Our boy Mic’s symptoms were so subtle and their onset so gradual we didn’t initially see them. In fact, our other dogs noticed them first.

Mic, a Pembroke corgi then 12, had always embodied good “dog manners.” He’d never met a dog who didn’t like him. Suddenly, he was enraging his packmates. We sympathized; his nighttime barking was fraying our nerves, too.

A number of vet visits and lab tests revealed nothing, and Mic continued to decline. But when his spatial perception deteriorated, we realized he was acting like some elderly people and concluded, almost tongue-in-cheek, he had “doggy dementia.”

Turns out we were right.

Leticia Fanucchi working with dogs Moli and Mic
CCD researcher Leticia Fanucchi working with Moli and Mic. (Courtesy Susan Cain)

Though many veterinarians and dog owners are unaware of it, canine cognitive dysfunction, or CCD, affects a significant portion of the senior dog population. While CCD has become more apparent as dogs live longer thanks to advances in veterinary medicine and improved owner care, as many as 85 percent of cases are undiagnosed.

“It’s a big issue, and there’s not much awareness of it, even among vets,” says Leticia Fanucchi, a veterinarian and director of Veterinary Medicine Behavioral Services at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “I get that question—‘Dogs get dementia?’—even from colleagues.”

CCD is an age-related neurobehavioral syndrome leading to a decline in cognitive function. It can be devastating to the pet/owner relationship, with dogs sometimes even forgetting their people.

“CCD is a degenerative process similar to Alzheimer’s in humans,” explains Fanucchi ’15 PhD. “Confusion, affected social relationships, changes in activity level, apathy, increased anxiety, compulsive behaviors, restlessness, fear of familiar objects and people, aggression, and changes in sleep-wake cycle, as well as house soiling and excessive vocalizations, are all symptoms.”

As with human dementia, causes of CCD are not well known. But accumulations of sticky proteins called beta-amyloid plaques around neurons, and the breakdown of neurons resulting in so-called neurofibrillary tangles, are considered leading causes. As in humans, both phenomena impact the brain by interrupting nerve impulse transmission.

When we recognized the possibility of dementia in Mic, we discovered Eileen Anderson, whose book, Remember Me?, and website, Dog Dementia: Help and Support, are invaluable CCD resources. But it comes with a warning.

“The most important thing to understand is that any apparent CCD symptom could also point to a serious—and perhaps treatable—medical condition,” Anderson stresses. The first stop, she emphasizes, is the vet.

But when standard tests reveal no medical cause for dementia symptoms, it’s time to consider CCD. However, dog owners may find that at least initially they’re on their own, as CCD is not yet widely understood in the veterinary community. A good option may be a veterinary behaviorist, such as WSU’s Fanucchi.

Canine dementia cannot yet be reversed. However, CCD can be prevented and, failing that, its symptoms minimized.

As with humans, prevention in the form of lifelong holistic care is key. But at some point in every dog’s life, routine preventive care must be fine-tuned with the specific aim of preventing CCD.

“It’s essential to begin treating CCD before its signs first manifest because CCD’s early symptoms are very subtle, almost unnoticeable,” stresses Fanucchi. Timing varies depending upon size, as larger dogs tend to live shorter lives.

“Begin giant breeds at age five, small breeds at ten, others in between,” explains Fanucchi.

According to Fanucchi, CCD treatment involves management of behavior and environments, enhanced diet, and medication. Its dual goals are slowing the disease’s progress and improving quality of life for dogs and their people.

“Behavior can be effectively managed by providing daytime activities and opportunity for play, and structured social interaction for physical and mental stimulation,” says Fanucchi. “Exposure to sunlight will help regulate the sleep-wake cycle. If they can’t walk anymore, use a wagon or a stroller. Anything to get them sunlight and stimulation.

“Managing the environment is very important,” she emphasizes. “Make it more predictable. You pet-proof the house just as you’d toddler-proof it.”

Providing adequate toileting opportunities is important, as old dogs can’t hold it as they did when they were younger. Diapers and pads can be helpful.

Nutrition options for senior dogs fall into two categories, commercial and natural. Commercial foods—offered by Hill’s, Purina, and Royal Canin—focus on the addition of antioxidants for cellular-level health and medium-chain triglycerides for cognitive improvement.

Dennis Thomas, a holistic veterinarian in Spokane and author of Whole-Pet Healing, acknowledges commercial foods’ benefits but advises a different course.

“I don’t recommend heat-processed food for dogs. I recommend feeding a balanced, wholesome natural diet with the same beneficial supplements added.”

The pharmacological approach to CCD treatment focuses on control of oxidation and enhancement of brain function. The antioxidant supplement SAMe has proven effective in both preventing CCD and moderating symptoms. Antioxidant nutritional supplements such as Denamarin, Silybin, vitamin E, Cholidin, and omega-3 fatty acids can be added to any diet, as can Solliquin, an amino acid that can reduce CCD-related anxiety. However, no supplement should be added to a dog’s diet except under a veterinarian’s guidance.

The drug primarily used to treat CCD by improving brain function is selegeline (Anipryl), thought to improve brain chemistry by reducing the removal of dopamine and other neurotransmitters.

“I encourage looking for alternative forms of treatment as well as the conventional,” says Thomas. “I prefer to treat this disease with acupuncture and Chinese herbs, supplements, diet modification, and energy medicine.”

Judging by Mic, the approaches described here can work. A natural diet augmented by SAMe and other supplements improved his cognition. Thanks largely to acupuncture and Chinese herbs, his formerly debilitating physical deficits were controlled. Treatment eliminated his nighttime barking and, under supervision, his packmates tolerated him. He lived nearly two mostly happy and relaxed years after the onset of CCD.

But had Mic’s symptoms not improved, we would simply have followed Eileen Anderson’s golden rule.

“All that matters,” she says to anyone who will listen, “is to love the dog in front of you.”