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New Research Highlights Why Exercise Can Help Reduce Risk of Dog Dementia

How Physical Activity Affects Cognitive Dysfunction in Older Companion Dogs

As our beloved canine companions age, they may experience cognitive decline and dementia (aka dog dementia), similar to humans. This cognitive decline can manifest as disorientation, changes in social interactions, altered sleep-wake cycles, and other behavioral changes. Researchers have been working to identify factors that may protect against cognitive decline in dogs, and one such factor is physical activity.

In this article, we will explore the relationship between physical activity and cognitive dysfunction in older companion dogs, drawing from the results of the Dog Aging Project, plus some simple tips for dog owners looking to make this part of their routine.

The Study

The September 2022 study, titled "Associations between physical activity and cognitive dysfunction in older companion dogs: results from The Dog Aging Project" involved over 10,000 dogs, aged 6 to 18 years. As the title suggests, the study was led by the Dog Aging Project. You can read more about what it is and how to get involved here.

The study used owner-reported questionnaire data to quantify dog cognitive health via a validated scale called the Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating Scale (CCDR).) By examining a large and diverse population of dogs, researchers hoped to identify modifiable risk factors that may prevent cognitive dysfunction and dementia in our canine friends.

Key Finding:

Physical activity is associated with better cognitive outcomes.

These results revealed several significant findings regarding the relationship between physical activity and cognitive dysfunction in older companion dogs. Across all measures of cognitive dysfunction, researchers found a robust negative association between physical activity and cognitive decline. In other words, the study found that higher levels of physical activity were associated with better cognitive outcomes in dogs, including:

  • Lower scores on the cognitive dysfunction rating instrument

  • Decreased risk of dementia

  • Less owner-reported cognitive decline over the preceding 6 months

This relationship held even after controlling for factors such as age, sex, weight, and owner age. That being said, the study noted that the disease itself could lead to lack of exercise, emphasizing that the study results, which are based on observations by owners, suggest a correlation, not causation.

Moreover,, the study identified several other factors that were associated with cognitive health in dogs:

  • Sensory impairment: Dogs with sensory deficits (e.g., vision and/or hearing loss) were likelier to exhibit cognitive decline.

  • Training history: Dogs with an extensive training history were less likely to exhibit signs of cognitive decline.

  • Diet and supplementation: Dogs that received daily neuroprotective supplements had better cognitive outcomes.

  • Health conditions: Dogs with certain conditions (e.g., neurological conditions, orthopedic impairments, periodontal disease, cancer, kidney disorders) were more likely to experience cognitive dysfunction.

Practical Tips for Keeping Your Dog Active and Mentally Stimulated

Ensuring your dog gets regular physical activity and mental stimulation can help support their cognitive health as they age. Here are some practical tips for keeping your dog active and engaged:

1. Go for regular walks: Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walks or gentle jogs.

2. Play interactive games: Games like fetch, tug-of-war, and hide-and-seek can provide both physical and mental stimulation.

3. Provide puzzle toys: Toys that require your dog to solve a problem or engage in problem-solving (e.g., treat-dispensing toys, food puzzles) can help to keep their mind sharp.

4. Practice obedience training: Regular training sessions can help to keep your dog's mind engaged and reinforce their learning abilities.

5. Introduce new experiences: Exposing your dog to new environments, smells, and experiences can help to stimulate their senses and maintain cognitive function.

Remember that it's essential to consult with your veterinarian about the appropriate type and amount of physical activity for your dog, as individual needs may vary based on factors such as age, breed, and overall health.


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