Diagnosing Dementia in Dogs and Cats

Dementia in dogs and cats can cause a lot of confusion…Not just for affected pets but for pet parents too! Dementia is actually quite common in older dogs and cats however it is extremely under diagnosed. Showing just how unclear symptoms can be, one study estimated that by 15-16 years of age, 68% of dogs had evidence of dementia, however only 1.9% of affected dogs were diagnosed with dementia. The signs of dementia can be vague at times, missed, complicated by or attributed to other diseases or old age, creating a confusing overlap of symptoms.

Bill and Jenny had their dog “Oscar”, a 13 year old daschund on medications to help manage his joint pain due to arthritis for several years. Oscar moved around with a stiff, wobbly gait and he had a hard time getting around like he used to. As time went on, his difficulty getting around worsened and it seemed like he would get “stuck” in corners or other areas. He has began pacing at times during the night, seemed more anxious in general and occasionally would defecate in the house. At first Oscar’s family thought this was simply old age changes, but these new changes became more frequent and alarming- they felt perplexed about if these changes were normal for his age or there was something else going on. They made an appointment to see their veterinarian. Oscar’s story continued below…

Dog dementia expert and best selling author of  “Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction” , Eileen Anderson discussed how important it is that pet parents become aware of the signs of dementia:

“Pet parents play a very important role in diagnosing dementia in their pets, they see their pets on a daily basis, and can best describe what they are doing at home” —Eileen Anderson

Common signs and symptoms of dementia in dogs and cats are: Disorientation & confusion, altered sleep/ wake cycle, housesoiling, vocalizing at night, anxiety and activity changes.  Read more about the signs and symptoms of dementia in dogs and cats on our blog: Dementia in Dogs and Cats: Signs and Symptoms

How is dementia diagnosed in dogs and cats?

There are no direct tests for dementia in pets. Dementia in pets is diagnosed by excluding other diseases that could affect mentation and cognitive abilities. If you suspect your pet has dementia, your veterinarian will take a thorough history including current medications, physically examine your pet and recommend blood testing to rule out other diseases. Other diagnostic testing, including imaging, such as radiographs or ultrasound, may be recommended as well to rule out other diseases. 

Beyond a list of signs and symptoms of dementia in pets, the Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating Scale is an extremely accurate scale to help identify and distinguish cognitive dysfunction from normal aging: 

“Most often dementia in dogs isn’t diagnosed until it is very advanced. It is important to learn and be aware of the signs and symptoms of dementia in pets, so that you and your pet can be helped sooner. Sometimes dementia progression can be slowed down.“ —Eileen Anderson

What other diseases cause similar signs to dementia in pets?

 Some diseases and factors that can mimic dementia in dogs and cats, include (but not limited to):

  • Internal organ dysfunction or failure: May appear confused, have altered sleep cycles, drinking may be altered, leading to housesoiling.

  • Pain and arthritis: May cause difficulty with ambulating and activity. Some pets may appear restless with night waking or others may sleep more. Housesoiling can also be caused by pain and arthritis. 

  • Visual or hearing impairment: Bumping into objects, getting stuck, appear lost or confused and abnormal interactions with you or other pets; May also startle easily.

  • Brain and spinal tumors: Can affect a pet’s ability to move around and balance, may become confused, have altered sleep cycles and altered interactions with others pets and family. 

  • Medication side effects: Can affect drinking and appetite, may cause hyperactivity or increased sleepiness, affect ambulation, may cause night waking.

Back to Oscar the 13 year old daschund: Oscar’s veterinarian listened to the changes his family had seen at home, next their veterinarian examined Oscar and recommended a blood work check. Oscar’s blood work came back normal, a huge relief for his family, but what was causing all of these new changes? Oscar’s veterinarian concluded he had dog dementia.

 How can a pet hospice veterinarian help?

Hospice veterinarians are specially trained to help recognize dementia in pets, educate pet parents on how to identify symptoms of pain & discomfort, and make recommendations to improve quality of life for your pet and you. It is important to discuss any concerns about your pet with your veterinarian about the next best steps. Although dementia in dogs and cats does not decrease life expectancy, it can greatly affect their quality of life and yours.