Living with a Demented Dog…Or Canine Cognitive Disorder

short haired norman Here at Little Old Dog Sanctuary, the top five most common senior dog ailments we have to deal with on a daily basis are…

  1. Blindness
  2. Deafness
  3. Arthritis
  4. Dementia
  5. Heart Murmurs

Out of those five, the one that can be the most perplexing and difficult to endure (for us, as well as the dog) is #4. Dementia. Not all senior dogs suffer from dementia, but I would say a lot of them do start to show some symptoms if they live long enough. There are so many variants of dementia I have come up with my own five categories, in order from mild to severe.

  1. Long Ago and Far Away
  2. It’s a One Way Street and the Road is Closed
  3. Stranger in a Strange Land a.k.a. Lost in the Kitchen
  4. Ring of Fire
  5. I’m Stuck Under the Armoire and as Soon as You Rescue Me I’ll Do It Again

Let me explain these a bit further.

Long Ago and Far Away: This one isn’t too bad and may actually escape your notice unless you are actively looking for it. The equivalent in people would be when you get up and leave the room to get something and then you find yourself standing in the next room with a faraway look in your eyes. You are scanning the room, waiting for something to trigger your mind to explain why the hell you are there. And then you go back to your original room, a little confused without whatever it was you intended to get or do. I find myself doing this several times a day, so I am certainly an empathetic caregiver.

It’s a One Way Street and the Road is Closed: The dogs who exhibit this behavior have lost their ability to go in any direction other than forward. If they get stuck behind a door or in a corner or even behind a shoebox sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty room, they are hopelessly trapped until you can come to the rescue. We had a 20 year old Dachshund named Walter who suffered from this. We were constantly having to rescue him, although “rescuing” him generally consisted of pointing his body to the right, left, or picking him up and turning him around. As soon as he was re-directed, he would be on his merry way, wagging his tail, as if nothing had happened. These dogs aren’t actually physically stuck, but they sure are mentally stuck. Their brains are just like Han Solo when he was frozen in a Carbonite block. But, unlike Han, even the magic of Hollywood can’t help the escape the path their brains are taking. Once the dog goes down this one way street, there is no turning back.

Strangers in a Strange Land…a.k.a. Lost in the Kitchen: These dogs usually start out with the less severe “Long Ago and Far Away” malady, but eventually they take it to the next level. We have a 21 year old terrier named Norman who has elevated this to a high art form. Every day, without fail, when the bell tolls 5:00…DINNERTIME. Needless to say, this is tied with breakfast for the most popular time of the day for the dogs at the Sanctuary. Norman has eaten his meals in the bathroom twice a day for several years…yet every now and then it is like it is his first day in our house. He is coherent enough to realize he is supposed to be excited so he runs and jumps around and is really happy and wags his tail; but sometimes he no longer participates in his regular routine of going through the gate and down the hall to the bathroom. He just jumps around in circles in the kitchen, staring at the cabinet or barking at the dishwasher. I have to pick him up, carry him to the bathroom and literally stick his face in the food bowl. He reacts as though I, some stranger, has given him a totally unexpected and very special treat. When Norman first started doing this, he would recover after a day or two. Now his regressions take longer to recover from. But, really, in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a huge inconvenience for us. And it’s Norman, so we are truly happy to accommodate him!

Ring of Fire: “Ring of Fire” is not only a song recorded by the late, great Johnny Cash, but also what I call when a dog has to circle. And I do not use the term “has to” lightly! The circling can be mild or very severe, and the difference is profound. They typically circle in the same direction…though in the mild form they will sometimes go both directions. I call it Ring of Fire because some dogs do it so fast and obsessively and follow the exact pattern, it is like rubbing two sticks together and you think the floorboards will catch fire. Picking the dog up doesn’t help…they HAVE to circle and you HAVE to let them. My most affected dog was named Edgar. He could, and would, circle for hours and hours. Day and night. In all honesty, if Edgar had been walking on rusty razor blades or burning hot coals or rose petals or sunshine, he wouldn’t have known the difference and it wouldn’t have encouraged him nor thwarted his effort in any way. Circling…it was all the same to him. Just a compulsive behavior he had no control over. Now, old dogs can get something called “Old Dog Vestibular Disease” in which they want to circle, but typically the circling is accompanied by a rather severe head tilt and a stumbling gait. Ring of Fire is NOT that. ” Also, circling that is caused by seizures, diabetes, etc. is accompanied with a staggering gait, much like a drunk who just got thrown by a mechanical bull headfirst into a concrete wall and proceeded to do 50 summersaults in an effort to stand up. Clumsy and unpredictable. Whereas dementia induced circling is an exact, perfectly metered and precise exercise done with intense focus and determination. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that it could almost be considered an actual sport. And if it were, the Olympic judges would all have given Edgar a “10,” except for the Russian judge who would have given him a “9.5.”

I’m Stuck Under the Armoire and as Soon as you Rescue Me I’ll Do It Again: This is by far the most severe and problematic of them all. Luckily most dogs die before their dementia gets this bad. This malady is a combination of dementia and a head injury; neither of which will ever improve. The symptoms are degenerative; they only get worse. Now, care should be taken to make sure that “Stuck Under” isn’t confused with “One Way Street.” The “I’m Stuck” dogs are good at one thing, and one thing only. They get themselves stuck with seemingly suicidal tendencies. Continuously. And, boy, do they work hard at it. I’ve only ever had two of these dogs. One was named Baby Rose. She was tossed out of moving car on the highway, thus her head injury. The other was Lucy. Lucy had an unknown past…a past apparently unknown to her as well as to us. Initially it seemed like Lucy suffered from a mild form of doggie amnesia. Then she began to decline. Soon, she didn’t know who she was, who we were, what was going on, where she was, or even how to eat and drink. But she DID know how to get stuck. Under, in, behind, around, on top of. If it was theoretically possible to get stuck in something, she would. She had a small cage she slept in and she was forever “stuck” in one of the corners. The biggest problem we had with her was that her cries were all the same. She could have her head wedged in the corner of the room, or she could have her head wedged in the spindles of the rocking chair. Her bark indicated either nothing of substance, or it indicated an impending matter of life and death. But it was usually the latter. Like the time she got under the couch and spelunked up inside of it so far we had to cut the back off the sofa to get her out. More random occurrences include the time when she was able to somehow pull the plastic cover off the dryer vent outside and got her head stuck in the vent tube. The very next day, she got her head wedged between a “V” shape made by two lodgepole pine tree trunks. Yes, who would have thought you could kill yourself on pinus contorta that way? And we only have about 4,000 of them on our property. So, suffice to say that she was banned from the yard after that incident. But it didn’t matter. She found just as much trouble inside the house. Her main trick, day in and day out, would be to wedge herself under this really heavy armoire with a gap that was only about four inches off the ground. We would have to lift it up to rescue her, usually injuring our own bodies in the process. But really, the worst part of having an “I’m Stuck” dog is that they have no fear and no common sense. And having that combination is very, very dangerous. Because Lucy was often in precarious and life threatening situations we had taken to following her around all day long and being at her beck and call. And call she did…about every ten minutes.

Besides these five categories, the other signs of dementia can include:

  • Housebreaking issues.
  • No longer greeting family members or seeking out attention…or, conversely, becoming super-needy when they never were before.
  • Mixing up their days and nights. Yep…this one is pretty unpleasant to have to deal with. It is much like sundowners in people.
  • Vocalizing.

Now, before you sink into a pit of “Oh no! My dog has dementia” induced despair…keep in mind that a lot of the above-mentioned behavior can be caused by other things, especially if it comes on suddenly. One thing worth mentioning is that usually dementia comes on gradually. If you witness symptoms of dementia that have SUDDENLY started, it probably isn’t dementia. Sudden onset dementia-like symptoms could be:

  • Going blind
  • Going deaf
  • Going blind and deaf
  • Adverse reaction to medication
  • Kidney issues
  • Untreated diabetes
  • Seizures
  • Brain Tumors
  • Poisoning

Hmmm. After writing that list I’m not sure that dementia isn’t preferable to most of those issues. Anyway, I want to point out that if your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms, take it to the vet. I’m not a vet, I don’t claim to be a vet, and I’ve never played a vet on television or in a stage play. I’m just a crazy dog lady passing on decades of experience in living with and caring for old and messed up dogs. There is a medication that vets can prescribe for doggie dementia. It is supposed to be able to help about 50% of dogs who use it. It is called Anipryl and is the same medication they give to people with Parkinson’s disease. But here’s the deal, and I’m just going to throw this out there. I’ve tried it on more dogs than I can count, and I have never, ever, EVER seen ANY results from it. I’ve tried it on mild cases and severe cases and everything in between. Nothing. Another one of the caveats with Anipryl is that you have to administer it for several months before it will work, which means that if your dog only has a few months to live, you’ll never see any results. Now, as much as it hasn’t worked for me, this doesn’t mean it won’t work for your dog…give it a try. I mean, it’s a pretty inexpensive medication, so why not? The other thing I’ve seen recently is a specialized dog food that is supposed to help prevent your dog from getting dementia to begin with. When I get my dogs they are already too far gone for this type of thing to work, but people with younger dogs may be interested in this approach. I will say that this dog food is made by Purina…and I’ll just leave it at that and you can grapple with the corporate and philosophical implications on your own.

Okay…so now what? Well, unfortunately my answer to this isn’t going to be helpful or inspiring. Actually, for some of you who are reading this, it’s going to be more of a kick in the pants. You, the caretaker, are just going to have to suck it up and deal with it.

That said, here are some things that we’ve found helpful in sucking it up and dealing with it…

Invest in some dog diapers. And if you think you have a dog that won’t wear a diaper, these days they make some that even Houdini couldn’t get out of. Get yourself a playpen. They are soft, secure, easy to clean and your dog really can’t get hurt in one. We’ve found it works much better than a kennel and gives them space to circle if they need to. We bought our first one at a garage sale for $5. We now own several. And the last and probably most helpful piece of advice I can give you…just keep in mind that you may find yourself in this very same state someday. A state of being lost in your own kitchen and in need of a diaper. And it may even be sooner than you think. Remember that fact, and be as nurturing, helpful and as loving to your dog as you can. So take a deep breath, gather in and garner up all the patience you can muster, and remember the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere.” Hang in there!

If you liked this post and would like to read more funny, heartwarming stories about living with a bunch of old dogs, consider purchasing our new book, “Little Old Dog Sanctuary -Happily Ever After.” All proceeds help us take care of these senior dogs. The book is available in our shop.