When Your Senior Dog’s Mind Starts to Fade, These Things May Help

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/Flickr

In this article, we’ll discuss some medical suggestions on how to preserve your older dog’s mental state. In other words, you will learn what can be done to improve canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD).

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.”

Ya think? So does that mean your dog is:

  • Stuck in a corner of a room and can’t find his way out?
  • Misfiling some papers at the office under the wrong letter?
  • Having some problems discussing the New York Review of Books?

All snarky comments aside, 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.

Medical Intervention Available

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

1. Neutraceuticals

SAMe and omega-3s may improve cognitive function. Check these out and, if interested, look into other cognitive support products.

Names to check out: Novafit, Neutricks, Senilife.

2. Medications

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. Veterinarians 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 licensed only in Europe and may help treat dullness, lethargy and depression in old dogs. A drug like this often becomes available in the United States shortly after. We’ll keep you posted.

3. Diet

“Brain” diets include antioxidants and omega-3s. Some suggestions include b/d from Hills and Active Maturity from Purina.

My feeling about this? There is no right answer about a “best” diet for a particular condition. Raw diets, natural diets, grain-free, homemade diets — there may be great benefits to any or all of these. I believe in the power of antioxidants and high-quality omega-3s to help with canine cognitive dysfunction, however you want to do it.

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 rat terrier named Cricket:

Bottom Line

Many of my clients are struggling through different levels of old doggies 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.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Feb. 4, 2015.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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