Can Pets Get Dementia?


Earl and Linda’s silver poodle, Sophia, is fifteen years old. Recently, they have come home from work to find Sophia wandering aimlessly through the house and have noticed the trouble she is having finding the doggie door. Sophia used to jump up and twirl on her back legs for a treat, but she seems to have forgotten that trick. Earl is having flashbacks of when his mother, Mildred, had dementia and how she forgot things she used to know so well. He is beginning to think Sophia has dementia also. Linda thinks he is going crazy and should have his head checked for thinking such a thing. Turns out he may not be.

We take our pets to the veterinarian for heart worm testing, lethargic behavior, and hip dysplasia. Have we thought about their mental state too? According to a recent New York Times article, with advances in modern veterinary medicine, domestic dogs and cats often live long enough to develop cognitive dysfunction, and studies in both cats and dogs show that they can in fact experience symptoms of dementia as they age. What are the symptoms we should look out for?

If You Have an Older Dog

A study at the University of California-Berkeley has shown that 62% of dogs between ages 11 and 16 demonstrate one or more signs of dementia (called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) in dogs), and the percentage goes up as dogs get older.

How do you identify possible CCD?

  • Does your older dog sleep more during the day and less at night?
  • Does your dog pace or wander aimlessly?
  • Does your dog have trouble finding the door or get ‘stuck’ in familiar places like behind furniture or in corner?
  • Does your dog forget old tricks?
  • Is your dog acting disoriented, walking in circles, or staring into corners or [at] the wall
  • Is your dog acting aggressively?
  • Has your dog lost interest in family members?
  • Is your dog having a tough time controlling urination or defecation in more than just an incontinent way — almost like they’re forgetting how to be house trained?

If You Have an Older Cat

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh now believe 50% of all cats over the age of 15 and 25% aged 11 to 14, are suffering from dementia (or geriatric onset behavioral problems). The same team was also the first to discover cats could suffer from dementia. Their research involved scans which showed changes to the neural system of confused elderly cats were similar to those seen among humans with the conditions, and found that the same beta-amyloid protein found in humans with dementia was present in the cats.

How do you identify possible geriatric onset behavioral problems?

  • Is your cat behaving erratically or aggressively?
  • Does your cat wail in the early hours of the morning, begging for attention, yet the food and water bowls are full
  • Does your cat seem confused?
  • Does your cat sleep more than he or she used to or is he or she up at all hours of the night?
  • Is your cat yowling at random times of the day?
  • Has your cat lost interest in family members?
  • Is your cat having a tough time controlling urination or defecation?

If you think your pet could have CCD or geriatric onset behavioral problems, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian to have them tested. Other illnesses have to be ruled out first, before cognitive dysfunction is definitively determined.

How Can We Help Senior Pets Live Better Lives?

Although there isn’t a cure, there are ways to manage cognitive dysfunction and help your older pets live better lives, as follows:

  • Keep your pet’s brain active, even at an older age;
  • Teach your pet new tricks;
  • Take your dog or outdoor cat outside and challenge his or her brain with new environmental stimuli, so his or her brain will not deteriorate as quickly;
  • Make sure your pet gets regular exercise;
  • Add antioxidants to your pet’s diet to help with brain health;
  • Show your pet lots of love, as you always did;
  • The vet may prescribe a diet fortified with antioxidants, fatty acids, and L-carnitine and/or medications similar to those administered for human dementia patients.

Even though senior pets may have dementia-like symptoms as they age, they are still wonderful pets for senior owners. The SPCA recently reported that in a study of 100 Medicare patients, even the most highly-stressed dog owner had 21% fewer physicians visits than any non-dog-owner. In addition, seniors who own pets are more likely to keep up with daily activities, have better overall physical health due to exercising with their pets, and have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than those living without pets. From personal experience, I can tell you that the tuxedo cat that Jeannie and I adopted from our local animal shelter when he was 9-years old is the most gentle and loving animal that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, and has brought incredible joy to our lives and the lives of our two other rescued cats at home. Read more about the benefits of senior pets on our blog.

Don’t Forget about the Pet

Many of us who think of our pets as family members want to ensure that they are cared for after we become incapable of doing so. One way to fulfill this responsibility is to set up a pet trust, or a legally sanctioned arrangement that provides for the care and maintenance of your pet(s) in the event of their your disability or death. For more details, read the Pet Trust FAQ on our Website.

What if it is your (human) family member who is suffering from dementia? At the Farr Law Firm, we can help you prepare for your future financial and long-term care needs. We can help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits. Please call 703-691-1888 in Fairfax, 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg, 301-519-8041 in Rockville, MD, or 202-587-2797 in Washington, DC to make an appointment for a consultation. If you come to the Fairfax office, be sure to visit with all of the animals who live here, including Alley (our Siamese cat), Angel (our Tortoiseshell cat), Ernie and Jannette (our African Dwarf Frogs), and Commander Bun Bun (our lop-eared love bunny). And be sure to follow our “Critter Corner” column that appears most Fridays in our weekly “Ask the Expert” newsletter and on our blog.


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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.