The 7 Signs of Senility in Dogs (+ treatment guide)

As our pet population ages, much like us, senility in dogs is becoming a pretty common diagnosis to make. The scary thing though is that senility, dementia or canine cognitive dysfunction often goes unrecognized or untreated. Join me as I go through the facts of senility, the signs and progression of the disease as well as how we can try and treat this all too common disease.


How common is senility in dogs?

More common than you might imagine!  Estimates vary from a whopping 60% of dogs over 8 years old showing signs, to a more modest 14% (which is still a huge number of dogs if you think about it!).

The scary thing is that in the study which gave a 14% estimation, only 2% were being diagnosed.  This means that senility, more accurately known as canine cognitive dysfunction, is going undiagnosed in a huge number of senior dogs.

Which dogs are at a higher dementia risk?

While this frequency of senility is in all dogs over the age of 8, as a dog ages the risk becomes higher.  In fact the average age of those suffering with this debilitating disease is between 11 and 12 years of age.  The older your dog is, the more likely they are to develop senility.

It used to be that this would mean only what was considered very old dogs were those suffering from dementia.  Our dog population is getting older though and it’s not unusual for big dogs to live until about 14 and smaller dogs to around 16. Senility has been shown to have little effect on life-expectancy (and I’ll discuss prognosis in more detail later), and this means it is more important than ever we recognize and treat canine cognitive dysfunction as soon as it starts to develop.

All dogs are at risk. Large and small dogs. Male and female. Every breed. So if you have a dog this is a condition you definitely need to be aware of.

What causes Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

Senility in dogs is very similar to Alzheimer's disease in people, and dogs have actually been proposed as a model to study the early stage of Alzheimer’s.  This is, in part due to the formation of amyloid plaques within the brain.  These are protein deposits which form between nerve cells and stop them talking to their neighbors properly.  Genetics plays a role in this, although we don’t have any way to predict which dogs are at a higher risk than other.

There are other risk factors though which are all related to general body health and lifestyle.  Excess free radicals, due to inflammation or reduced antioxidant levels, cause damage to brain cells.  Blood vessel narrowing reduces the flow of blood to the brain, reducing the vital supply of glucose to the nerve cells.

Overall, this means that a dog who is unhealthy, has a chronic inflammatory condition (possibly like dental disease), or is fed a diet low in antioxidants may be at a higher risk of senility. Research is ongoing, and in future we may be able to predict with greater accuracy which individuals are at a higher risk.

Symptoms of senility in dogs

  1. Sleeping during the day, restless at night

  2. Disorientation at home

  3. Anxiety or fear

  4. Reduced interaction

  5. House soiling

  6. Aimless wandering or pacing

  7. Increased time spent sleeping

One of the hallmarks of the repetitive behaviors listed is the fact that a dog with senility will easily be able to be distracted from performing them.  If instead for example, your dog is pacing and won’t stop no matter what you do, the chances are they have a different compulsive behavior which is not a result of senility.

As you can see, some of these behaviours might easily be passed off as normal age changes or of little concern.  If we stop to think about the impact they have on a dogs quality of life however, you will realize just how much of an impact canine cognitive dysfunction can have.

How is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction diagnosed?

Unfortunately there is no simple test we can run to diagnose senility.  It is what we call a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning we rule out other potential causes and are left with senility as the only (or most likely) diagnosis remaining.

The more symptoms a dog is showing, the higher the chance senility is the cause, especially when they develop in an older dog.  One symptom should make us suspicious and 2 or more make the likelihood of senility much higher.

A useful word to remember to raise the possibility of senility in your dog is DISHA:

  • D - disorientation

  • I - interaction reduction

  • S - sleep/wake cycle changes

  • H - house soiling

  • A - activity changes

Remember, these signs will often be very subtle to start with.

Dog dementia treatment

If you’re thinking there is little we can do for a senile dog then I have great news!  Brain function can be improved in dogs suffering with senility. A few simple changes might make all the difference.

Now there is no magic cure or wonder drug that will completely reverse or cure this disease, and not all dogs will show a response to treatment. For some individuals nothing we attempt makes any difference at all. There are though treatments we can try, and ideally we should not just be writing off our old dog suffering from this debilitating disease.

Mild - moderate senility can be treated with:

  • Antioxidant supplements like SAMe and milk thistle

  • Gingko biloba may help improve brain blood supply and improve brain function

  • Diet rich in medium-chain fatty triglycerides (which convert to ketones that can be used as an extra energy source by the brain) and omega fatty acids (improve antioxidant effect)

  • Encouraging interactive play using puzzle toys and food puzzles

  • Teach your old dog new tricks or skills.

For more serious senility, or where a more aggressive approach is preferred, drug therapy can be started.  There are a few options, although licencing depends on where in the world you live:

  • Selegiline (trading as Eldepryl)

  • Propentofylline (trading as Vivitonin)

In the future immunotherapy may also become an effective senility treatment.  And because of the close similarity with Alzheimer’s disease, even more effective treatments may be developed.  Watch this space!

While the simple treatments could be started without consulting your vet, if you suspect your dog is becoming senile you should always take them for a check up.  It might be that a completely different condition is causing problems. For example a reduced interaction could be due to arthritis and urinating in the house due to diabetes.  There may also be reasons why certain supplements aren’t suitable for your dog.

Dog dementia life expectancy and prognosis

While we have several different treatment options available, there is no cure.  Also, like many senior dog diseases, senility, dementia or canine cognitive dysfunction is progressive.  Some dogs will respond well to a thorough treatment plan. Others unfortunately may not gain much benefit if any at all, especially if their disease is already advanced.

In itself, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction does not affect life-expectancy.  It is not a fatal condition in itself and so your dog should live for as long as they would had they not developed this disease.

The issue though comes due to quality of life. If your dog is constantly unsettled, anxious or even fearful. If they spend all their time pacing or disorientated. If they are constantly stressed by having “accidents” in the house or whenever they are left alone then their quality of life might become significantly compromised.

This might mean that you decide the best thing for your senior dog is to end their stress or suffering.  Euthanasia is never an easy decision, and is something I discuss in much greater depth in my article all about the questions to ask when deciding when to euthanize your dog.

If you have any questions, please leave me a comment below and if you have a senile dog let me know what treatments you’ve tried and how they have (or haven’t ) helped your dog.

Our Pets Health: because they’re family