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7 Signs of Dog Dementia

As your cherished senior dog ages, he may experience moments of forgetfulness similar to human “senior moments.” If your dog starts forgetting familiar routes on your daily walks or loses interest in activities he once loved, such as chasing his favorite toy or greeting you enthusiastically at the door, he might be experiencing canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), akin to Alzheimer’s in humans. Detecting signs of cognitive decline early is crucial, so it’s essential to be aware of the indicators that may suggest your dog is experiencing CCD.

7 Signs of Dementia in Dogs

Dr. Denise Petryk, DVM, suggests that the DISHA acronym, widely accepted among dog owners, can help in identifying the most prominent signs and changes associated with CCD (canine cognitive dysfunction).

DISHA stands for:

  • Disorientation
  • [Altered] Interactions with family members or other pets
  • Sleep-wake cycle changes
  • House soiling
  • Activity level changes

Dr. Petryk explains, “It allows us to cross-reference against a checklist to rule out other possibilities. If your dog displays one or a combination of these symptoms, we are more likely to diagnose cognitive dysfunction.”

Apart from DISHA symptoms, you might observe these additional signs of dog dementia:

  • Difficulty eating or locating food or water dishes
  • Repetitive or restless movements

Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, advises that there isn’t necessarily a linear progression to the symptoms your dog may exhibit. “The significance of the problem increases with the number and frequency of signs we observe. Each sign or symptom doesn’t necessarily correspond to a particular phase,” she explains.

Here’s a breakdown of each symptom related to cognitive dysfunction in dogs.


A common observation with senior dogs is their tendency to become disoriented even within their familiar environments.

“This often occurs when the dog is in the backyard and ends up at the wrong door or the wrong side of the door when trying to come back in. The part of the brain responsible for orientation is affected,” explains Dr. Beaver.

Your dog might also struggle with spatial awareness, finding himself behind the couch and feeling lost or unable to find his way out. During bedtime, you might discover your dog in an unfamiliar area of the house, staring at walls instead of resting in his dog bed.

According to Dr. Petryk, dogs generally have a good sense of timing, making disorientation a clear indicator that something is amiss.

“The initial step should be taking your dog in for a checkup. It might not necessarily be a cognitive issue, so your vet might want to investigate other potential medical causes, such as a brain tumor or diabetes,” she advises.

Changes in Interactions With Family, Other Pets or Guests

Canine cognitive dysfunction can significantly impact your dog’s interactions with people and other animals.

Your once sociable dog, previously the neighborhood’s most beloved pup, may now exhibit cranky or irritable behavior, even growling at other animals or children. He might lash out and bite his former favorite playmates.

Dr. Petryk warns that such behavior could indicate a serious underlying issue. “He may behave this way due to pain. Conditions like arthritis or other ailments may cause discomfort when he moves or is touched. Your vet may suggest X-rays to rule out a painful condition,” explains Dr. Petryk.

Some dogs with CCD may withdraw from their families and favorite activities. They may fail to acknowledge the doorbell or show disinterest in greeting visitors. They might also stop barking at the mail carrier or ignore cues when it’s time for a walk.

If you notice changes in your dog’s interactions with those around him, it’s essential to discuss them with your veterinarian. They can help rule out potential health issues and provide guidance on how to support your dog’s changing needs.

Sleep-Wake Cycle Changes

Alterations in sleep patterns or disruptions in circadian rhythms represent specific symptoms associated with cognitive dysfunction.

Dogs that previously slept soundly may now pace throughout the night. Many dogs switch their normal schedules, turning their daytime activities into nighttime pursuits. This “up all night” routine can prove frustrating and exhausting for pet owners.

“If your dog is active at night and you’re seeking ways to help him sleep, consider using a nightlight or white noise,” suggests Dr. Beaver.

If these measures fail to provide relief, it’s advisable to consult your veterinarian for medications that may alleviate your dog’s anxiety and restore normal sleep cycles.

House Soiling

Urinating or defecating inside the house is a common indicator of cognitive dysfunction in dogs, particularly if the dog was previously house-trained.

Dr. Petryk emphasizes that when this occurs, it’s essential to consider the possibility that your dog may have lost his ability to control elimination voluntarily or to signal the need to go outside.

“After conducting tests and ruling out conditions like bladder infection, kidney problems, or diabetes, cognitive changes are usually implicated. If your dog gazes out at the sliding glass door and then defecates indoors despite no bowel issues, it suggests a loss of understanding regarding appropriate elimination locations,” explains Dr. Petryk.

Decreased Activity Levels

Dogs experiencing cognitive dysfunction may exhibit reduced interest in exploring their surroundings and diminished responsiveness to stimuli, people, and sounds in their environment.

They may refrain from greeting you or fail to respond to prompts to fetch their favorite toy. Additionally, they may display decreased focus and altered reactions to stimuli.

Having Trouble Eating and Drinking

Some dogs encounter difficulties with eating, drinking, or even locating their food bowls.

“They might drop food while eating and struggle to find it,” notes Dr. Petryk. “If they don’t have issues with sight or hearing, this could be a clear indication of cognitive dysfunction.”

“I’ve encountered cases where dogs fail to recognize their favorite treats,” adds Dr. Petryk. “Owners often assume they need to try different treats without realizing there might be an underlying issue.”

Repetitive or Restless Movements

While older dogs typically undergo a natural decrease in activity levels, they may also display symptoms that resemble restlessness.

“They might engage in repetitive movements such as head bobbing, leg shaking, or pacing in circles. These actions are more indicative of cognitive dysfunction or brain degeneration and are less likely to be confused with other conditions,” explains Dr. Petryk.

When to See the Vet

It’s important to also take note of other behavioral shifts, such as your normally quiet dog suddenly barking excessively or barking when there’s no apparent reason.

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