Yes, sadly they do......here's some advice from those I've owned over the years. I’m sorry for this blogs length, but its an important one, but I didn't want to do it as several parts as its such a sad topic. If its not relevant to you, don’t read it, but if it is, I really hope it helps you.
This blog is in 3 sections:
A bit on dementia and its symptoms
A bit on interacting with a dog as humans and other dogs in the home
And sadly, a bit on knowing when it is time.
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (Canine Dementia)
Also known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. There is speculation about the cause but in my mine its like an old engine slowing down and connections between vital parts become blocked or slow down.
Dementia is an awful disease. My grandfather lived with us for his later years in life and his dementia journey was certainly an experience. His dementia wasn’t a bad dementia but it was dementia non the less.
Why say “his” dementia, well, everyone’s brain is different and one persons journey won’t be the same as another. Our brains make us individual and thus when our brains short circuit and slow down that will be our individual experience. As with any disease, there will be similarities which may tell you which part of the brain is affected but there will also be wild differences. The same applies to our dogs.
How can someone have a good dementia? Well, he laughed more than he cried, he forgot his upsets quickly and just started again. Yes some days he had scary hallucinations, but many others were exciting for him. It was tough on us though, he was my person growing up and I cherished the days he was lucid.
It certainly seemed true that dementia is harder on the caregivers than the person themselves, I suppose that really is the kindness. That said, I’ve worked in care and specifically chose to work with dementia patients and I have seen some people live through bad dementia, where fear and frustration ruled. Bouts of aggression, anger, frustration…..but what I found is this was mostly fear and an inability to express themselves normally. For anyone living with someone with dementia, I highly recommend the book "Contented Dementia" by Oliver James. It really helped us understand things.
Anyhow, why am I talking humans, when I am here for the dogs? Well, dogs can’t exactly tell us how they are feeling so I feel our experiences of dementia with humans are key to helping animals also suffering from it.
Please note the advice below should absolutely not replace that of a veterinary professional, they would always be my first go to. Other illnesses can present very similarly and it is important to get a diagnosis from your vet and not Doctor Google! The below is also based on my personal experiences with several dogs and many humans rather than academic learnings.
Symptoms of dementia can include:
Regression in toilet training
Low energy or lack of engagement where there may have been previously
Waking at night
Not understanding previously known cues
Staring at walls or space
Forgetting they’ve eaten or forgetting to eat
Changes in behaviour – potentially aggressive displays
Obsessive licking or chewing (including themselves)
One of mine regressed to a puppy behaviour and eats certain toys whole! So changes or regressions in behaviours possibly once seen as puppies is also on that list! Her mild dementia has proved rather expensive as she has seems to find the source of the disappearing odd socks! She is still with us thanks to my vets! Her newest behaviour is preferring to sleep outside (not a dachshund) which is fine in the summer, less so when its freezing outside! She has also taken to digging, something she never did even as a pup! But hey, she enjoys it! Crack on!
Anyhow, you see why a vet confirming diagnosis is so important. The above separately or several symptoms together could indicate many things, some of which can be treated! There are some medications, supplements and specific dietary changes you can add to aid their journey which a vet or clinical nutritionist can advise you on. Talking to a homeopathic or holistic vet may also support your dog on this part of their journey. Similarly after this you may find working with a qualified and experienced behaviourist to help support you and to help them make it easier.
Here’s some things I’ve done with mine over the years to help them:
1. Avoiding sudden changes, changing their routine, moving house, sending them to a friends when you go away could cause great confusion. Instead try to keep things the same, if you are going to move house try to keep a space of familiar smelling items to hand and set up their new space to make it as easy as possible for them to navigate. Instead of sending them to a friend, can the friend stay at yours? If you do need to make changes, can you do it gradually? As they age they may lose their sight and hearing so are lead by their scent. This may mean washing their bedding less regularly so they can find their way.
2. They often seek out a quiet dark area. I remember one of ours would disappear into the smallest room in the house and make a den under the desk. This became her safe space as she got older and lost her sight. Letting them lead will show you what they need to feel safe. A pop up crate where you don’t need to zip up the door, a teepee, a blanket under a side table with a soft bed underneath.
