Skip to main content

Cornell Richard P. Riney Canine Health Center

Longer. Healthier. Happier.

Senior dog dementia

Signs of mental dysfunction in your older dog appear gradually, making it more difficult to recognize.

As dogs live longer due to advances in veterinary medicine and nutrition, we see more problems in senior dogs, and one of the most difficult issues to detect is dementia.

Most signs of cognitive difficulty have been slowly building up. The earlier you catch the changes, the sooner you can start doing things to help your dog. You can’t stop aging, but you could help slow its progression — giving your dog more quality time.

If you’re not sure if you’re seeing signs of dementia, then Dr. Katherine Houpt, the James Law Professor Emeritus of Behavior Medicine, suggests using the DISHAA assessment guide (in the blue box below) to help track the symptoms of declining mental capacity in your dog.

Managing the signs

Start with simple management. Block off unsafe areas in the house, such as stairways (where your dog could stumble and fall) and behind the couch, in case they wander behind it and can’t figure out how to get out.

Respect your dog’s desire to either mingle with or avoid people and dogs. If they want company, watch for signs of fatigue. If they prefer to opt out, have a room where they can rest. They might prefer their crate in a quiet room for even more security.

Pay attention to hearing loss. If your dog is asleep, speak as you approach and stamp your foot so that, if their hearing is going, then they can feel the vibration through the floor and know you are near.

Many aging dogs develop a habit called the “midnight walks” that causes them to roam throughout the house at night. Add nightlights so they can see clearly and are less likely to get stuck. For some dogs, going for an extra walk right before bedtime can wear them out, leading to longer, deeper sleep. Melatonin helps some dogs, but there aren’t a lot of studies to confirm its effects. Discuss this option with your veterinarian before using it.

House soiling due to dementia may be tricky to control. Start by taking your dog to the veterinarian to rule out bladder infections. If they are otherwise healthy, then consider using “doggy diapers,” which most dogs don’t mind, but you will need to change them frequently and clean your dog as needed so that their hair does not stay wet, become smelly and cause skin sores.

Consider adding extra walks during the day to give your dog more chances to eliminate. If your dog uses a canine litter box or other indoor potty device, be sure that they can get in and out easily. Put the box in a convenient location. If they have never used one before, this may not be an easy time to introduce new training, but you can try.

Activities that you can do with your dog will vary. Older dogs, and dogs in general, do better with a predictable routine. But Houpt says that enriching the older dogs’ lives by training new tricks (you still can teach an old dog new tricks), opting for sniff walks (as opposed to exercise walks) and using new food puzzles are helpful.

Routine matters

Most senior dogs prefer a set routine for the “important things,” like meals. So if dinner is usually at 6 p.m., try to stick with the schedule. Some seniors fuss if their dinner is even one minute late.

Keep daily walks on a schedule as well, since this will help with elimination problems. You can vary where you walk, but try to keep the time and distance about the same. Don’t move dog beds or furniture. Keep food and water bowls in the same location.

Use low-level enrichment activities to spark up an oldster. Walk somewhere new, allowing plenty of time for sniffing. While many dogs may lose some vision and hearing with age, they seem to smell right up to the end, in most cases.

Some families think about adding a puppy or new dog when their senior shows signs of aging. There are older dogs who perk up with a new addition, but some dogs are very unhappy about this situation. Try to arrange a temporary foster set-up before making a permanent commitment to a new pet, if you’re considering this option.

For inclement days, simple food puzzles and tricks for special treats help. Snuffle mats engage dogs with some sniffing as well as eating. Remember to gear the tricks to your dog’s physical capabilities. They may not be able to “sit pretty,” but teaching them to shake with a paw or hit a button on the floor could be within their reach.

Scent-work games appeal to many older dogs. They love using their noses, and the immediate rewards keep them in the game. You can do simple hides in your house or yard.

Schedule physical exams and checkups at least every six months at your veterinary clinic, while doing monthly, or even weekly, exams at home.

Make sure your senior dog has identification on them at all times. At a minimum, be sure your microchip information is correct and their collar has the right phone number on it. If they get out of your house or yard, they may not be able to find their way home.

Rethink and adjust your grooming routine. A wooden pin brush is often appreciated by older long-hair dogs. Consider doing a hygiene shave of long hair around the rectum and vulva. Keep nails and hair on your dog’s feet trimmed to help with walking.

You may want to switch to a diet specifically for senior dogs battling cognitive dysfunction. Your veterinarian can advise on the best ones to try and discuss options for adding antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids or medium-chain triglycerides to your dog’s diet. While there are few studies about the use of these supplements in senior dogs, they are largely considered safe, and anecdotal evidence is accumulating.

Your veterinarian may suggest the prescription medication selegilene (Anipryl). Selegiline works to protect nerve cells and enhances dopamine in the brain. Some owners may notice improvement in three weeks or less, but many dogs can take six weeks before showing changes. Many owners have said that this medication helps with sun-downer syndrome (worsening symptoms and irritability that occurs at night), as well as night-walking symptoms.

Acupuncture and laser treatment, as well as other rehab protocols, like an underwater treadmill or a pool for swimming, may help to keep your senior active.

Vestibular syndrome

Vestibular syndrome is often confused with cognitive dysfunction syndrome, but it is actually a sudden-onset balance issue.

It appears without warning, when your dog either stands and walks in circles and with their head tilted, or when they can’t stand at all. They will act nauseated when you try to feed them, and they will have trouble eating and drinking. When you look at their eyes, they move in a rapid, repetitive way — sideways, up and down, or circular. This is called nystagmus. There is no discernible cause for any of the symptoms.

In most cases, the signs gradually improve after the first day or so. The head tilt may remain, but dogs adapt to that well. Most dogs will return to normal, but it may take weeks in some cases.

There is no established treatment for vestibular syndrome, but your veterinarian may need to prescribe medications to help your dog resume eating and drinking.

A support harness can help your dog walk and safely navigate obstacles like stairs. You can also use a towel around their waist for support. It is important to keep your dog up and moving to prevent pressure sores. When they are lying down, they need a well-padded bed.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.