Important Note: This article has been checked and verified by a professional veterinarian for accuracy. However, you should always seek advice from your own vet before making any decisions on euthanasia as there are never black and white answers for this decision.
To be clear, dogs don’t get Alzheimer’s, but they can suffer from a similar condition called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). However, many owners do call this condition Alzheimer’s or dementia, when in fact the correct term is for the similar condition in dogs; CCD. Because of that, the author uses the terms interchangeably in this article – but it is all referring to CCD.
This article was originally written by a dog owner, and was then subsequently checked by a vet.
Seeing a best friend, whether that be man or dog, decline as a result of Alzheimer’s is undoubtedly an exceptionally difficult and harrowing experience for anyone to go through. When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, it can knock you for six and leave you wondering just how long you have left with your beloved dog. And then there’s the difficult choice you may have to make about euthanasia – when should you put down a dog with Alzheimer’s?
When to put down a dog with dementia? If your dog seems to be rapidly deteriorating, shows worrying symptoms and overall appears to be having a poor quality of life, that is the could be the right time to consider putting them to sleep. Please consult with your vet for professional advice as each case is different.
When to euthanise a dog with Alzheimer’s (personal experience)
A neighbour of mine recently found out that their own dog, which they have owned since they were a puppy, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It was an incredibly difficult process which involved a lot of hard decisions, which in turn inspired me to write this article.
Ultimately, as a degenerative disease, Alzheimer’s is a terminal illness. However, that doesn’t mean dogs need to be euthanised at the moment of diagnosis. In fact, research has shown that almost all senior dogs live with a degree of dementia.
What is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CCD)?
When owners describe Alzheimer’s in their dog, it’s typically regarding a similar condition called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (see definition). Just like Alzheimer’s in humans, we still at this stage aren’t entirely sure what causes it. What we do know is that it often occurs when dogs reach a senior age, and that research has also suggested that a genetic history of CCD (ie. A dog’s parent having the disease) makes it more likely for it to happen to your dog.
Essentially, in dogs that have CCD, a protein in the brain called beta-amyloid accumulates to the point that it produces plaque. Nerve cells in the brain also die off as a result of CCD, and the dead cells are replaced with spinal fluid.
These processes in turn cause pathological changes in the brain that severely impact and slow down the mental processes and functioning of dogs. As a result of CCD, dogs will lose their memory: they may forget you, their owner or forget tricks and training that they learnt earlier in life. Dogs with CCD also tend to have a reduced motor function.
Signs of CCD in dogs
To help maximise their quality of life, an early diagnosis of CCD in dogs is crucial. It allows for more intervention, therapies and medication which can’t stop the disease, but can at least slow it down. It is recommended by vets to look out for some of the following symptoms in conjunction to one another if you suspect your dog has CCD:
- Decreased interest in going outdoors/exercise
- Unusual or inappropriate vocalisation like whining, howling or barking
- Seeming ‘spaced out’
- Staring at walls
- Decreased interest in /response to stimuli
- Increased levels of anxiety and a lower threshold for aggression
- Engaging in repetitive behaviours such as circling or pacing
- A lack of interest in social interaction (ie. petting, grooming and playing)
- Appearing disoriented – they seem to have trouble getting around the house and seem to forget where things like doors, corners and furniture are
- A change in their sleeping cycle – sleeping all day and being restless throughout the night
- Defecating indoors, seemingly forgetting previous housetraining they have done
In the early stages of CCD, the symptoms tend to be a lot more subtle. They can be anything of the above to a mild or less noticeable degree. You might put some of these minor changes down to your dog just ‘getting old’, but it may well be CCD – if you’re not sure, here are things to look out for.
Generally, if you notice any kind of change in your dog’s personality or you just feel something isn’t right, go see your vet anyway – it’s better safe than sorry.
When is the right time to put a dog down with Alzheimer’s?
One of the early stages of grief is denial. If you have developed a close bond with your dog, you might in turn struggle to consider what life will be like without them, and as such refuse to face that it is time to put your dog to sleep even though you may know logically this is right thing to do.
Of course, denial is a natural emotion to feel as part of the grieving process, so if you find yourself doing this don’t feel too guilty or beat yourself up.
The primary thing you need to consider is whether your dog has a suitable quality of life. Is he able to function? Does he have more bad days than good days? Does he seem in pain/depressed? These are all questions you need to consider when you’re thinking about whether or not it is time to let your dog go.
When you’re considering whether or not it is the right time to put your dog with dementia to sleep, you should look out for symptoms of advanced CCD which reflect a lack in their quality of life. This includes pacing, circling and defecating indoors.
But, it is important to remember that you don’t have to make this decision alone. Your vet will be there to guide you and assess your dog from an objective perspective, meaning that you can feel assured the choice you make is the right one.
Handy Hint: If it’s not yet the right time for your dog, you can take steps to make their life more comfortable. Here’s how to help your dog with dementia sleep at night and live a more comfortable life.
How do you treat CCD?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for CCD. There is, however a variety of treatment options that can mask the symptoms, slow the progress of CCD and help to improve the overall quality of life for your dog.
One treatment option is therapy with the objective of symptom masking, which can include new toys, new exercise regimes and teaching your dog new commands. If you don’t know where to start with this, consult a professional dog-trainer.
Other people have reported changing your dog’s diet (Prescription diet Canine b/d® is now available which is quite successful) as a helpful tool in treating CCD. Specifically, some foods can increase cell membrane health and improve memory.
Finally, there is medication. prescribed by your vet. Some drugs will work by adapting the brain chemistry and subsequently improving the cognitive function in your dog.
Other questions you might ask
At what age are dogs most likely to get CCD?
CCD is most common in dogs at a senior age – so typically 9 years of age and up.
What is the life expectancy of dogs with dementia?
From the day of diagnosis, the life expectancy is approximately two years. But, this depends on how far the disease has progressed at the time of diagnosis. If your dog is diagnosed when the disease is at an advanced stage, it might be less than two years, or vice versa.
Overall, there is no rule of thumb about when you should put your dog with Alzheimer’s to sleep. It is ultimately up to you to assess their quality of life and how much they are suffering, and to have a conversation with your vet and other professionals to come to the conclusion that is best for your dog.