Canine Cognitive Dysfunction: When a Senior Dog’s Mind Starts to Fade

There is no “cure” for cognitive dysfunction in dogs. However, your veterinarian may suggest these medical possibilities.

There is no cure for canine dementia, but your vet can suggest a few things to help. By: ben hopton/Flickr
Some vets believe in the power of antioxidants and high-quality omega-3s. By: ben hopton

Many of our pets are living longer lives — but along with an aging body comes an aging brain.

Senior pets need more help ensuring there’s a good quality to those waning years. So what can you do to help?

Well, new diets and supplements may help dogs who suffer from canine cognitive dysfunction — called cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) — live out their remaining years in good mental health.

In this article, we’ll discuss some medical suggestions on how to preserve your older dog’s mental state and improve CDS.

What Is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

Environmental stimuli might sound like a great idea. However, you may throw a ball 2 feet for Old Yeller and he may not even notice the ball.

The most current veterinary literature about cognitive and behavioral changes in aging dogs states: “Age-related declines were reported in spatial memory, executive function and concept learning.”

Aging dogs lose their cognitive powers to varying degrees. How people are tied into their dog’s declining mental health is subjective, objective and variable.

CDS is a progressive, age-related neurogenerative disorder similar but not identical to Alzheimer’s disease in people.

A recent study showed the age breakdown in older dogs who are affected:

  • 8–10 years old: 3.4%
  • 10–12 years old: 5%
  • 12–14 years old: 23%
  • Over 14 years old: 41%

What Are the Symptoms?

Borrowed from a new study, the acronym DISHAA can help you and your veterinarian assess your own dog:

  • Disorientation
  • Interaction with people or pets altered
  • Sleep/wake cycles altered
  • House soiling, learning and memory altered
  • Activity changes
  • Anxiety and signs of fear

Most of my CDS patients exhibit waking up in the middle of the night, staring into corners or not being able to back out of a corner, forgetfulness, new anxieties, and/or house soiling.

Since our geriatric patients are more prone to many other diseases, coming up with a diagnosis of CDS should be made with your vet after a full medical assessment and discussion of the changes you see in behavior and mentation.

NeuroCare diet can help dogs lead high-quality lives in their golden years. By: sally9258

Medical Intervention Available

There is no “cure” for canine dementia. If you haven’t consulted your vet yet, think about these medical possibilities that may be suggested:

Diets and Supplements

As certain dogs and people age, they suffer from age-related inflammation in the brain and the inability to convert food and nutrients into necessary brain energy.

NeuroCare, a new diet developed by Purina Veterinary Diets, may offer these older patients some new hope.

A recent study showed some promising results: A majority of dogs with CDS showed some improvement after 90 days of eating this diet exclusively. The diet also meets the nutritional needs of our older pups.

The composition of NeuroCare diet includes MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) and a blend of nutrients including arginine, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins.

MCTs produce ketones, which are an alternative energy source for the brain. In certain Alzheimer’s patients, MCTs have improved brain function.

Why Not Just Supplement MCTs?

MCTs are found in coconut oil, palm oil and dairy. MCT oil alone is also available.

Claimed health benefits of MCTs are numerous: weight management, better brain function, improved metabolism and digestion, protection from bacterial and viral infections — and the list goes on.

So why not throw a scoop of coconut oil into old Roger’s food bowl? I wish it were that easy.

MCTs and supplements work best when part of a whole nutritional plan. For some of us who love pizza, pasta or carbohydrates of all shapes and colors, it would be great if we could load up each morning with some MCT oil, antioxidants, omega-3s, some POMI juice and a few other supplements, and head to McDonald’s for a breakfast sandwich and eat a deep-fried lunch.

But supplements added to a crappy diet or a diet that can’t be metabolized easily won’t work.

If advanced research can give us nutritionally balanced pet diets — where the rest of the ingredients don’t eradicate the benefits of MCTs, vitamins and supplements — I’m all for it. Most nutritionists believe these diets work best if fed exclusively.


Are there any real drugs that help with canine cognitive disorder?

  • L-Deprenyl can prolong dopamine activity and also break down free radicals in the brain. Vets try this for several months and ask pet caregivers if they see any improvement. The cost of L-Deprenyl has recently increased, as have so many other medications, because of the greed of Big Pharma. Personally, I try this medication for a few months if clients are on board with the plan, but I remain skeptical of its efficacy in many cases.
  • Propentofylline is a drug that may help treat dullness, lethargy and depression in old dogs.

Simply stated, it may be easier to treat your dog with a diet he likes rather than shoving lots of pills down his tired muzzle and supplementing home-cooked or other dog food.

We do not have a specific drug to “fix” CDS, but the list of drugs and supplements used to lessen the symptoms of CDS is long: Neutricks, Senilife, melatonin, selegiline, omega-3s, SAMe, Novifit, MCTs, antioxidants — a lot of medications.

CDS patients may also require medications to treat concurrent diseases. Add medications to treat specific symptoms of CDS, like anti-anxiety meds, sleep aids and incontinence drugs, and you have a lot of medications to administer.

Good and unbiased research, although in early stages, shows promise for “brain” diets. I think they are worth a try.

And don’t forget that enrichment, stimulation and love are some of the best medicines for your CDS patient. That goes for all our pets!

Anxiety and Sleep Disorders

Depending on the symptoms and severity of signs, you can try a number of drugs to reduce anxiety during the day or at night:

  • Drugs such as trazadone can help our pets who are acting like “nightstalkers” in the middle of the night.
  • Other medications can be tailored to your pet’s individual geriatric cognitive problems.

These drugs, like all medications, are not without possible side effects. They can be dangerous if used in conjunction with other drugs.

Many of our geriatric patients are taking medications for a multitude of problems. You and your vet need to carefully discuss using medicine for canine aging, pain, anxiety and sleep disorders.

To get an idea of how this condition can affect a dog, watch this video of a 16-year-old terrier named Cricket:

YouTube player

Bottom Line

Many of my clients are struggling through different levels of old dogs losing their minds.

In the end, this always comes down to quality-of-life issues, for both dog and person.

The anxiety level of your older pup and loss of house-training seem to be the biggest quality-of-life questions we face as we share the human–canine bond.

What is “acceptable” or “doable” or fair, to human or canine, is an ethical and a personal decision. I am hopeful that you share a good enough rapport with your vet to keep talking and discussing these tough issues.

I have seen many people with an 18-year-old dog where I must tell them that nothing seems to be failing in their dog’s ancient buddy but the brain and/or the will to live.

The question comes up: “What would you do, Dr. Deb, if this were your dog?”

  • Is he enjoying life?
  • Are you enjoying watching him struggle or enjoy life?
  • Is living life in constant anxiety or turmoil an OK way of life?

Guess what? There are no right or wrong answers to those questions, but if you know your dog and you know your heart, you’ll make the right decision for both of you.


  • Landsberg, G. “Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome: What’s New on Diagnosis and Management?” Clinician’s Brief. April 2017.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated Dec. 17, 2018.