Stages of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Black and white dog asleep in uncomfortable position at base of chair. She was in the severe stage of canine cognitive dysfunction

Canine cognitive dysfunction is a disease that is caused by brain changes in aging dogs. It’s similar to Alzheimer’s. A recent study identified three stages in canine cognitive dysfunction.

  • Stage 1, MILD: Changes in sleep patterns and slight changes in social interactions with owners.
  • Stage 2, MODERATE: Hyperactivity at night, starting to lose house training, and starting to require special care.
  • Stage 3, SEVERE: Dramatic behavior problems including aimless wandering, barking through much of the night, lack of responsiveness to their family, and significant house soiling.

If your dog has canine cognitive dysfunction, these stages can help you understand the progression of the disease. The research may be able to indicate how much time your dog has.

Research on the Stages of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

These stages were determined in an observational study (Madari et al, 2015). The researchers took data on the occurrences of 17 different behavioral symptoms in a large group of senior dogs. They grouped the symptoms into four categories:

• Spatial orientation. This included such behaviors as disorientation, aimless wandering, and failing to recognize everyday objects.
• Social interactions. This included changed behavior towards family members, less exploration and other interaction, irritability, and aggression. There was also reduced response to commands or cues.
• Sleep-wake cycles. This included both insomnia and the opposite, hypersomnia, where the dog slept an abnormal amount. It also included abnormal behaviors during the night such as wandering and barking.
• House soiling. This included not only elimination in inappropriate locations but also the loss of the normal ways to signal elimination.

The researchers recorded the frequency and of the symptoms in the different categories. They also noted when each symptom appeared. This information allowed them to divide the progress of CCD into three stages.

Dogs in the mild stage had generally not been identified by their owners as having any problems.  This finding implies that most dogs with mild CCD do not get diagnosed at that stage. The main problems in the mild stage were slightly changed social interactions with their owners and changes in sleep patterns (e.g. sleeping more in the daytime).

Dogs in the moderate stage tended to show obvious loss of house training and often were hyperactive during the night. Their owners definitely noticed behavior changes, and the dogs needed more care.

Dogs in the severe stage had problems in all four of the categories. Their owners reported behavior problems that were difficult to deal with. These included things like aimless wandering, barking through much of the night, lack of responsiveness to their family members, and house soiling.

A white and brown terrier stands with her face next to the wall. IT was not clear what stage of dog dementia she was in because she was also blindThe study also found that progress from mild to moderate cognitive dysfunction was rapid. About a quarter of the dogs who had initially been diagnosed with mild cognitive dysfunction had progressed to moderate dysfunction in six months. This portion rose to half the dogs at the one-year mark. This is roughly five times faster than the progression of human Alzheimer’s. The scientists remarked that that might be related to the fact that dogs’ lifespans are about one-fifth of ours.

The message for dog owners is that the symptoms of cognitive dysfunction typically worsen, and often pretty quickly.

How the Stages of Dog Dementia Progressed for My Dog

My own Cricket’s first symptom was a change in social interaction with one of her best human friends. At the time, we couldn’t figure out why Cricket suddenly acted afraid of her. We thought she had just gotten generally more anxious. Just as in the study, Cricket had a symptom, but I didn’t recognize it as such (and didn’t know about canine cognitive dysfunction). She was probably in the mild stage of dementia at that time.

In about a year, Cricket started wandering, standing in odd places, and losing her house training. This corresponds with the moderate stage. We were lucky that she never had bad sleep disturbances.

In her final year, Cricket had most of the problems listed in the study and was clearly in the severe stage. She wandered and circled, and forgot where she was going. She defecated freely. She had trouble remembering how to eat. She slept in odd places (see top photo). But she had lost the anxiety, probably through the help of the medication she was on, and did not seem stressed. She still had a good quality of life even when her capacities were diminished.

What Stage of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Does Your Dog Have?

Identifying the stage of a dog’s dementia can yield an idea of the possible progression of the disease. But remember, every symptom that could be canine cognitive dysfunction could also be something else. So, if your dog has not been diagnosed but you think she might have the disease, you need to speak to your vet.

