Can Animals Get Alzheimer’s?

As our loved ones age, it’s natural to wonder about their mental health. Are they suffering from dementia now – or will they in the future? But, have we considered our older pets? We take them to the vet for hip dysplasia, but have we thought about their mental state too? Studies show our pets are more like us than we’ve realized – in both their emotional and cognitive functioning.Can Animals Get Alzheimer's?

Can animals get Alzheimer’s? What can we do to help them through this challenging time? Learn more.

Studies Show Pets are People, Too

A recent New York Times article illuminates what many of us have long suspected: our canine friends are far more than warm and welcoming family members. In fact, they may be more like young children than pets.

The article is heartwarming as well as heartbreaking, but more importantly, it poses a whole new, very important, question: as our dogs and cats age, what will their mental needs be? Will we become caretakers to our pets and caregivers to our loved ones?

With advances in modern veterinarian medicine, domestic dogs and cats often live long enough to develop cognitive dysfunction. Our domestic pets live in safe, controlled environments, have healthy diets and access to great medical care. Although little data has been collected on older animals in the wild, if they were to develop dementia-like symptoms, they likely wouldn’t survive very long after.

If You Have an Older Cat

How do you know if your older cat has dementia? Is your older cat behaving erratically? Does he or she wail in the early hours of the morning, begging for attention, yet their food bowl is full or perhaps they seem confused? Do they sleep more than they used to – or, conversely, are they up at all hours of the night?

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh now believe half of all cats over the age of 15 and a quarter aged 11 to 14, are suffering from “geriatric onset behavioral problems.” The same team was also the first to discover cats could suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

Their research involved scans which showed changes to the neural system of confused elderly felines were similar to those seen among humans with the conditions. They identified the same beta-amyloid protein present.

If You Have an Older Dog

How do you identify dog dementia? Does your older dog sleep more during the day and less at night? Does he or she pace or wander aimlessly? Do they have trouble finding the door or get ‘stuck’ in familiar places like behind furniture or in corner? Do they forget their old tricks?

Jennifer Bolser, chief clinician at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado, said veterinarians are seeing more cases of cognitive dysfunction syndrome, commonly called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD).

An ongoing study performed at the University of California-Berkeley has shown that 62% of dogs between ages 11 and 16 demonstrate one or more signs of CCD, and the percentage goes up as dogs get older.

Recognizing the Signs of Alzheimer’s in Your Pet

The most dramatic signs owners might notice are dogs “acting disoriented, walking in circles, or staring into corners or [at] the wall.”

Other symptoms include aggression, changes in sleep patterns, loss of interest in family members and inability to control urination or defecation “in more than just an incontinent way — almost like they’re forgetting how to be house trained,” Bolser said. Cat owners might also notice their pets yowling at random times of day.

Other illnesses have to be ruled out, though, before cognitive dysfunction is definitively determined.

“Usually it’s a diagnosis by exclusion,” Bolser said. “If everything else is checking out normally,” it probably is cognitive dysfunction.

Helping Our Older Pets Live Better Lives

Bolser says that although there isn’t a cure, there are ways to manage cognitive dysfunction and help your older pets live better lives.

“Keep your [pet’s] brain active, even at an older age,” she said. “Teaching them new tricks, getting them outside and challenging their brains with new environmental stimuli is very important to helping the brain not deteriorate as quickly.”

Also, adding antioxidants to their diets can help with brain health. A prescription diet fortified with antioxidants, fatty acids and L-carnitine is available, she said. There are also some medications, the main one being selegiline, which has been used as an MAO inhibitor antidepressant in people and is also sometimes used for human Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients as well, Bolser said.

Mizejewski has some personal experience with CCD, having lost two dogs to old age. The keys to keeping them alive and healthy, he said, were regular exercise, mental stimulation, social interaction and a good diet.

Ultimately and not surprisingly, the same common sense approaches to keeping a person with dementia as healthy as possible also apply to our pets. We love them as people: that won’t change.

How have you helped your aging pet live a better life? What did you learn from your senior pet about caregiving? Share your story with us in the comments below.

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Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • The Cat Lovers

    I just ask the question the other day of my husband if cats can suffer dementia, we have two males brothers 15 yrs. old that do some crazy things that are unusual, but both check out as fine at the Vet. We had a cat that lived to 22, one that was 17 and one 16, and never saw the crying, needy attention seeking, picking on each other, and general getting getting into things with those cats as these two in the past year.

  • lynda ditchburn

    Our cat is 19 years old and i”m sure still has a few lives yet. He has always been demanding for attention but this past year it has increased. When he was about 10 My ex husband passed away in the bathroom and Toby and Casper were found in the corner of the hall because the door was closed. They had been there for 2 days before they were found. After that whenever we closed the bathroom door he would sit outside and meow until you answered him. Then he settled down for a few years but today he came upstairs (which he never does) and litterally demanded I open the door. He came in and did a whole inspection of the bathroom then sat in front of the shower til I opened the curtain so he could see no one was there. Then looked at me like he was looking for John and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t there. I’m positive he has alheimers . He is also doing a lot of the same things as when he was young.

  • Julie Frey

    I definitely think our last dog “Pal” had doggie Alzheimer’s! In fact I use to always say that she had that! The last few months of her life she would pace around the house most of the night. We have mostly hardwood floors so I could hear her all the time. Needless to say no one was getting very good sleep at that time. She would sleep all day and then be up at night. She also had bad arthritis! She lost most of her hearing too. I would help her with stairs, especially in our cold winters. Arthritis is sooooo bad in the cold winters. She would also get that kind of “vacant” look in her eyes too. I’m sure that dogs get some kind of dementia.

  • Yadier

    We rescued a dog when she was 5 years old and we have had her for a couple of years and now she is acting very differently, she will be sleeping and raise her head up and start barking and when we arrive home she more often than not have a blank look on her face, the other day my husband was petting her and you could tell that she was liking it then the next thing you know she was growling at my husband as if she had no idea who he was. When we let her outside she normally wanders around our neighborhood and everyone know her so it’s no issue but a few times my neighbors have called me saying that she was at their house lookin very scared and don’t seem to know where she’s at

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  • Ellie

    Our dog is now 16, and there is no doubt that he has dementia. He’ll walk around the house at night, just walking back and forth forgetting where he just was. He’ll stare into the wall and doesn’t ubderstand which way the doors open. He’ll get stuck in the strangest places, and beg for food when there is a lot left. He’ll even state at himself in the mirror for ages, which he justed to just ignore. He also has many other signs of old age, such as a bad hip, sight and hearing, but luckily he still shows signs of joy. Some times he even seem to remember things, and suddenly becomes as if he was a young dog. He doesn’t always seem to recognise us, but it really helps him if we lay him down and let him smell familiar smells for a while, he usually recognise them after a while

  • Lindsey

    How do you know if your dog has Alzheimer’s or is just blind? Wouldn’t they still get stuck in corners etc? Our poor old dog is awful. He can’t see or hear and quite often has accidents in the house. I just don’t know if he has much quality of life…I’m struggling with the idea of putting him to sleep. I feel like most people think it should’ve been done already. Thoughts, anyone?

  • lolo

    OMG. I was just asking the question. I really didn’t think that I would actually get an answer. My poor cat, Teka, I’ve had her since bring her home for the animal shelter, and that was almost 15 years ago. All the symptoms that were stated in the article I think that she is experiencing. I going to take her to the VET tomorrow. I hope that she is not suffering, I don’t want her to suffer

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