By Dr. Erica Kirsch
About 22.5% of dogs exhibit signs and symptoms of cognitive decline as they age. This is often referred to as canine dementia (CD). These symptoms are considered to be canine dementia when there is no other medical or social explanation for them. These symptoms can be grouped into four categories— impaired orientation, impaired social interactions, decline in house-training, and impaired sleep-wake cycles. Impaired orientation may present as a dog staring into space, getting lost in the house, or staring into a corner. A dog with impaired social interactions may stop greeting you when you arrive home, or change their typical behaviors like following you around. While a dog may go to the bathroom inside for several reasons (urinary infection, anxiety, weakness) this could be a sign of declining cognition if other causes are ruled out. Finally, a common sign that your dog is becoming more confused is a tendency to be awake during the night and sleep during the day. Your dog may bark and wake you up in the middle of the night more frequently for no obvious reason. These symptoms can be a hard thing to face as a pet owner— we don’t ever want to see our furry friends suffering. While there is no cure for canine dementia, there are some things you can do to help prevent the onset and even slow the progress of canine dementia. Diet, supplements, socialization, routines, and exercise can all play an important role in maintaining your dog’s brain function. Here I am going to discuss the exercise component since that’s what I do!
In humans, exercise is proven to be neuroprotective, meaning it can protect from a decline in brain function. It can help improve strength, balance, memory, and overall well-being. A recent study by Snigdah et al showed that these effects occur in dogs as well.
In this study 22 beagles aged 10-11 years old were included. The dogs performed cognitive tests and were re-tested over time to see if there were improvements in their performances. Half of the dogs exercised prior to after the cognitive tasks, while the other half did not exercise. The study found that both groups that exercised had improved memory and performance on the cognitive tasks compared to dogs who didn’t exercise at all.
What does this mean? It means that exercise, in general, can enhance a dog’s memory and their ability to learn and remember tasks. This could mean improvements and slowed progression of canine dementia in our older dogs if we can get them to exercise. The earlier you start, the better!
There are many ways to have your dog exercise. If your dog has any disease or injury, I would recommend consulting with your vet or rehab therapist before starting a new exercise program. Dogs with musculoskeletal issues may benefit from walking on the underwater treadmill to reduce stress on their joints, while still getting the benefits of exercise. If your dog is healthy, try to keep them active as they age. This may include daily walks, swimming, playing tug, or going to the dog park. Incorporating cognitive tasks with activity could also be beneficial. This may look like having your dog follow you through an obstacle course, or hiding a treat for them to find. Be creative and make it fun! Exercise for the body is exercise for the brain!
Stayed tuned for my next blog post where we will discuss other strategies for managing and preventing canine dementia.
Rehab the Mind!, Laurie Edge-Hughes, BScPT, MAnimSt (Animal Physio), CAFCI, CCRT, Four Leg Rehab Inc – www.FourLeg.com
Snigdha S., De Rivera C., Milgram N.W., &Cotman C.W. Exercise enhances memory consolidation in the aging brain. Frontiers inAging Neuroscience, 6, 3. (2014).