Pets can get dementia too – here’s what to know

Just like people, our beloved pets can get dementia as they age. Here are the pet dementia signs to watch for, plus ways to improve their quality of life.

Our furry friends are much-loved members of our families.

Sadly, they age faster than we do – cats and dogs have an average lifespan of about 12 years.

When it comes to growing older, our pets share some of the physical signs of ageing with us, and they may begin to slow down, develop hearing loss, get cataracts and even go grey.

Both senior cats and dogs also show behavioural and cognitive changes, and it may come as a shock to learn they, too, can develop dementia.

What is pet dementia?

“Our pets, particularly dogs, can experience a form of dementia,” Australian veterinary surgeon Dr Evan Shaw says.

Also coined “doggy dementia” or cognitive dysfunction syndrome, this condition shares various features with human dementia.

“Both animal and human conditions are characterised by a decline in cognitive function which may manifest as confusion, disorientation, memory loss, and changes in personality or behaviour,” Dr Shaw explains.

“Both are also associated with the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, which are thought to contribute to cognitive decline.”

Which pets are most likely to get dementia?

Dr Shaw says CDS is more commonly diagnosed in dogs than in cats, but research on the influence of breed on dementia in dogs is ongoing.

“It’s worth noting that smaller dog breeds often have longer lifespans compared to larger breeds,” Dr Shaw says.

“Since CDS is a condition that typically affects older dogs, it may be observed more frequently in smaller breeds simply because they live longer.”

One study suggests doggy dementia can affect up to 60 per cent of older dogs as they continue to age beyond eight years old, while another shows dogs or cats younger than age six are less likely to be affected by CDS.

Is pet dementia fatal?

“Unlike similar diseases in humans, CDS almost never causes loss of vital functions such as the ability to eat,” Dr Shaw says.

“Therefore, a pet with CDS has a similar lifespan to unaffected pets.”

How many pets are affected by dementia?

Many studies show at least 15 per cent of older dogs are diagnosed with dementia, Melbourne veterinarian Dr Nicole Rous says.

While there has yet to be an investigation on the number of pets affected by CDS in Australia, Dr Rous says we may be able to get an unofficial idea of its significance based on existing studies.

“In one research, it was found that 1.4 per cent of the overall dog population were classified as having canine cognitive dysfunction,” Dr Rous says.

“Since there are approximately 6.4 million dogs in Australia, we could roughly say there are approximately 90,000 dogs in Australia living with the dog equivalent of dementia; however, we still need a study on this in Australia to get the official numbers.”

Diagnosing pet dementia

“Diagnosis is generally made based on a combination of presenting signs or behaviours, which can be summarised by the acronym DISHA,” Dr Rous says.

DISHA stands for Disorientation, altered Interaction (with owner), Sleep-wake cycle disturbances, House soiling/toileting changes, and changes in Activity levels.

While CT scans and MRIs can also help with the clinical diagnosis, Dr Rous says these diagnostic tests require general anaesthesia in pets and are costly.

But, she adds, there are a few early signs that point to CDS, that may be often missed.

“The most common ‘early’ signs I notice with owners are vagueness or forgetfulness,” Dr Rous says.

“The classic (one) is when their dog walks into a room, pauses and seems to forget why they’re there; or wanting to be let outside, then inside, then out again.”

Since there are approximately 6.4 million dogs in Australia, we could roughly say there are approximately 90,000 dogs in Australia living with the dog equivalent of dementia.

Can pet dementia be prevented?

Dr Rous explains while there’s no guaranteed prevention of pet dementia, creating a stimulating environment for our four-legged friends can be important.

She says simple tasks such as feeding in a snuffle mat, hiding treats, and changing the path you go on during walks help to challenge their brain as your pet ages.

“Considering extra sources of nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids for cognitive health once pets are in the high-risk category can help too, especially for dogs aged seven in large breeds and 10 in small breeds,” Dr Rous says.

“It’s likely in the future we’ll learn that the role of the gut biome is largely influential in the development of pet dementia.

“So it is definitely important to provide probiotic support for a diverse microbiome.”

How to care for a pet with dementia

For families with a pet diagnosed with CDS, Dr Rous says there are still ways to help maintain a good quality of life for your furry friend.

“This includes frequent vet visits, plus additional daily support at home to ensure they’re eating, toileting, and not in pain,” Dr Rous explains.

Dr Shaw also recommends the following strategies:

Maintain a routine

Pets with dementia benefit from a consistent routine as it provides them with a sense of security and lessens confusion.

Provide enrichment

Keep up regular physical activity and social interaction, and provide mental stimulation to help maintain cognitive function.

Consider dietary changes

Diets rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve cognitive function in older dogs.

Try medication

Certain medications may help manage symptoms and improve your pet’s quality of life. Selegiline (Anipryl) is one such medication your vet may prescribe.

Read more on caring for your pet: 

Written by Melissa Hong.