Brain Drain? How To Recognize and Manage a Dog’s Cognitive Decline

If your senior dog seems to be a little forgetful these days, has started howling at what seems like nothing, and behaves fearfully in situations that were never traumatic for him in the past, he may be undergoing some age-related cognitive decline.

Yes, dogs can develop what’s called canine cognitive disorder—sort of a doggie version of Alzheimer’s disease. Some two-thirds (68 percent) of dogs older than 14 years show signs of mental dysfunction. They act disoriented, their interactions with owners change—for instance, maybe your dog no longer greets you at the door when you arrive home—their sleep cycle may be out of whack, and they may forget their house training manners. Those signs—the acronym DISH can help you remember them—are common changes that owners may see as their dogs enter extreme old age.

It’s not unusual for dogs with CCD to exhibit odd behavior changes, develop separation anxiety or other fears, or vocalize in the middle of the night, to name just a few of the changes owners report seeing. The good news is that environmental and dietary changes and sometimes medication may help dogs escape their mental fog and return to more normal behavior.

In humans, studies show that mental stimulation and physical exercise can help to delay the onset of dementia, and they may also benefit dogs. Make sure your senior dog has plenty of opportunities for positive social interactions with people. Even if he doesn’t go for long walks anymore, you can get him out and about in a stroller or wagon. Stimulate his brain with puzzle toys that require him to push, lift or otherwise move them to release treats or kibble.

Boosting behavioral enrichment with dietary supplements such as DHA or fish oil may help and can’t hurt. Studies show that together they may help to maintain cognitive function and improve memory. Some dog foods contain brain-boosting supplements, or you can purchase them separately.

Certain drugs may also help to improve cognitive function or reduce the signs of CDS. They include selegiline and propentofylline. Your veterinarian can help you decide if your dog may benefit from medication. It may take several weeks or even a couple of months before you see any change, and not every dog responds to medication. If you prefer to stick to natural products, consider calming substances such as lavender essential oils or canine pheromones such as Adaptil.

The best thing you can do is to be alert to changes in your senior dog’s behavior. The earlier you make changes, the more likely he is to show improvements.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT