When my best friend’s dog, Archie, was diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, I promised Clare I would find out all I could about the syndrome. I turned to Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM, for assistance — mostly because she has written extensively on the topic  (see the “Related Reading” section, below) but also because she’s a really nice and helpful person.

I posed the questions; Dr. Tobiassen Crosby provided the answers.

What is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) is a fancy way of saying senior dementia or age-related senility. In general, the hallmark of this condition is confusion and disorientation. There are many other diseases that can cause similar signs (hypothyroidism, diabetes, brain tumors), so it is important to rule out other potential medical reasons for altered mental capacity first.

Is it similar to human Alzheimer’s in the way it destroys the brain or, despite similar symptoms, is it a very different disease in dogs?

Yes, there are similarities in that scientists have seen amyloid (a type of protein) plaques in the brain in senior dogs. They have found that these protein deposits affect some areas of cognition in dogs as in humans, but not all areas and types of learning.

For more information, please see “Beta-amyloid accumulation correlates with cognitive dysfunction in the aged canine” at PubMed.gov.

What are the symptoms of CCD?

Confusion and disorientation in a variety of circumstances including:

  • Altered relationships with household humans and pets, as well as visitors to the home. The formerly friendly dog may become aggressive, tense, anxious, or vice versa.
  • Getting “lost” in a corner or behind a door; after asking to go outside, seeming lost upon getting there.
  • Losing housetraining skills.
  • Vocalizing (barking, whining) inappropriately or excessively.
  • Panting and restlessness, especially at night.
  • General confusion between day and night.

At what age does it usually occur — and are certain breeds more disposed to it?

The age of “senior” varies with the breed: younger for large breeds and older for small breeds. There are also individual and breed differences. For example, seven is considered senior for a Great Dane, and twelve to fifteen is senior for a miniature poodle.

Pfizer, makers of Anipryl (selegiline HCl) for CCD, cites these statistics on their web site (note: CCD is sometimes called CDS, for Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome):

In one study at the University of California-Davis, 62% of 11- to 16-year-old dogs showed signs in at least one category of CDS.[1,2] In a pet owner survey, nearly half of dogs age 8 and older showed at least one sign associated with CDS.[3]

I do not know of any breed predispositions to CCD.

How does a vet test for CCD? Does the test determine how advanced the condition is?

There isn’t a test for CCD. The most common method is via owner observations, including a history of what is happening in the home. It should be stressed that a geriatric physical exam plus bloodwork, urinalysis and possibly radiographs need to be performed prior to diagnosing CCD. As mentioned above, there are several medical conditions that mimic the CCD signs, and they must be addressed prior to treating for CCD.

Here is an owner checklist for CCD.

Once a CCD diagnosis and treatment plan have been established, the veterinarian can monitor progress with this behavior form.

What are the treatments, if any — alternative as well as prescription? How effective have they been?

Opinions are mixed on treatments, both standard Rx and alternative. Individual differences/responses to therapy also come into play. The first and best-known medication is Anipryl. Here is a recent comment on my About.com blog about this drug:

I started my 14-year-old Bichon on Anipryl last week after reading and identifying his symptoms (and having the vet verify) early stages of dementia.  The effects were almost immediate!!!  Nights were the worst because he would pace and pace and pace, but at 9PM the night of his first 1/2 pill, he was sleeping soundly and peacefully!!! I am so thankful for Anipryl and pray that you all have the same success we did.

You can see all comments on this post here.

New evidence, similar to findings in humans, suggests that antioxidants in the diet may promote cognitive health and slow the process of decline. Nutritional support products for pets include Senilife by Ceva and b/d Diet by Hill’s pet foods.

Are there ways to prevent the onset of CCD?

Keeping pets active, physically and mentally (fight boredom with training exercises and interactive toys) and at a good weight throughout their life helps prevent CCD and promotes overall health. Also, practicing preventative health — visit with your veterinarian at the first signs of behavioral or medical changes.

Related Reading:

Anipryl® – Help for Senior Pets?

Senior Dementia in Dogs – Common Signs of Canine Senility

Readers Respond: Living with a dog that has senior dementia

Celebrate Senior Pets

Pfizer site for CCD and Anipryl


1. Neilson JC, Hart BL, Ruehl WW: Cited in Hart BL, Hart LA: Selecting, raising and caring for dogs to avoid problem aggression. JAVMA, 210(8):1129-1134; 1997.
2. Ruehl WW, Hart BL: Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. In Psychopharmacology of Animal Behavior Disorders (Dodman NH, Schuster L, eds.). Boston: Blackwell Scientific, 1998; pp. 283-304.
3. Proprietary market research, 1998. Pet owner sample size: 255. Data on file, Pfizer Animal Health.

Bio: Dr. Janet Tobiassen Crosby writes the About.com Guide to Veterinary Medicine and the Vet Med blog at K9Cuisine.com. You can read more about her at both sites.

35 thoughts on “Canine Cognitive Dysfunction: A Vet Explains”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Canine Cognitive Dysfunction: A Vet Explains -- Topsy.com
  2. Oy. Well, this is very informative, and good information to have for future reference. While this may or may not be relevant, I share it here. I just finished reading a NYT article about brain function in mid-life: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/30/the-talents-of-a-middle-aged-brain where I added the following comment, (perhaps applicable to dogs? too? Perhaps what is keeping Ellie young is keeping the pack (Teddy and K.C.) in line):
    #104. May 2, 2010 12:24 pm Link “You (Wells) wrote, ‘One of the most intriguing findings is that if you talk to people who disagree with you, that helps your brain wake up and refine your arguments and shake up the cognitive egg, which is what you want to do.’

