The Heartbreak of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction and How You Can Help

9 October 2015
 Categories: , Blog


As your dog moves into old age, you can expect to see him or her showing signs of arthritis, failing eyesight, impaired hearing, and a general slowing down. One thing you may not expect to see is a deterioration of mental faculties. Dogs may start to show signs similar to Alzheimer's in people. In dogs it is called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), and it can be heartbreaking to watch. The good news is there are things you can do to ease the symptoms and make your furry friend more comfortable.

What Is CCD?

CCD is a severe thought-processing problem caused by physical changes in the brain and its chemicals. Studies have found that dogs with CCD have brain lesions similar to those that physicians see in human Alzheimer's patients. Researchers believe that plaque deposits consisting of proteins called beta amyloid damage nerve cells and cause shrinkage of the brain in areas where behaviors are shaped and memories are stored. (See "Do Dogs and Cats Suffer from Alzheimer's?")

An article in Healthy Pets cites an Australian study which states that more than 40 percent of dogs at age 15 will have at least one symptom of CCD. Very few of these cases are diagnosed as CCD because most owners attribute the behavior changes to normal aging. This is unfortunate because there are treatments and the earlier they are started, the better the results.

What Are the Symptoms of CCD?

The effects of CCD usually come on gradually, typically after about age 10, and earlier in larger breeds. You may first notice your dog is sleeping more during the day and sometimes appears disoriented. Dogs may stare blankly into space or press their face into corners. Other behavior changes include these:

  • Pacing and restlessness at night
  • Compulsive eating
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Failure to respond to commands
  • Forgetting where he's at or where he's going
  • Wandering aimlessly from room to room
  • No longer craving human interaction
  • Wandering out of the yard and becoming lost
  • Forgetting her housetraining and relieving herself in the house

A dog with CCD does not usually show all these behaviors, especially at first. But if left untreated, your dog will begin to exhibit more and more of them.

How Can You Help Your Dog?

You don't need to sit and watch as your dog's mental condition goes downhill. There are things you can do to slow the condition and improve her or his quality of life.

First, you need a diagnosis. Make note of your dog's behavior changes and talk to your veterinarian. There are many other conditions that can cause symptoms similar to CCD. Mild seizures can cause a dog to stare blankly, kidney disease can cause urinary control problems, and vision and hearing problems can cause confusion. By eliminating other causes, your vet can give a diagnosis of CCD, and you can begin an intervention to slow the disease's progress.

Although there is no cure for CCD, there is a prescription drug that has been shown to reduce symptoms and improve a dog's quality of life. Selegiline or L-deprenyl increases the amount of dopamine in a dog's brain. Dopamine transmits nerve impulses, and by increasing it, your dog can think more clearly and remember more. The drug can interact with other medications, though, so be sure to discuss this with your vet.

It's also important to feed your dog a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet high in omega-3 essential fatty acids, such as krill oil, which is beneficial for cognitive health. The food should be fortified with antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, which can help prevent cell damage due to free radicals.

Maintain your dog's physical condition through regular exercise, such as playing and going for walks. Keep his or her mind active with games, such as treat-release balls, and provide stimulation by teaching new commands and providing new environments and lots of social interactions with people and pets.

Other ways to help your dog cope with CCD include these:

  • Clearing pathways through your home so your furry friend has an easier time navigating
  • Not rearranging furniture, which can create confusion
  • Creating a routine for playtime, feeding, and waste elimination

The more the disease progresses, the less effective these recommendations will be. Begin helping your pet at the first signs of mental decline. It can be a heartbreaking time, but it's also rewarding to know that specific dog care techniques can help your dog have a happier life at the end of his or her years.