Is There Such a Thing As Doggie Alzheimer’s?

Dog owners sometimes refer to their senior dogs as having “doggie Alzheimer’s” but it’s more accurate than most people know.

Veterinarians have known about a similar condition, canine cognitive dysfunction, for several decades. A study in 1996 established a relationship between certain behavioral changes in senior dogs with physical brain changes.

Some of the behavioral changes include

  • disorientation
  • changes in social interactions (usually getting shy with or forgetting their humans, or drawing away from their former animal friends)
  • sleep disorders
  • loss of house training
  • changes in activity level
  • memory loss, and more.

Some of the more common observable behaviors are

  • the dog forgets how to go through doors
  • stands around seeming dazed
  • goes to the bathroom just after coming inside the house
  • wanders haphazardly
  • walks in circles (see the video at the bottom of this post)
  • faces walls
  • or gets stuck in corners.

But is canine cognitive dysfunction really doggie Alzheimer’s? Is it the same as Alzheimer’s in humans? The answer is a cautious “yes.”

dogs with cognitive dysfunction and humans with Alzheimer's both get beta amyloid plaques in the brain

Beta amyloid plaques in the brain–image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Human Alzheimer’s and Doggie Alzheimer’s

The image above is beautiful but the subject is not. It is an image of the microscopic “plaques” that form in the brains of humans with Alzheimer’s and dogs with cognitive dysfunction. That’s right. The same thing happens in the brains of both our species. This particular image is from a human brain. Plaques are not a good thing. They mix up normal cognition.

Cognitive dysfunction in dogs is so close to human Alzheimer’s that dogs are used as test subjects to learn more about the disease. This is a double-edged sword. Most of us don’t want dogs to be experimented on. But because the conditions are so similar, the advances in research on human Alzheimer’s may help us learn more about canine cognitive dysfunction and work towards a cure.

And much of the research isn’t so bad. There are many survey-type studies and studies with pet dogs to gather data. And there is the hopeful work at the University of Sydney that may actually be reversing the symptoms of dementia in dogs using stem cell transplants. This is coming from a joint research team on both dog dementia and Alzheimer’s. The subjects are beloved pet dogs who are healthy enough for anesthesia and get a second chance through the stem cell transplant.

Humans with Alzheimer’s get another common brain abnormality: neurofibrillary tangles. It was formerly thought that dogs with cognitive dysfunction didn’t get these. But they are now being found in some autopsies of dogs. They are less common than the plaques. Some scientists believe that the disease doesn’t get as advanced in dogs as it does in humans because they don’t live as long as we do. That would be an explanation for their not getting the full range of physical brain changes that humans get.

dog with Alzheimers resting on a bed

Luckily, Cricket never had severe sleep disturbances. That can be one of the hardest things for dogs, people with Alzheimer’s, and caregivers to deal with.

So yes, our dogs do get something like Alzheimer’s. But we can’t diagnose it ourselves. Too many other conditions can share the same symptoms. If you notice changes in your senior dog’s behavior, please take her to your vet for a checkup. And keep in mind the actual name of the condition: canine cognitive dysfunction.

Wandering: A Symptom Humans and Dogs Have in Common

In this video, my dog Cricket has moderate cognitive dysfunction. She still shows a little bit of intent when she walks. She stops to sniff things and she comes back to me for a treat and when she is startled. So it’s not completely aimless, but it’s getting there.  You can see her do some circling and wandering. (A year later when she was in the yard she would just always go downhill, where gravity took her.) She had severe hearing loss at the time of this video. This is probably why Zani’s barking startled her. She was used to a fairly silent world, but she could hear that sudden bark. She came to me and I carried her up the steps into the house. She had lost the ability to navigate steps, and mine are steep.

Link to the video for e-mail subscribers.

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

9 thoughts on “Is There Such a Thing As Doggie Alzheimer’s?

  1. Not specific to this post, but I received your book for Christmas last year & it helped me with my 17 year old Chewy the Rat Dog.. Thank you! 💕

  2. My beloved River was put to sleep 14 months ago because she was taken over by dementia. She would hit a wall and stand there until I moved her, she couldn’t eat until I held her food in a dish and held it under her mouth, she’d walk in circles forever if I didn’t stop it. It broke my heart because she was my best friend for 16 years.

    • Mildred, I’m so sorry. A lot of people on this site have had similar pain. It can be heartbreaking. I’m very sorry for your loss.

  3. Loved my Jack Russell. I hope other people don’t keep them as long as I did because looking back I can see where she was suffering and I couldn’t part with her. That was pure selfishness on my part. There was no more tail wagging or playing anymore.

    • Mildred, it is very generous of you to say this. It is one of the hardest decisions in life to let a dog go. It’s so easy to keep them “just a little” longer because we love them so. But thank you for saying this. I have started to follow the: better a week too early than a day too late. Dementia really tests us about that. Hugs.

  4. I think my dog Raven is in the early stages. His hearing is almost gone, and his sight has suffered. He sometimes stands and stares into space. He has begun peeing in the house so i use pee pads, yet he goes in the same spot not all over the house thank goodness.. However with all this he still comes to me for a cuddle, he follows me around, he is still eating normally and he still finds enough energy to chase the cats. I know his time is coming soon, he is 15 years old. He is my best freind.

  5. My sweet little 14-year-old rat terrier mix best friend, Sassy, developed CCD. I had no what was happening till one night I realized that she had forgotten how to hold her nightly chew bone, and a Google search located this website and Eileen. I thank God with all my heart for that. I was shocked at first, but then it all made sense. Got her on Anipryl, which helped some and gave us 4 more good months. She brightened up, seemed less anxious, and started drinking again (she had become intermittent and confused about that, refusing to drink from anything but a puddle outside.) Still, it gradually progressed. She literally forgot how to eat at times. standing there looking hungry but staring at any food item confused. I fed her by putting peanut butter and dog food mix on the roof of her mouth, which she was perfectly fine with until one day when she looked at me, wouldn’t swallow, and basically told me “it’s time.” She stopped drinking the same day, and passed away at home about 48 hours later. I thank Eileen more than she could ever know for her book and website. God bless all of you in your journey with your babies. It was worth every moment, and I’d do it all over.

    • Always good to hear from you, Amy. Thank you so much for your kind words. It’s an honor to have helped a little with dear Sassy.

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