Cognitive Dysfunction, a condition similar to Alzheimer’s, is very common in older dogs.  50% over the age of 10 year will show some sort of symptoms and this only increases with age.  In the early stages these changes can be subtle and often the condition is only noticed when the pet’s behaviour becomes more severe.  However, recognising and treating the condition early is vital to have the best chance of halting or even reversing the changes in the brain.

The symptoms of cognitive dysfunction will vary between individuals but can include;

  • Confusion or vacancy – these are often the first signs to manifest but are also the most difficult to pick up on.  Affected dogs will have periods (which can initially last just a few seconds) of seeming confused or lost in familiar surroundings.  In the early stages a call or command can bring them out of it but later on it can be more challenging.
  • Pacing or circling – again this can begin as quite a subtle problem but gradually becomes more apparent.  Dogs will often move from room to room in the house, resisting all attempts to stop them or move in small circles.  They can appear quite distressed during the activity, panting and wide eyed, but they won’t stop.
  • Loss of toilet control – This is the change that is most obvious and most often prompts a visit to the vets.
  • Loss of sleep patterns – Whereas they previously slept without problems, affected dogs can be awake in the night and often will howl or bark as well.
  • Becoming withdrawn – Many dogs with cognitive dysfunction will gradually become distant from their family.  They may shy away from contact, deliberately choose to rest away from people or sleep more than normal.
  • Becoming anxious and clingy – Others will go the other way and become more dependent on their owners.  They can develop separation anxiety problems, which is distressing for both them and their owners.

Changes like these used to be just put down to ‘old age’ but now we realise they are a medical condition, similar to Alzheimer’s in humans.  The changes in the brain are similar between dogs and humans, which has lead to more effective treatments being developed.

There are no specific tests for Cognitive Dysfunction, so it has to be diagnosed on symptoms and the lack of other problems.  It is therefore important to rule out, or simultaneously treat, other issues common in older dogs such as arthritis and poor eyesight.

Treatment can be challenging and is aimed at improving the blood flow to the brain and so supporting and maintaining it’s function.  There are medications that achieve this but because of the nature of the problem, they have to be given for at least a month before it can be judged if they are helping or not.  However, in my experience improvements are usually seen well before then and they can be quite dramatic!

There are special diets available containing high levels of anti-oxidants and omega-3 oils, both of which have been shown to aid cognitive function in dogs.

Also helpful is simple environmental enrichment for your pet.  In practical terms this means you need to keep interacting with them, training them and regularly give them new and interesting toys to play with.  You can teach an old dog new tricks!

It is distressing to see a beloved pet’s personality changing and, sadly, given how common it is, many dog owners will have to deal with it.  However, being aware of the symptoms, spotting them early, starting the right medication and making some simple changes to your pet’s routine will make a huge difference.

Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS – Read more of her blogs at

If you have any worries about your pet, please make an appointment with your vet, or try our Symptom Guide.