Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CCDS)

Elizabeth Adkins, DVM, MS, DACVO
NSCA Health Committee Chair

There is increasing concern among dog owners, breeders and veterinarians about a condition called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CCDS).  This is a condition in which the dog’s cognitive function deteriorates.  Cognitive function consists of memory, learning, perception and awareness.  Symptoms that are often observed when cognitive function is reduced include disorientation, forgetfulness (loss of house-training), altered interactions between the dog and the people or other pets in the house, anxiety, fearfulness, and a diminished ability to learn.  There are some similarities in dogs with CCDS and humans with Alzheimer’s disease.  It is important in dogs suspected of having CCDS that any medical conditions that can cause similar behavioral changes to be ruled out.  Diseases that can cause similar symptoms to CCDS include cancer (especially brain tumors), infections, anemia, blindness, deafness, arthritis and major organ failure (liver, kidney, or heart).  Behavioral conditions that can cause similar symptoms to CCDS are separation anxiety, fear biting, other phobias, marking and types of aggression.

Most cases of CCDS are not diagnosed in dogs less than eleven years of age1 although some dogs will demonstrate a reduced ability to learn and a reduction in memory as early as seven years of age.  Males and females appear to be affected equally.  Early symptoms can be subtle and not detected by owners.

The diagnosis of CCDS can be confirmed with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and analysis of a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) sample.  In dogs with CCDS the MRI will show atrophy of the brain and enlargement of the normally fluid filled spaces in the brain.  The CSF sample should be normal and if it is not normal additional testing should be done to determine the cause of these abnormalities (infection, cancer, etc).

One study examined brain tissue of dogs of various ages.2 Many of the tissues in the brains of the older dogs were affected by physical and chemical changes that are considered age-related and could contribute to the changes observed in CCDS.

An oral treatment available for CCDS is the drug selegiline (brand name Anipryl).  One study looked at this drug in 641 dogs with symptoms of CCDS.3  Over 75% of these dogs demonstrated an improvement in their symptoms after 60 days of treatment.  Anipryl should not be administered concurrently with certain drugs including phenylpropanolamine (proin), ephedrine, tricyclic antidepressants (clomicalm), amitraz (mitaban dip or Preventic collars) or fluoxetine (Prozac) or other serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). 

Dietary supplements such as fatty acids and anti-oxidants may also improve cognitive function in older dogs.  Environmental enrichment such as interactions with other dogs and people as well as daily playing with toys may improve learning ability and cognitive function in affected dogs.

Unfortunately there is not a great deal of scientific information regarding this syndrome.  What information is available may be incorrect since this diagnosis is often made without ruling out other medical or behavioral conditions that have similar symptoms to CCDS.  With additional research and information, treatments aimed at preventing or slowing the progression CCDS may become available in the future.

  1. Salvin HE, McGreevy PD, Sachdev PS, Valenzuela MJ.  Under diagnosis of canine cognitive dysfunction: a cross-sectional survey of older companion dogs. Vet J. 2010 Jun;184(3):277-81. Epub 2009 Dec 14.
  2. Borràs D, Ferrer I, Pumarola M. Age-related changes in the brain of the dog. Vet Pathol. 1999 May;36(3):202-11.
  3. Campbell S, Trettien A, Kozan B. A noncomparative open-label study evaluating the effect of selegiline hydrochloride in a clinical setting. Vet Ther. 2001 Winter;2(1):24-39.


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