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Pet Health

Cognitive Dysfunction in Dogs: Signs and Care Tips

Cognitive dysfunction in dogs is a neurological condition that can cause a dog’s quality of life to deteriorate. Learn how to care for a dog suffering from CCDS.

Dr. Bethany Hsia

April 16, 2023

As a pet parent, it’s normal to worry as you see your furry companion start to age. Many diseases and conditions can affect older pets, including canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CCDS). Similar to dementia and Alzheimer’s in humans, cognitive dysfunction in dogs is an age-related, cerebral cortex-degenerating disease that presents itself through behavioral problems.

As pet parents, we want to ensure our furry friends are comfortable and happy in their golden years. While not every older dog will develop cognitive dysfunction, it’s helpful to know what to look for in case it happens to a beloved dog in your life. Understanding the signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome in dogs and how to care for a pet suffering from CCDS can help to maintain their quality of life and keep them as happy and healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Understanding Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

CCDS affects a dog’s ability to think, learn, and remember. It is usually seen in older dogs, with a median age of around nine years. Cognitive impairment develops slowly and may be mistaken as a natural part of the aging process, which can lead to CCDS going undiagnosed.

The Causes of a Decline in Cognitive Function

An exact cause of CCDS has not been identified, but there are contributing factors which lead to an overall diminished ability to think, learn, and remember. These factors include age, inflammation of the brain, genetics, underlying disease processes, and environmental factors.

Aging is the main factor identified in CCDS, and many similarities have been observed between canine dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As the brain ages (whether canine or human), it suffers a diminished ability to remove beta-amyloid leading to accumulation of this protein and the subsequent formation of plaques. These plaques interfere with the brain's ability to share nerve signals causing a disruption in function as well as contributing to inflammation.

Unfortunately, inflammation is both a result of CCDS and a contributing factor. As discussed, chronic persistent inflammation of the brain can lead to the buildup of beta-amyloid associated plaques; it can also lead to the damage of brain tissue via inflammatory processes and oxidative stress.

Genetics seem to play a role in the development of CCDS; with the identification of mutations associated with lipid metabolism as well as control of chronic inflammation. Study of the APOE gene associated with Alzheimer's shows a likely risk factor associated with CCDS as well.

Dogs with underlying diseases, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, untreated dental disease, and chronic liver or kidney disease may be more susceptible to chronic persistent inflammation in the brain leading to cognitive impairment.

Environment is also important in the discussion of CCDS. Depending on their environment, dogs may be exposed to chronic stress or repeated head trauma. Fortunately, most of our pets do not have to deal with such factors, but they may be exposed to chronic poor nutrition and toxins from the environment such as heavy metals and pesticides all of which can contribute to chronic inflammation in the brain and damage to the brain’s nerve cells (neurons).

As the neurons lose their capacity to function, so does the brain. It becomes more difficult for the brain to process information; often resulting in physical and behavioral changes in pets as they lose the ability to think, learn new things, remember routines, and hold onto coordination.

Clinical Signs of Cognitive Dysfunction in Dogs

A majority of the signs related to CCDS are behavioral. Often, one particular sign will develop first and progress, with new signs occurring over time. It is important to note that many of these signs can have other causes so it is imperative that dogs be examined by their veterinarian to rule out other underlying conditions.

The most common clinical signs of CCDS include:

  • Activity changes: You may notice a decrease in your dog's activity levels. They may become inactive and uninterested in playing or going on walks, or they may become restless and unable to sit still for long periods.Despite being house-trained, they may seem to forget or become confused resulting in house-soiling. They may have a decreased appetite or forget when they have already eaten. Additionally, you may notice a change in sleep patterns; usually restlessness at night and sleeping more during the day.
  • Changes in interaction: Your pet may become anxious and always want to be around you. Conversely, they may become avoidant and start hiding. Dogs suffering from CCDS may suffer from anxiety, aggression, new phobias, and irritability. These changes in behavior may be directed toward you, other familiar people, or other pets.
  • Disorientation: One of the most common signs you may pick up on is disorientation. Your dog may get lost in familiar places, including your house and yard, and may end up sitting in corners or gazing into space. They may struggle to locate their bed, food and water bowls, or doggie doors; again resulting in house-soiling.
  • Learning challenges: Despite the old adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks. However, pets suffering from CCDS may struggle to learn new cues or become unresponsive to old commands.

It’s important to understand that these changes are not a choice; your pet is not trying to misbehave. Scolding and harsh correction will not help and may in fact cause more damage.

Because CCDS can look so much like the normal aging process, it’s essential to consult your veterinarian if you suspect your dog is experiencing any cognitive decline.

Caring for a Dog Suffering From Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

There is no cure for CCDS, but there are ways you can help slow the progression and improve your dog’s quality of life. First, speak with your veterinarian to rule-out or begin treatment for concurrent diseases. Your vet will help you develop a support plan; which may include dietary changes, supplementation, and medications. Medications may be prescribed to address the contributing factors of CCDS or the resulting conditions, such as anxiety. Your veterinarian will need to see your dog periodically to evaluate their response to therapy as well as monitoring any other diseases present.

What else can you do? Here are a few ways that you can help your dog with cognitive dysfunction:

Engage Your Pet In Activities That Provide Mental Stimulation

One of the best things you can do for your dog during this time is to keep them physically and mentally active. Provide them with plenty of opportunities for play and exercise. Take them on walks, play fetch with them, play hide-and-seek, and engage in other forms of interactive play. Treat toys, puzzle balls, and other interactive toys are great for promoting mental stimulation.

Help Your Dog Sleep Well Through the Night

Sleep is vital for everyone, your dog included. Consider adding cues that signal the next activity in your routine and avoid fluctuations. This could mean setting a regular bedtime and playing the same music to begin a winddown ritual prior to turning out the lights for the night. Should anxiety still prevent your dog from getting a good night’s sleep, talk to your veterinarian regarding other anti-anxiety tactics and possibly adding medications.

Include Brain Health-Boosting Foods in Their Diet

Diet is a crucial aspect in treating most conditions, including CCDS. Reevaluate your dog’s diet and include foods that help boost brain health. Several prescription diets and supplements are available to provide additional brain boosting antioxidants and fatty acids.

Knowing When Canine Dementia Is Diminishing Your Dog's Quality of Life

You may struggle to know when your pet has reached a point where euthanasia is an appropriate option. Obviously, this step is a permanent one and so the decision is all the more difficult. The hard, but hopefully comforting truth is that there is no “perfect time.” Most veterinarians have a window in which they are comfortable recommending euthanasia; most families have a narrower window that fits inside the vet’s window.

This means that most often the dog and the vet are ready when the family is ready. Know that your veterinarian will tell you if they believe it is too soon or if your pet is suffering and needs intervention; whether in the form of palliative care or euthanasia. Another factor to be aware of, especially in cases of CCDS, is caregiver fatigue. Caring for a dog with canine dementia can take a large toll on the bond between pet parent and dog. Seek support where it is available and remember that your own health is an important piece of knowing when it is time.

Deciding what’s right for your pet can be challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone. We are here to support you as you explore the next steps and when the time is right you can schedule an appointment with a compassionate at-home euthanasia veterinarian in your community.


Dr. Bethany graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2010. After graduation, she moved west. Dr. Bethany spent a year at a small animal exclusive practice in Washington state, where she was first introduced to in-home euthanasia.  Read More

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