Senior Cognitive Changes in Dogs

Senior Cognitive Changes in Dogs - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Recovery, Management, Cost

Most common symptoms

Circling / Depression / Disorientation / Head Tilt / Licking / Poor Appetite


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Most common symptoms

Circling / Depression / Disorientation / Head Tilt / Licking / Poor Appetite

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Senior Cognitive Changes in Dogs - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Recovery, Management, Cost

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What are Senior Cognitive Changes?

Because senior cognition changes come on slowly, you may not even notice the abnormalities in your dog until he is really acting strange or having a lot of accidents in the house. When dogs that are previously house trained start soiling in the house, there is usually a medical cause and is reason to make an appointment with the veterinarian. If your dog is over 10 years of age and starts forgetting things, acts different than usual, and seems to be depressed or anxious, you should see a veterinary care professional as soon as you can.

Senior cognition changes, also referred to as canine cognitive dysfunction or dementia, are physical and chemical changes in the brain due to old age. Similar to humans, the brain starts to get a bit slower than before as it ages, which can cause confusion, memory loss, soiling in the house, behavior changes, and changes in sleep patterns.

The veterinary community has a checklist for evaluating dogs, called DISHA, that includes disorientation (d), interactions (i), sleeping patterns (s), housetraining (h), and activity levels (a). You may notice that your dog is having accidents in the house because he cannot remember where the door is to go outside, he may act like he does not know you, or may even become aggressive.

Symptoms of Senior Cognitive Changes in Dogs

The symptoms of senior cognition changes include:

  • Extreme irritability
  • Disorientation
  • Abnormal behavior such as being overly clingy or scared
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unusual sleeping habits like staying up all night and sleeping during the day
  • Anxiousness
  • Depression
  • Staring off into space
  • Excessive licking
  • Looking lost
  • Urinating or defecating in the house


Senior cognition disorder may be simply due to age or it could be a secondary condition from an accident or illness.

Causes of Senior Cognitive Changes in Dogs

Senior cognition changes are common to some degree in almost all dogs by the time they are about 11 years old. In fact, almost all dogs over 16 years old have signs of senior cognition changes. Although veterinary care professionals are not sure of the cause, there are some abnormalities in the brain that are commonly found with senior cognitive changes. Some of these are:

  • Ubiquitin-positive granules (UBQ)
  • Cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA)
  • Accumulation of amyloid β protein (Aβ)
  • Increased activity from the enzyme that affects dopamine, monoamine oxidase-B
  • Decreased neurotransmitter activity
  • Previous head trauma or neoplasm

Diagnosis of Senior Cognitive Changes in Dogs

Before you see your veterinary care provider you should make a list of all the abnormalities you have noticed, when they started, and if they have gotten worse. The veterinarian will need to know about any illnesses or trauma that your dog has had recently and if he is on any type of medication, even over-the-counter drugs or supplements. The veterinarian will do a detailed physical assessment, examining your dog from head to toe and checking vital signs.

A behavior evaluation will be performed and the veterinarian will check his vision and reflexes. A battery of laboratory tests will be done such as a blood chemistry, complete blood count, urinalysis, and fecal examination. Other tests may include a liver and renal profile, thyroid tests, and blood cultures. To check your dog for brain tumors and other abnormalities of the brain, a CT scan, MRI, ultrasound, and x-rays will be done.


Treatment of Senior Cognitive Changes in Dogs

While there is no cure for senior cognition changes, there are some techniques that can help improve your dog’s cognitive ability. Some medications, supplements, and dietary changes can also improve your dog’s memory and behavior.

Medications and Supplements

Nicergoline increases vasodilatation and circulation in the brain and stimulates the central nervous system activity. Another medication, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) is a molecule that synthesizes glutathione in dogs, which is important to cognition. Selegiline slows the depletion of dopamine, increases the activity of catecholamines (adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine), and slows down the degeneration of the nerves. You should always speak to your veterinary care provider before giving your dog any kind of medication or supplements.

Special Diet

Certain diets have been proven to increase cognitive development in older dogs, which include diets high in carotenoids, flavonoids, selenium, beta carotene, and vitamins A, C, and E.

Increased Activity

It has also been proven that increased environmental activity such as taking walks and playing outdoors can be helpful in slowing senior cognition changes. Additionally, there are special toys made to improve cognitive health such as puzzle toys, treat mazes, and interactive games.

Recovery of Senior Cognitive Changes in Dogs

Since there is no cure for senior cognition changes, the prognosis is fair. Your dog will likely improve with more activity or medication, but eventually, these cognitive changes will occur anyway. However, with treatment, your dog can live many more happy and healthy years.

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Senior Cognitive Changes Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals