Can Dogs Be Mentally Handicapped?

Dogs are highly intelligent, intuitive, and emotional animals. If you have a dog, you have no doubt that your dog feels big feelings and can suffer from the effects of those emotions with disorders like anxiety. But can dogs be considered mentally handicapped?

Can Dogs Be Mentally Handicapped?

There are many different ways a human can be considered mentally handicapped. Whether they were born with a genetic disorder or they suffered a severe brain injury, the severity and type depends on the specific cause.

There’s a common misconception going around that dogs can be autistic (and that autism is a mental handicap when it really isn’t). Some dogs are less social than others, and while an autistic human may not have social skills like everyone else’s, that doesn’t mean an anti-social dog is autistic. Antisocial behavior often comes from a lack of socialization as puppies or abuse at some point in their life.

Down’s syndrome is also impossible for a dog to get. It’s a human-specific genetic disorder where there’s an extra chromosome present. There have been no proven cases where a dog was diagnosed with this syndrome.

However, senility or dementia is a very real disease in dogs, and it’s more common than most dog owners realize.

Can Dogs Become Senile?

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) typically occurs in older dogs and presents similarly to senility or dementia in geriatric humans. By medical definition, CDS is when the brain has a series of change that result in a loss of thinking, recognition, memory, and even learned behavior. Statistics show that 50 percent of dogs over the age of 10 years old show one or more symptoms of CDS.

Symptoms include:

  • Confusion/disorientation
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Not being able to recognize people who are familiar to them
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Aggression
  • Excessive vocalization
  • A lack of responsiveness, possible deafness

Testing Dogs for Mental Handicaps

Since the only diagnosable mental handicap in dogs is CDS, diagnosing the problem really depends on ruling out physical health problems since so many of the symptoms of CDS could be attributed to something else.

  1. Testing their eyesight: Many dogs have declining eyesight as they age, and since dogs rely quite a bit on their ability to see things up close, they exhibit a series of symptoms when they can’t see very well. Since many of these symptoms are similar to those of CDS, it’s important to have their eyesight checked immediately if they’re showing confusion, difficulty eating out of their bowls, or difficulty recognizing people they’re quite familiar with.
    When a veterinarian tests your dog’s eyesight, they’ll first examine the eyes to ensure the structure of the eye is healthy and rule out cataracts, corneal abrasions, infections, and
    even tumors on the eyelids. They’ll also do a series of physical tests to see if your dog is already blind or may be on their way to being blind.
    If your dog passes their eye examination and they’re showing symptoms that could be blamed on poor eyesight, then this is a pretty good indicator your dog could be in the early or middle stages of CDS.
  2. Radiographs: X-rays tell veterinarians almost everything they need to know in many cases. They don’t just diagnose broken bones; radiographs tell vets if the dog’s kidneys are enlarged, if they have a heart condition, or if there are tumors on any of the organs. Older dogs should ideally have x-rays taken every year to ensure their lungs, heart, and digestive organs are cancer- and problem-free. If your dog is starting to lose his appetite, it doesn’t always mean they’re in the early stages of CDS. It can be a sign of something else, especially in dogs of advanced age.
  3. Bloodwork: Annual bloodwork is important in older dogs. The liver and kidneys are usually the first organs to show signs of disease, and catching it early is key to long-term management. Annual bloodwork ensures your dog’s liver and kidneys are functioning well, as well as checking to see if they’re anemic and spotting early signs of cancer or endocrine disorders.

What Causes Neurological Damage in Dogs?

Unless your dog is geriatric, the only way you’ll see a “mental handicap” in dogs is if they suffer some sort of neurological damage. This can happen at any point in their life. Some puppies suffer from a lack of oxygen when they’re born and this can lead to some lifelong difficulties. This is most common in births where the puppy gets stuck in the birth canal and loses oxygen. It can also occur during an emergency c-section.

Neurological damage may also happen during an accident, particularly getting hit by a car. Sometimes ingesting a toxic substance can alter them neurologically, but this is rare as toxic substances typically affect the liver and kidneys before they permanently damage the brain.

Respiratory and cardiac arrest can also lead to long-term brain damage, and many owners report that dogs who have survived resuscitation efforts have never been the same mentally afterwards.

All in all, you really only have to worry about a “mental handicap” in dogs who are considered senior citizens. CDS in dogs is incredibly common and underdiagnosed, and while it’s not curable, it is manageable with medication.