Dementia in Dogs
The information listed below is not intended to replace the advice, counsel, or assistance of licensed personnel. It is always recommended that you seek the help of your veterinarian.
If you have an older dog that seems lost and confused lately, your dog could have canine cognitive dysfunction (aka, dog dementia). The symptoms of canine dementia are progressive, meaning they get worse over time. Any dog exhibiting symptoms of dementia should be seen by a veterinarian to rule out other health issues like blindness, deafness, urinary or gastrointestinal tract issues, liver or kidney disease, arthritis, tumors, infections, or inflammation of the brain.
Our Stella, who was 12 at the time, lived her life as my dog training partner and best friend. She had excellent manners and social skills. Her obedience was impeccable and her ability to help other dogs become social and friendly was unmatched by any other dog.
During her last year, she started to decline, becoming withdrawn, lethargic, wanting to sleep more than usual. There were times I noticed her standing still while staring off into the distance while other dogs played around her. She stopped responding to her name and commands. She started getting confused with normal daily routines, walking in the wrong directions and getting lost. Prior to lying down on her bed, she would pace consistently in a circle, going in one direction, and would not stop unless I touched her and helped her lay down. I thought during this time, she is just getting old. I retired her from working with me and just allowed her to be a family pet.
During her last few months, Stella declined rapidly. She started having "panic episodes". Stella spent her entire life being the calmest dog in the world. Vacuums, leaf blowers, fireworks, party poppers, gun shots, the doorbell, barking dogs...nothing ever phased Stella. Now she was leaping up from her bed, becoming alert and anxious for no reason. She would start darting and pacing around, trembling, her teeth chattering, as if looking to escape and hide from a hallucination. Sometimes she would seek out small spaces and then appear lost. She was also "sundowning" or showing "witching hour" behaviors. At night, she would toss and turn, then dart awake and stand "on guard" staring off into the darkness.
Our vet ran blood tests, x-rays, urine and fecal tests. Everything came back saying Stella was perfectly healthy, in-fact she was amazed at how healthy Stella was for a 12 year old dog. Through some trial and error, we started giving Stella sedatives, Gabapentin and Trazadone, prior to her meals and at bedtime. This made her a bit dopey but calmed her down and the episodes subsided for a couple months.
During her final weeks with us, nothing we were doing was helping Stella anymore. Her behavior was causing other dogs who loved her to become uncomfortable when she was near, growling at her. I doubled her medication dosage and had her wear a Thundershirt 24/7. This helped, but not entirely. The only thing that made her appear somewhat normal was taking her outside in the sunshine. I had to take a step back, take time off from work, and look at what was happening to her.
When I started taking notes, writing down all her behaviors, noting everything we had tried and been doing for her, I realized that just like some elderly people I've known, she was showing all the signs of dementia. This broke my heart as I knew it was too late and there was nothing more we could do for her. Nobody wants to see their pet in this state. We did our best to help Stella and keep her comfortable during this entire time, but we were now faced with that decision that none of us ever wants to make. It is extremely difficult to consider euthanasia for a beloved pet that is physically healthy, not in pain, and seems coherent. I went back-n-forth in my mind on how to keep her around longer, but knew this was selfish and I didn't want to wait until she no longer knew who I was. The best and most loving thing I could do for my beloved Stella was to let her go and give her peace.