    How exciting to know that arguing with people will help you keep your mind in good working order – when all along I thought I was losing mine!

    1. I think I heard that on NPR — and like the idea that a good argument or discussion keeps you mentally alert. I guess the question is drawing the line: when does an argument cross over into destructive anger and stress? I think it must tie in with the mental stimulation that Dr. Tobiassen Crosby mentioned, but dogs are so bad at backing away from a good argument!

  3. Wow – what a great post! Thanks go out to you, Edie, and to Dr. Tobiassen for doing this, and for all the thorough links here…it is good to hear that, even with mixed results, there is something that can relieve some pups distress and confusion. This is a real keeper:)!

    1. I was overwhelmed at the amazing job Dr. Tobiassen Crosby did. When I submitted my questions, I told her to feel free to skip those that she didn’t have time to deal with or information about. She skipped nothing, and answered everything with complete thoroughness. My only complaint: she’s raised the bar way too high. Now I’m going to expect other guest posters to live up to her high standards!

  4. Now that I’ve picked myself up off the floor (prodded by Archie’s cold nose, of course) I have to say I completely concur with your previous commenters: excellent questions by you, comprehensive and lucid responses by Dr. Tobiassen Crosby. At Archie’s next vet appointment (1.5 weeks from now) I will raise the prospect of giving him the Alzheimer’s drug. On the positive side, I can say THANK DOG Arch doesn’t have any personality shift (though he has the other indicia). On the guilt zone violation side, Am I Boring My Dog into senility?

    1. You did indeed violate the guilt-free zone, but you did so by giving my book a plug, so I’m not sure which rules apply. Seriously, when a dog is more than 16 years old, he needs to be bored, as in left alone to get his rest. I can attest that, in his pre-arthritis days, you couldn’t have given Archie more days at the beach or more hikes than you did. But if you’re feeling guilty you can get him an educational toy. In fact, Mary Haight of DancingDogBlog.com and I are going to co-sponsor a contest to win one of those cool (but pricey) Nina Ottosson toys. You can alleviate your guilt by entering.

  5. Our vet uses Novifit (brand name of one of the SAMe/antioxidant supplements) to improve cognitive function in dogs. There seems to be evidence that this supplement does bring results.

  6. There is also a great section on cognitive function in of the Dr. Stanley Coren’s books. It describes how cognitive function is affected by stimulation. A study in rats showed that not only the level of mental stimulation affects the physiological state of the brain, but it even can be reversed to some degree with introducing new stimulation.

    This could also possibly explain why older dogs live longer and healthier lives when a younger dog is introduced.

  7. Call me cranky. I notice that you have fewer than usual comments on this article even though it is of vital importance and contains invaluable information. Allow me to caution all your readers with younger dogs: this is something you will wish you had already known when the time comes! Okay, I guess I really am cranky, but I want people to understand how great the doctor’s information is, and that I wish I’d had it long ago. Thanks.

    1. You have every right to be cranky, what with Archie having CCD, but the comments don’t always reflect readership (though they sometimes do). In this case, behind-the-scenes data shows that a good number of people read the post. It’s tough to know what to say on a topic like this.

  8. Great information Edie (and Dr. T!). Question – for purposes of diagnosing CCD, when does a dog reach a “senior” age? Is it the same for how we think about our dogs’ ages for other purposes?

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  10. My 11-y.o. Britney Spaniel has started pacing through the house, morning & night, walking in circles (12-20 times before lying down) and having accidents in the home. We get up 2x a night to let him out. He had testing done last year and had high amounts of protein in his urine; he also has a heart murmur and hypothyroidism. Currently taking Enalapril & Synthroid, along with Glucosamine/Chondroitin for joints.
    He looks “lost” when looking at me and has periods of shivering. He was a rescue dog when we got him 5 years ago and initially was put on Prozac for extreme separation anxiety.
    Do his new symptoms sound like dementia or CDS?? Would appreciate your input.

    1. Poor pup. Poor you. The symptoms sound like dementia, but you’d have to get a vet to confirm. The vet who wrote this article hasn’t monitored the comments in a while, and she would not be able to give a diagnosis based on an email description in any case. Sorry I can’t provide anything but sympathy and good thoughts.

  11. I have a 12 year American Cocker Spaniel…he’s been anti social with me and
    Sleeps during the day and paces around the house at night, he has also been peeing in the house and walks around like he has no idea what to do.
    I believe he has CCD and he’s going to the vet for confirmation. I have read many things with different results as to the effect of Anipryl, I’ve heard that it has som bad side effects that questions If it does anything for the dog. And on the other hand it really helps others.
    I’ve also heard it’s expensive and only prolongs life, I dont want Buddy to suffer so I would appreciate some advice.

    1. Hi there Jessica –

      I, too, have a cocker spaniel who is experience the symptoms you mention. The idea of my dog suffering is the hardest. How do I know if I am making the right decision for him or am I making it for me? I’ve got Max on eye, ear and arthritis medicine. We have a great routine and he goes to doggy day care every single day and has since I brought him home from the shelter when he was 9. He has had separation anxiety and I have hardly let him be alone since I brought him home. I always wanted him to have a good dog life and with this coming on, I need some help deciding what is the best for him and his quality of life.

  12. Wow – what a great post! Thanks go out to you, Edie, and to Dr. Tobiassen for doing this, and for all the thorough links here

    1. That’s really difficult to say without knowing your dog — do you think she is enjoying food? sunshine? walks? people? Some dogs, like some people, are happy in their dementia. Many are not. I wish you the best in this difficult time.

  13. I found some of the information above very interesting, prompting me to try harder to find out whats wrong with my little dog.

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