How to Tell if a Dog is Mentally Challenged

When you hear the phrase ‘mentally challenged’, you make certain assumptions. But those assumptions don’t hold true in the canine world. The simple fact is, dogs can’t be mentally challenged. Not in the same way that we associate with people, in any case. Some dogs can, of course, have more difficulty in grasping certain things than other dogs.

Usually a change in training technique will bring them up to speed. But while there’s no such thing as a mentally challenged dog, they CAN suffer from a mental disorder that, at times, can make it seem like they are. Mental disorders (or neurological disorders, to give them their proper name) can be genetic, but they can also come from nowhere.

In some cases, they aren’t technically disorders at all, but come about as a result of brain trauma or head injuries. In all cases, they stem from an illness that affects a dog’s central and/ or peripheral nervous system. Irrespective of their cause, neurological disorders can be incredibly concerning. As well as making training and learning a seemingly impossible task, they can be accompanied by other symptoms that can be distressing for both you and your pet. Fortunately, most neurological disorders can be treated successfully, if not always eliminated.

Varieties of Neurological Disorders in Dogs

Dogs aren’t limited to just one type of neurological disorder. Most conditions fall into one of four common categories. Some of the conditions share symptoms, either with each other or with other non-related conditions. Early veterinary intervention is therefore a must to ensure the correct diagnosis. As notes, canine neurological disorders include:

Vestibular Syndrome

Vestibular Syndrome typically affects older dogs, and results from diseases that affect the vestibular system. As the vestibular system controls balance, affected dogs will usually get a bad case of the spins. Some of the other most common symptoms of the condition include:

  • Loss of balance
  • Head tilt
  • Nausea
  • Falling over uncontrollably
  • Rolling over
  • Flickering of the eyes
  • Wobbliness

Sometimes, Vestibular Syndrome can arise without any known cause. In these cases, treatment will usually involve anti-nausea medication to reduce the effects of the dizziness and make the dog feel more comfortable. At other times, it can arise from an ear infection, in which case treatment of the primary cause will generally be all that’s required to eliminate any further symptoms.

Wobbler Syndrome

Wobbler Syndrome is most common among larger breeds and is caused by a congenital defect of the spinal vertebrae. The defect can result in the compression of the spinal cord, which in turn can lead to a loss of sensation in the hind quarters. Typical symptoms in the early stages include:

  • Unsteady gate
  • Short or “floating” steps with the front legs accompanied by a “wobbliness” in the hind legs
  • Wobbler Syndrome is a progressive condition. In its advanced stages, dogs may exhibit the following symptoms:
  • Inability to stand
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control

Treatment can take the form of either surgery or medication. While surgery is the more expensive of the two, it also carries the best success rate – 80% improvement versus the 50% improvement seen in dogs treated with steroids.


Of all the neurological conditions, seizure disorder is the most common. As notes, idiopathic epilepsy is the most common cause of seizures in dogs. Although it’s an inherited disorder, its exact cause is unknown. Seizure disorders can also arise as a secondary condition of illnesses such as liver failure, brain trauma, kidney disease, and toxins. Seizure disorder, by its nature, is probably the most easy-to-spot neurological condition, with symptoms typically including:

  • Jerky movements
  • Stiffening
  • Twitching
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Drooling
  • Chomping or tongue chewing
  • Involuntary defecating or urinating

Although seizures can look dramatic, they aren’t painful (although your dog may feel confused by what’s happening). Some people think that dogs are at risk of swallowing their tongues during a seizure and will attempt to hold their tongues to prevent injury. This is a myth. Providing the dog is not at risk of falling over or knocking into objects, they’re unlikely to come to any harm. Some dogs may have one seizure and never have one again. In these cases, it’s rarely anything to be concerned about, although always take them for a checkup to rule out any other conditions. Other dogs are at risk of multiple or cluster seizures, or seizures which continue for several months and more.


As notes, dementia isn’t only a concern for people. Over 50% of dogs over the age of 10 years old suffer from senile mental challenges. The disease is progressive and without cure. However, early intervention can help delay the onset and slow down the rate of dementia in many cases. Sometimes (and particularly in the early stages), symptoms can be mild, making diagnosis difficult. Keep a close eye on your dog as they start to enter their tens, and make sure to tell your vet if you notice any of the following symptoms, either in isolation or combination:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Anxiety
  • Unusual bouts of aggression, especially in previously mild-mannered dogs
  • Excessive howling, barking, and whining
  • Repetitive pacing
  • Compulsive licking
  • Eliminating indoors
  • Staring into space
  • Withdrawal tendencies
  • Disorientation

While several of the above symptoms could also indicate other issues, it’s always best to play it safe and speak to your vet if you have any concerns about your dog becoming anything more than a little forgetful in their old age.

What To Do If You Think Your Dog Has a Mental Condition

Recognizing if your dog has a neurological condition isn’t always easy. Some of the signs can be hard to spot, while many of the symptoms can be easily confused with something else entirely. In certain cases, the symptoms can be so dramatic they can send you into a tailspin of panic. But a mental condition is no different from any other illness. Not all can be cured, but most can be treated to ensure your dog is comfortable. As always, keep a close watch on your pet, particularly as they start to enter their twilight years (while seizure disorders are most common in young puppies, the majority of neurological conditions develop (or at least worsen) with age. If you notice any odd or unusual behaviors, get them checked out. The earlier a vet can diagnose and treat the problem, the better.

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