding. 

5. Provide emotional support

Many senior dogs with dementia experience heightened anxiety and confusion during this stage of life. Strengthening the human-canine bond is not only comforting for the dog but also fosters a sense of security and trust. 

Spend quality time with your furry friend. Engage in activities your dog enjoys, such as gentle grooming sessions, soothing massages, or leisurely walks in familiar surroundings. 

Talking to your pup in a calm and reassuring tone can also provide comfort and a sense of safety.

Be attentive to your dog’s emotional cues and body language. Offering physical affection and gentle cuddling can go a long way in providing emotional reassurance 🥰

Never punish or scold a dog with dementia, as this only causes stress and confusion. Instead, use positive reinforcement to reward desired behaviors.

As dementia progresses, be understanding of any potential behavioral changes. 

Patience and empathy are essential during this time.

Finally, remember that your presence and companionship are invaluable to your senior dog. Spend quality time together and cherish the moments of connection and love ❣️

By providing emotional support and strengthening the bond with your pup, you can help him navigate the challenges of dementia with greater comfort and emotional well-being.

6. Schedule regular veterinary check-ups

Regular veterinary check-ups are a critical aspect of caring for a senior dog. Not just dogs with dementia, but all geriatric patients should be checked out on a regular basis.  

Regular veterinary visits are necessary for early detection of any potential health issues or changes in your dog’s condition. 

For senior dogs with dementia, these check-ups are especially important as cognitive decline can impact various aspects of their health. 

Your vet will assess your dog’s cognitive function, evaluate any behavioral changes, and provide recommendations for managing dementia-related symptoms. Additionally, he may adjust the treatment plan or medications if necessary to optimize the dog’s comfort and quality of life.

These regular visits also offer an opportunity to discuss your concerns or observations you made about your dog’s behavior or well-being.

7. Feed your dog a high-quality diet

In general, senior dogs have different nutritional needs than younger dogs, and choosing a well-balanced and age-appropriate diet is essential. 

Opt for high-quality commercial dog food formulated for senior dogs, as it contains the necessary nutrients to support their changing nutritional needs. Look for products with added antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, as these can support brain health and reduce inflammation.

If your dog has any other health conditions (for example chronic kidney disease), consult your dog’s diet with your vet. 

If you want to add supplements to your dog’s diet, consult this with your veterinarian. The appropriate dosage and type of supplement should be determined by a professional to avoid any potential adverse effects.

Be cautious with homemade diets or adding supplements without veterinary guidance, as improper nutrition can worsen health issues or interact with medications. 

Regularly assess your dog’s body condition and weight. Obesity is a known risk factor for many diseases. On the other hand, many geriatric dogs with dementia have low appetite and tend to be too skinny. 

Your dog should maintain a healthy body weight. If you see any changes in your dog’s appetite and/or weight, talk to your vet.  

By providing a balanced and nutritionally rich diet, along with appropriate supplementation under veterinary supervision, you can support your senior dog’s cognitive function, overall health, and well-being.

An infographic with the title How to care for a senior dog with dementia and a graphic of a black-and-white dog

Knowing When to Say Goodbye

As difficult as it may be, it is important to consider when it may be time to say goodbye to your senior dog. Dementia doesn’t cause death, but can severely impact your dog’s quality of life.

Your vet can help you assess your dog’s quality of life and provide guidance on when it may be time to 0consider euthanasia.

I know how hard this is, but it’s important to make this decision with your vet based on what is best for your dog.

senior dog, text "senior dogs are made for snuggling" (Anonymous)

Frequently Asked Questions

When is it time to consider putting a senior dog with dementia down?

This is a difficult question to answer. Dementia doesn’t cause death, but it does impact your dog’s everyday life. As a pet parent, you know your dog better than anyone else. And while your pup might not be in pain, it is important to consider also his quality of life. If your dog has other medical issues or no longer enjoys life, it may be time to consider euthanasia. The best thing you can do is to talk to your vet. He will be able to help you determine if it is the right decision for your dog.

Is there a quiz to determine if my dog has dementia?

Yes, there are several online quizzes that can help determine if your dog has dementia. However, these quizzes are NOT diagnostic tools. It is important to consult with your veterinarian if you suspect your dog has dementia.

What are some ways to calm a senior dog with dementia at night?

Senior dogs with dementia often experience increased anxiety and restlessness at night. You can help calm your dog by providing a comfortable and quiet sleeping area, using night lights to reduce confusion, or using pheromone diffusers. Some geriatric patients need special medication prescribed by a veterinarian to help them relax.

Are there any medications available to treat dog dementia?

Yes, there are medications available to treat dog dementia. Your veterinarian may prescribe medications such as selegiline, which can help improve cognitive function in dogs with dementia. However, these medications may not work for every dog and can have side effects.

What are the signs that my dog with dementia is suffering?

Signs that your dog with dementia is suffering may include increased confusion, anxiety, restlessness, or increased vocalization. Your dog may also experience changes in appetite, sleep patterns, and grooming habits. It is important to monitor your dog’s behavior and consult with your veterinarian if you notice any changes.

How can I help my senior dog with dementia drink more water?

Dogs with dementia may forget to drink water, which can lead to dehydration. You can encourage your dog to drink more water by placing multiple water bowls around the house, adding flavor to the water, and providing wet food. You can also try using a water fountain, which can be more appealing to some dogs.

Our first two dogs lived a full and happy life, but in the end, they both suffered from cognitive dysfunction syndrome. So believe me, I know what are you going through. I know how hard it is.

My advice? Care for your pup with love and patience. And enjoy your time together❣️


PS: If you are as crazy about animals as I am and want to get more pet health tips, subscribe to my newsletter! Today you will get a free pet planner as a bonus 
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