3. If they are losing their sight or become afraid or disorienctated in the dark putting a mat or rug near doorways can help them anticipate the door through the changes of texture. Putting non slip mats down to help them feel more comfortable on slippery floors, especially near areas like doors, the sofa and their bed will give them confidence when they first stand up. Putting on a nightlight could also help. Restricting access to certain areas to prevent them getting lost makes a difference too.
4. If they still enjoy their walks and are fit, keep walking them within their limitations, taking them on gentle sniffy walks, keeping them on lead so the lead gives some security to them or hire a freedom field, but if they are too confused for long walks, go outside in the garden and sit with them, give them a blanket to lie on or soft bed if they prefer and have a cuppa if its nice out. Be led by them. These moments are precious. I remember sitting in the park with one of mine, just watching them watch the world go by, sharing my lunch with them and just being with them, that was enough and satisfied all her needs. You may find they enjoy going out in a stroller. Some do not and find the movement disorientating so bear this in mind!
5. If they are forgetting what they have been taught, keep them safe. Keep them on lead so they don’t wander off after the wrong set of legs or up to a dog. Remember they may also forget the way they communicate with other dogs, and how other dogs communicate with them so guiding them to help them is essential (more on this later). If it helps them, and they are regressing in toilet training, put pads down in the spots they tend to venture in, but do take them outside frequently.
6. Whilst they may withdraw from other dogs in the home, or the other dogs them, which is totally normal, they may become more clingy to a specific person in the home. Where you can, be available to them. These moments are precious, enjoy those licks and curling up with you.
7. You will probably find they sleep very deeply, especially if they're hearing is less, possibly finding yourself watching carefully to see if they are still with you, you may lift a paw which flops out of your hand making your stomach lurch, this is normal (and I warn you, its horrible!) When they are sleeping deeply. Let them. Try to discourage children and other dogs from playing around them. Ensure no one suddenly scoops them up or jumps on them, 'letting sleeping dogs lie' is important anyway, but one who is in a deep sleep and wakes up suddenly that is already disorientated may well snap. If you need to wake them, call their name gently if you need to, and gently rouse them from their slumber. Be cautious and gentle. You may find dropping a piece of ham in front of their nose will rouse them more quickly if you are worried they might snap.
8. They may become food obsessed, they may go off food, they may become extra fussy. Let them! I have found splitting meals into frequent smaller meals with their favourite things mixed in works well, often preferring softer textures, and ensuring they have some water mixed into their food as they may forget to drink. I remember the doctors telling us to put ketchup on all my grandads food as apparently the taste buds lose sensitivity. I don't know how true that was, but for a man who hated ketchup, he certainly seemed to enjoy it on his food during his dementia!
9. If they become snappish I’d get the vet to check them for pain. If they become anxious discussing anti anxiety medication may be worthwhile to help them through this difficult disease, again tell your vet. It may be useful to video some of their behaviours to show your vet exactly what is happening. Identifying areas where they are struggling and creating a management strategy alongside a behaviourist is always a good move.
10. A cheap baby camera will help you monitor them from afar whether you are upstairs or had to nip into the garden without them. Especially if its a nice day and they're outside relaxing.
These are just some things I have found useful with the dogs I have owned over the years who have slowed down mentally there are many more things you can do. Please feel free to add comments to share your experiences.
What about how other dogs cope? To be honest, I've found the dogs tend to know before we do.
Much like us there may be a bit of initial confusion, frustration even but they do tend to accept the changes usually by giving them the space they need. It may feel like they are ignoring the other dog, but generally its giving them what they ask for. It is down to us now to fill that gap with the other dog to help them prepare potentially for the loss of their friend, even if they are still with you, they will gradually withdraw.
