Dementia in Dogs and Cats: Signs and Symptoms

“Senior moments”, that feeling of forgetfulness or wondering what you were supposed to be doing, aren't just limited to grandma and grandpa… Dementia is a very real thing in our pets too! Dementia in dogs share similarities to Alzheimers in people so much so that dogs with dementia are used as a model to study early Alzheimers in people. Dementia in pets does not shorten life expectancy, however it affects our interactions and relationship with our pets. Sometimes therapy can even slow progression of dementia thus it is so important to be familiar with and recognize the signs, so we can best help our aging pets.

We spoke with best selling author Eileen Anderson of “Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction”. Eileen shared her experience and knowledge about dog dementia in helping her dog Cricket, whom had dementia for several years.

Dog and cat dementia have several aliases, all referring to the same disease:

  • Canine Cognitive Syndrome (CCS)

  • Dog/ Cat Alzheimer’s

  • Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS)

What causes Dementia in Dog and Cats?

As our pets age, anatomical and physiological changes take place in the brain that can result in brain degeneration. These changes cause declines in behavioral and cognitive abilities, affecting your pet’s ability to think, learn and remember.

Some of these changes can include:

  • Brain atrophy: Loss of neurons and the connections between them

  • Beta-amyloid plaques deposits: Accumulations of protein fragments that cannot be broken down (normally they would broken down and dissolved in brain of younger pets)

  • Vascular changes: Impaired blood flow in/ to the brain

  • Neuron loss: Decreased numbers of neurons in the brain

  • Oxidative damage: Damage to the cells & brain due to an inability to deep up with free radical production

  • Microhemorrhages in the brain: Small bleeds within the brain affecting blood flow

How common is dementia in dogs and cats?

Dementia is very common in older dogs and cats despite it being largely under diagnosed. Memory task studies have shown changes in dogs as young as 6 years old & Beta amyloid plaque deposits have been found in dogs and cats as early as 8 years old! Around 14% of dogs over 8 years of age are estimated to have dementia, and the likelihood of developing dementia rises dramatically with age. One study revealed 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.

Why is dementia in dogs and cats so under diagnosed? Signs and symptoms of dementia in dogs and cat can sometimes be subtle or attributed to other issues, making it confusing to diagnose.

Signs and Symptoms:

Simply put, dementia in dogs and cats affects and changes their daily routine and behavior. The most common symptoms of dementia dogs and cats are:

  • Disorientation

  • Altered interactions

  • Abnormal sleep-wake pattern

  • Housesoiling

  • Activity changes & Anxiety

Dogs with dementia most commonly have increased anxiety, waking in the night when they used to sleep normally, and vocalizing (often described as repetitive & high pitched). The changes most often seen in cats with dementia are house soiling and vocalizing (often a deep, guttural meow). The above list, however does not cover all the possible changes that may be seen.

As a pet parent, you may notice your pet acting confused in general, staring, wandering or pacing around. Other times, you may notice your pet having a hard time navigating things that used to be a normal part of the routine, such as getting stuck behind furniture. Most saddening, affected pets may even forget their connection with their family, whom they may have loved for years!

Eileen shares her experience with her 15 year old dog “Cricket”: The first signs of dementia began with her avoiding my coworker, whom she had known for a long time. This progressed to generalized anxiety in other situations, including on walks and when meeting new people. Crickets dementia progressed in time and other signs began showing, turning in circles, forgetting things, such as how the door opens, staring off and housesoiling.

“Anxiety and fear are some of the most subtle signs of dementia that can be missed, as well as barking at night and housesoiling. Take notice of these changes and contact your veterinarian” Eileen recommends

“Tulip”, a beautiful 16 year old tabby first showed signs of dementia with changes in her eating and cuddling. She always loved to lay on her mom and dad’s lap and purr- however this began to change when she wouldn’t approach them for cuddles. When her family placed her on their lap she enjoyed it and would purr loudly but it seemed forgot and she needed help getting to their laps. Her appetite also changed and she was much more interested in new foods, including dog treat and whatever her family was eating. A little while later she began urinating outside the box, often times near to the box. The family tried new boxes with easier entrances in case arthritis was contributing to this, but the housesoiling persisted. Another important step in ruling out other medical issues is having blood work run by your Veterinarian. Her family had her bloodwork and urine checked and both were normal leading to a dementia diagnosis.

"Love the dog in front of you. Focus on what your dog can do. Don’t focus on what your dog can no longer do” encourages author Eileen Anderson

From the University of Sydney Regenerative Neuroscience Group

Dementia in dogs and cats is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning other diseases and medical conditions are ruled out with blood checks and other diagnostic testing. The Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating Scale (CCDR) can be very helpful in watching for signs of dementia in dogs and supporting a diagnosis.

Progression of dementia in pets can sometimes be slowed, so it is important to be familiar with signs and symptoms and contact hospice veterinary support for help and guidance.

Special thanks to Eileen Anderson, author of “Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction”