Dogs Can Get Dementia (And It’s Sad)

Dottie, my thirteen year old English Setter, is going through a change: she’s quite literally losing her mind.

All creatures go through this change at a certain age and, for Dottie, a creature who is the human equivalent of 74, she is getting dog dementia. She is constantly pacing around the house, uncomfortable, unsure where she is. She’s content to be locked away, asleep, for hours at a time in her house. She is increasingly surprised or taken aback by pets due to a decrease in sight and hearing. She spots, she loses control of her legs, she is sensitive to everything, and she generally isn’t aware or comfortable with what is going on.

Yes, she has always been a high strung dog but this recent incarnation of her eccentricities is entirely unique. It’s different. It’s the onset of something and the symptoms seem to be getting more and more pronounced. Dog dementia—or, technically, “Canine Cognitive Dysfunction“—is very common. All dogs, like people, are afflicted by some cognitive impairment at some point and it is possible for these animals to exist with the condition for some time. It is sad and a fitting metaphor for that which will befall us and those around us. As I always tell people at this point in a dog’s career in life, they are great lessons for us: they teach us how to handle our loved one’s and ourselves as we age.

For an idea of what Dot’s condition is getting to, Dr. Lee Harris explains a common situation in The Washington Post.

Fido doesn’t forget where he put his car keys. But he may not remember which door he uses to go out to the yard. The same inability to evaluate behavioral appropriateness may prompt a person with dementia to disrobe in public, or a dog with dementia to eliminate in the house without hesitation. Many dogs with cognitive dysfunction wander restlessly all evening in a manner reminiscent of the “sundown syndrome” of Alzheimer’s patients. And most significantly, finding familiar surroundings strangely unfamiliar often triggers anxiety and agitation.

That is Dot’s seeping problem: she seems to always be lost or confused, increasingly surprised that myself or Bobby will show up “in this place.” She hasn’t completely given into anxiety but she gets antsy and we have to step up to offer a sympathetic literal hand.

The symptoms of the illness are abundant and I can see them getting more and more pronounced. If you have ever lived with an old dog, you can probably vouch for this regression into a strange puppy like state. But know that things will change and, in some ways, get steadier. I found that in the below video which, honestly, is something you should watch if you want to simultaneously learn more about this problem while crying because it is such a tender, upsetting video. (It’s also compounded by the fact that the terrier in the video—named “Cricket”—looks just like my Scooter.)

Sadly, everything dies. The way out is pronounced and it is as obviously painful as we might imagine it to be. For dogs, the end is no different. That’s why we have each other: to make the inevitable a little easier, even if it will be painful and messy and full of tears.

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