You can’t diagnose your own dog. But here is a printable symptom checklist. You can print it, fill it out, and take to your veterinarian if you are worried that your dog may have dementia.

If she does, or if she just needs more care because of age, my book has lots of tips for helping her.


Madari, A., Farbakova, J., Katina, S., Smolek, T., Novak, P., Weissova, T., Novak, M., & Zilka, N. (2015). Assessment of severity and progression of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome using the CAnine DEmentia Scale (CADES). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 171, 138-145.

12 thoughts on “Stages of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

  1. I did not know about CCD before I put her to sleep. She had symptoms of diabetes and possibly cataracts. I did a lot of research on CCD after I put her down and realized she did have CCD symptoms long before I noticed anything. She lived a good life for 14 years. She has been gone 6 months and I still miss her very much.

    • Dennis, I’m so glad she had 14 good years. From what you’ve written today and before, I know how wonderfully you loved and took care of her.

  2. Sadly, I was uninformed about canine cognitive dysfunction. He was always a bit “off” even when young. At 6 yo he had a severe – almost deadly – reaction to his annual vaccinations. Good thing I was still at the vet’s office.
    I have read some information that much of this deterioration could very well be somewhat due to the many vaccinations, flea/tick remedies, soaps, sprays, and any procedures that require anesthesia. My poor dog had them all – I thought I was being a good dog parent. I over medicated him for sure. Seemed there were more and more vaccinations and pills and topicals to bombard his tiny little system with.
    I feel the last straw was the last dental he had.

    I apologize to his memory daily.

    • Barbs,

      I’m so sorry. But I think you **were** being a good pet parent. We never know which dogs things are hard on and which will sail right through. And I know every procedure and RX you had done was for a good reason. Hugs. I know that you gave him a great life.

  3. I’ve been attempting to find a way to write to you Eileen because I just can’t thank you enough for what you and your book and all of your work and demonstration through Cricket did for me and my dog Henry in his last few months. Your guidance and teaching gave us some very precious time that we would not have had without you. You gave us games together, comfort for him, empathy for me, tips and tools, and per your suggestion, so many photos and videos that I will cherish always ( I wasn’t always so good at that and took so many that I now have forever and would not have had). Although other health complications caused his time on the CCD journey to be so much shorter than I had hoped, I couldn’t have done it without you and I was very much alone in it. I was prepared for all that happened and ready with whatever he needed because you, a stranger, was out in the world unknowingly giving me tremendous support. Every dog owner should be required to read your book as soon as their pup is born and every vet office should have a stack. I am lucky to have found it in my own because of my own commitment to providing the best care for my dogs. Thank you. I am forever grateful.

    • Dear Ali, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I can’t even tell you what this means to me. It’s a privilege to have helped. I’m just sorry you didn’t have more time with Henry. Thanks again.

  4. Eileen, could the Miniature Schnauzer Club of Canada have permission to reprint this article in our newsletter?
    Thanks !!!

  5. Thank you for creating this blog and site. We have a dog with CCD and have found this site to be an invaluable, comforting resource!

  6. Our sweet little Jack Russell Terrier Jamie is now 16 and has had CCD for almost a year now. She’s in the severe stage now according to your staging. She doesn’t know who we are or where she is more than half of the time now. She has good days and bad days of eating. She soils everywhere, wanders around in circles and like a zombie, gets stuck in places, and stares at walls. It’s so hard for me to think about putting her down. We have had her since she was 6 weeks old. She’s our baby and has gone everywhere with us her whole life except for 3 vacations. She always slept with us in our bed until about 3 months ago. She doesn’t know who we are most of the time and also falls off the bed because she doesn’t know she’s on a bed. I pray that she just goes peacefully in her sleep but I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s tearing me up that I have to make the decision to “kill” her. I am really struggling with this. However, I know that my Jamie wouldn’t want to live like this. I don’t know what to do. The hardest part of all is when she doesn’t recognize me and is afraid and shakes.

    • Jacqui I’m **so** sorry this is happening. This is when it’s the hardest, and it’s something everyone has to make their own decision on. I will respect any choice you make because it’s so clear how much you love Jamie. Hugs to you.

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