Senior dogs have a special place in my heart. Their gentle presence tells a story– the depth of their wisdom, love and understanding. In their eyes, I see the glimmer that once was behind the cloud of cataracts. Their tired body, the joints that no longer bounce were once agile and strong. The callous on their elbows, the greys on their muzzle. The shiny, glorious coat that profusely shed every season is now dulled and thin. I love how an old dog blatantly ignores when called. Perhaps she lost her hearing. Perhaps she is too tired to move. She earned that right to be oblivious, whether it’s deliberate or not.

With improved veterinary care and dietary habits, dogs are living longer than ever before. After a lifetime of unlimited unconditional love and enthusiastic tail whips, it’s no wonder your senior dog is showing signs of age. Natural aging slowly starts to change the physical function and appearance, and their senses become dulled. But if your dog’s personality has changed, she might be experiencing more than the passage of time. If your elderly dog seems confused, restless, disoriented, distant, or lost, it might a sign of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, commonly known as dementia.

Similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans, CCD is caused by physical and chemical changes in the brain. Studies have shown that some older dogs with dementia have brain lesions similar to Alzheimer’s patients. These changes in the brain deteriorate how your dog thinks, learns and remembers, which can cause behavioral changes that can disrupt the lives of both you and your dog. If your senior dog experiences any of these symptoms, she may be a part of the large percentage of dogs with CCD:

Withdraws and unwilling to go for walks, outside, or play.

● Gets lost in familiar settings, around the home, dog runs, or parks.

● Becomes trapped in furniture, closets, or corners of room.

● Confused about finding pathways such as doors, hallways and stairways.

● Gets startled easily with family members, strangers and objects

● Trembles or shakes when standing or laying

● Paces aimlessly through the house

● Sleeps more during the day than at night

● Refuses food or water

● Stares at objects, walls, or space for a prolonged period

● Difficulty with learning new tasks, routes or commands

● Does not respond to name or familiar commands

● Seeks less and less of your attention

● Incontinence despite frequent opportunities to go outside. Soils indoors often.

● Barking for no apparent reason

Many CCD symptoms are shared with other ailments. Decrease in activity could be due to advanced arthritis, or withdrawal and inattentiveness could be a result of vision or hearing loss. Incontinence could be a urinary infection or kidney disease. Senior dogs should see the vet at least twice a year for blood testing, urine tests and well checks to rule out other causes that may be mimicking the symptoms of CCD. Start glucosamine supplements early on in their life to protect their joints.

If you suspect that your dog has dementia, keep track of the above signs to determine how often they are occurring. Consult your vet about various treatment options that might help treat or lessen the symptoms of this syndrome. There is no cure for CCD, but medication and supplements are available to help your dog think more clearly. Holistic medicine can also assist your dog in making her feel more comfortable in it’s early stages. In the process of treatment, be mindful that often, some medications are aimed at just reducing anxiety, and you may end up with a dog that’s not only confused, but tranquilized and barely responsive. Trading one unhealthy state for another is hardly humane.

In the meantime, help your dog cope with CCD with the following tips. Just like humans, moderate physical activity, mental stimulation, and a diet rich in antioxidants can help maintain your senior dog’s spiritual, physical, and mental health.

● Keep the environment consistent. Don’t rearrange furniture or change her living environment.

● Commands should be short, simple and compassionate. Don’t insist on your dog obeying. She is not disobeying or ignoring you.

● Be predictable: Have a routine for feeding and drinking, and time the walks accordingly.

● Provide stimulus: Take them outside, let them sniff the world. Let them socialize often. Provide frequent short walks or swims, the muscles need to be used to keep her mobile. Don’t let them nap all day– depression can lead to further dementia.

● Get a wagon or ramp to get them outside for fresh air and provide more mobility.

● Know your dog’s limit with the quantity of exercise, contact with other dogs, children and strangers.

● Provide lots of praise and encouragement: Lift their souls, your positive voice and energy gives her power.

● Be Patient: This is your time to give back with kindness and consideration.

The most important, is compassion. Caring for an elderly dog can be frustrating and scary, because what we can’t control nor comprehend provokes much anxiety. We want nothing but the best for our dogs, and it’s petrifying to see our best friends age. But remember this– you will too. We all age, and thus, albeit bittersweet, this passage is inevitable and beautiful.

Because you love your dog deeply, the worst thing you can do is to be in denial. If your dog is showing common signs of CCD, you might find yourself bargaining away the symptoms your dog is experiencing with thoughts such as: “She’s just having a bad day”. “She will be better tomorrow”, “She is not in pain”, “She does not mind being confused”.

Just like humans, dogs function in different levels and want to be in control of their mind and bodies. They also function on intuitive levels– the sense of self, or who they are is important to a dog. The sense of identity gives purpose and joy to life, and if they are confused about who they are, purpose and joy is compromised. The reality is that dementia– lack of control of cognitive and physical functions is painful on an emotional level.

Existing, and living are two very different things. Dogs with CCD can certainly exist for a prolonged period, but that existence in time, is without joy. As more time passes, it’s filled with fear, because confusion is petrifying.

What matters most is not time– age and the clock is just a number. It’s quality of life. Find the light in her eyes. Feel the will to live. Does your dog still have the ability to feel, experience, and embrace life? To live, is when a soul is fully present. Your dog’s world has changed, and every effort should be made to give back and love. But let us not forget that our ultimate onus is to respect and preserve her pride and dignity.