Working on building their confidence as individuals without their older friend, doing solo walks, doing bits of appropriate 121 training activities and play with each dog separately so both needs are met. Scentwork for yboths dogs is wonderful to do, but working to different needs and encourages independence from each other. Guiding your savvy dog to do something relaxing around the other is super important. Feeding in separate rooms to prevent anyone feeling under any pressure. You may need to separate for chews.
Also remember your dog who is slowing down will most likely not see/hear/understand another dogs body language and way wander straight into the face of its mate with its bone not hearing the warning growls its displayed. We often forget the importance of understanding a growl and the consequence of ignoring it. Whilst they are not deliberately ignoring it, they are missing vital canine cues which can lead to problematic behaviours including avoidance, depression and anxiety.
Your dog may not see that play bow and paw as an invitation and feel threatened by the fast approach and bouncy body language. Managing their interactions and really understanding both dogs body language and needs is imperative to a peaceful co-existance in this new normal and prevent them isolating themselves to prevent conflict. The dogs will adapt, but you may struggle where things may change daily. Encourging your other dog to move away if approached and appearing uncomfortable, giving them a space to retreat to if you do see some less friendly behaviours.
It is important to keep in contact with your vets regarding changes so they can support you, changes in medications, non invasive tests to ensure nothing treatable comes up all will help you support your dog.
When is it time? The hardest question you will have to answer as a doting owner!
Watching them slowly fade away is awful, I won’t lie. In humans they call it The Long Goodbye, and that is so accurate! A moment may come where you just know but sometimes you just aren’t sure and sometimes you'll change your mind hourly! But a vet gave me these questions to help me make a decision many years ago, with my first childhood pup Ruby.
1) Are they going to get better?
2) Are they happy?
When you get to this point, and its a clear no to both, it really is a matter of when you are ready, but remember at this point, in my personal opinion, it is always better a day early than a day late.
If you are in this position, don’t feel guilty, call the vets, tell the receptionist how you feel and go and discuss things with your vet. Just yesterday, I was convinced we were saying goodbye to one of ours for different reasons. Thankfully I completely trust my vet, who suggested a change of pain medication. Less than 24 hours later she is brighter, it may be a small reprieve but she may well get better afterall, even if just for a short time.
But, if its that day, that time.... I usually ask for the end of surgery so its quieter if possible, go with them, hold them until the last moment and then sob. To have dementia, hopefully, they have given you many many years of love and friendship. This is our way of saying thank you for being our best friend. Its hard, of course it is, but the vets have seen it so many times, they will leave you to hold them for as long as you need after and usually they will ‘light’ a candle in the waiting room asking people to be quiet and respectful. I have had that candle lit too many times, and whenever I see it for someone else, I say a prayer for love, strength and safe travels to Rainbow Bridge.
I know you probably have shed a few tears now, I have too, its been a hard year for losing dogs for me this year, and rakes up all the ones I've lost over the years. Call this my therapy. You know I always try to keep things light and fun, but dog ownership is full of highs and lows. Sharing my experiences as an owner as well as a behavioural professional I hope, even if its just one person will make this part of ownership a bit easier.
The PDSA have some excellent resources for helping us with grieving our dogs, and resources for helping children come to terms with it too:
They also recommend the following resources:
“Absent Friend: Coping with the loss of a treasured pet” by Laura and Martyn Lee, published by Henston Ltd. (ISBN 978-1850540892)
“Companion Animal Death” by Mary F Stewart, published by Butterworth-Heinemann (ISBN 978-0750640763)
“A Loving Farewell” by Davina Woodcock, published by DogSense Publications (ISBN 978-0954163600)
“Goodbye, Dear Friend” by Virginia Ironside, published by JR Books Ltd. (ISBN 978-1906217938)
Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) Freephone - 0800 096 6606 Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
PDSA National Collection of Pet Memories Freephone 0800 591248
Cat's protection "Paws to listen" free and confidential grief support service Freephone - 0800 024 94 94
“Missing my pet” by Alex Lambert, published by BGTF Ltd (ISBN 978-0955411816)
For more information on dementia in dogs I found this article useful: Managing Dog Dementia & Canine Cognitive Dysfunction | Hill's Pet (hillspet.com)