Canine Cognitive Dysfunction - What is it & how to recognise the symptoms.

Julia Dicconson
Content Manager
August 9, 2023

As our beloved canine companions age, they often experience changes in their behaviour and cognitive abilities, much like humans do. In this article, we'll talk about Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, what signs to look for, why it happens, and how we can help our dogs in their older years.

What is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), also known as dog dementia or cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) , is a condition that affects a significant number of senior dogs. Just like humans, older dogs may encounter memory loss, disorientation, and alterations in their normal routines. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction has a slow onset, can be difficult to manage and affects an estimated 14% of dogs 8 years and older according to Purina Institute. 

To accurately diagnose Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, owners must notice and report certain distinctive behaviours exhibited by their dog. The DISHAA Tool plays a vital role in this process, assisting owners in recognising these crucial behavioural cues. This then allows veterinarians and owners to collaborate effectively in evaluating a dog's cognitive sharpness.

Recognising the symptoms.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction presents itself through various symptoms, some of which may initially be dismissed as regular signs of ageing. Refer to the DISHAA tool below, which is a great acronym to remember the key signs to watch out for.

  • D - Disorientation
  • Encounters difficulty navigating around objects, becomes stuck, and approaches the hinge side of doors.
  • Displays a blank stare at walls, floors, or simply into the void.
  • Fails to identify people or pets that should be familiar.
  • Becomes disoriented, even in home or yard environments.
  • Shows diminished responses to visual or auditory cues.
  • I - Social interactions
  • Exhibits increased irritability, fear, or aggression towards visitors, family members, or other animals.
  • Shows a reduced inclination to approach or greet others, and a lack of interest in affection or petting.
  • S - Sleep/wake cycles
  • Displays restlessness, paces frequently, experiences reduced sleep, or wakes up during the night.
  •  Engages in vocal behaviours like barking or whining at nighttime.
  • H - Housesoiling, learning and memory
  • Demonstrates decreased capability to learn new tasks or respond to previously known commands, name, or work.
  • Exhibits indoor accidents with urine or stool, signals less frequently to go outside.
  • Struggling to capture the dog's attention, experiences increased distraction or diminished focus.
  • A - Activity
  • Exhibits a reduction in the exploration of surroundings or engagement with toys, family members, and other pets.
  • Displays an increase in aimless activity, such as pacing or wandering without purpose.
  • Engages in repetitive actions, like circling, chewing, licking, or staring blankly upwards.
  • A - Anxiety
  • Shows heightened anxiety when parted from their owners.
  • Exhibits greater fear or reaction to visual or auditory cues.
  • Demonstrates an increased fear of certain places or locations, such as unfamiliar environments or stepping outside.
You can download this image and refer back to it when needed.

How to use the DISHAA tool.

By assessing the above symptoms and signs, you and your vet can understand if your dog is experiencing mild, moderate or severe CCD.

Give a numerical value to each of the above points. 

  • 0 = no symptoms
  • 1 = mild symptoms - happens sometimes
  • 2 = moderate symptoms - happens often
  • 3 = severe symptoms - happens all the time

If your dog receives a score of 4-15, that is consistent with mild symptoms, 16-33 is moderate, and anything above 33 is severe.

You can take these findings to your veterinarian who can help come up with a plan of action.

Understanding the causes of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

The exact causes of CCD remain largely unknown, but there are several factors that likely contribute to the condition. These factors include changes in the brain, similar to what happens in humans with dementia, leading to a decline in cognitive function. Certain breeds may also have a genetic predisposition to developing CCD. Additionally, a dog's lifestyle, diet, and mental stimulation throughout its life can also influence cognitive health in old age.

Caring for a dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

Though CCD can't be cured and can get worse over time, there are ways to make life better for older dogs with this condition:

See your veterinarian. 

If your dog shows signs of CCD, take them to a vet. Your vet can rule out other health problems and talk about ways to manage CCD.

Eat right and exercise.  

A good diet for your dog's age and health, and regular exercise that suits your dog can help their brain health.

Keep them thinking. 

Use toys, puzzles, and training to keep your dog's brain working. This can help slow down the loss of thinking skills and keep them interested in things.

Keep things the same. 

Try to do things at the same time each day and avoid changes at home. This can help lower stress and confusion in dogs with CCD.

Make your home safe and comfy

Make sure your home is safe for your older dog. Take away things they might trip over. Make sure they have a comfy and accessible place to sleep and check that they can easily get to their food, water, and outside.

Final thoughts on Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

As our dogs get older, we must be mindful of the changes they might experience, especially in their thinking abilities. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is a challenging condition, but with early recognition and proper care, we can make our senior dogs' golden years more comfortable.

Don’t wait until the very end. It’s important to consider your pet’s end-of-life journey early, so that you, your family and your pet are all supported through the process.

When the time comes, we’re here for you. Goodbye Good Boy provides a range of end-of-life services to make the difficult process of saying goodbye a little easier. 

We offer quality of life assessments from qualified vets, specialist grief counselling, at home euthanasia from dedicated end of life veterinarians, as well as cremation services and memorial options to help remember your pet for their unique character.

We are with you at every step of the journey.

To find out more, you can call our team of passionate pet lovers on 1800 953 619.