Senior Dog
Confusion, disorientation, dogzheimers. Call it what you will, but canine dementia (known clinically as canine cognitive dysfunction) can be a serious problem.

Just like humans, dogs can suffer from many of the same symptoms:

  • Sleep-wake cycle disturbances
  • Generalized anxiety
  • Lower threshold for aggression
  • Decreased activity levels
  • Inappropriate vocalization (howling, barking or whining)
  • Repetitive behaviors (pacing)
  • Elimination disorders
  • Staring at walls
  • Fewer social interactions
  • Disorientation (getting “lost” in the house)

But getting old and loopy doesn’t have to be as stressful as all that — not for dogs lucky enough to be cared for by owners willing to learn what it takes to mitigate the effects of dementia as they age.

Here’s how, in six mostly simple steps:

1. Recognize Symptoms Early

The early signs of canine cognitive dysfunction can be subtle and difficult to detect. They can even be misinterpreted as "just getting old." However, early recognition and intervention are helpful. Owners should be on the lookout for mild versions of the symptoms listed above.

2. Pay Attention to Changes in Hearing and Vision

Sensory deficiencies, such as hearing and vision loss, can cause anxiety for some pets — and their owners. When pets lose these faculties, they can become disoriented far more easily. Simple things, like failing to hear an owner’s call, can make daily life challenging for aging pets and their owners.

But many pets with hearing deficits can be trained to recognize hand signals, and pets with limited vision can often learn their way around, as long as furniture and other objects remain in the same place.

Although there’s not much we can do about hearing loss in most cases, we have options for treating some diseases of the aging eye. Cataracts, for example, are super common and highly treatable. I personally recommend surgery for pets who have cataracts with or without dementia. But you should ask your vet if this is the best option for your dog.

3. Stick to a Strict Schedule

Adhering to a set schedule when it comes to feeding, walking, turning lights on and off, and bedtime can be excellent therapy for confused pets. It’s orienting.

4. Manage Anxiety

Most dementia dogs display some degree of stress, especially when lost in the corner of a room or if they find themselves awake and alone in the middle of the night. Managing anxiety requires owners to know what works best for their individual dog, such as soothing music, aromatherapy or a long walk.

Additionally, I also recommend crate training early on in life, which can sometimes help curtail stress-exacerbating nighttime wanderings. Although, in some cases, it could cause further stress to the animal. If the wandering is extreme, talk to your vet about whether anti-anxiety medication may also be effective.

5. Talk to Your Vet About Dementia-Specific Drugs

For severe cases of canine dementia, veterinarians will sometimes discuss the potential benefits of dementia-specific medication that seem to reverse some of these symptoms, albeit to a minor extent for most patients.

6. Look Into a Veterinary Behaviorist

The most comprehensive approach to canine cognitive dysfunction involves the assistance of a veterinary behaviorist. These specialists can often help owners dramatically re-orient their confused and stressed-out geriatric pets.

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