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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Preventing Dog Dementia: Five Strategies to Preserve Cognitive Health

Jul 29, 2022 06:30AM ● By Karen Shaw Becker
Couple walking on the beach with dog


Among the many traits that dogs and humans share is the potential with aging for progressive cognitive decline, which canines can experience as early as 7 years of age. Clinical signs of cognitive decline appear in 50 percent of dogs over 11 and by the time they are 15, 68 percent display at least one sign.

The five classic and easily observable indicators of cognitive decline in dogs are decreased attention to surroundings, disinterest and apathy; decreased purposeful activity; increased sleep during a 24-hour period; intermittent anxiety expressed through apprehension, panting, moaning or shivering; and loss of formerly acquired knowledge, including house training.

Other symptoms include failure to respond to commands, difficulty hearing, inability to recognize familiar people and difficulty navigating their environment. Physical manifestations may show up as excessive licking, lack of grooming, fecal and urinary incontinence and loss of appetite.

Gum Disease Linked to Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

A connection has been established between Alzheimer’s disease and periodontal disease in humans, and a recent study has revealed a similar association between gum disease and canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). By comparing dogs with CCD and a control group of healthy dogs, New York integrative veterinarian Curtis Dewey, of Elemental Pet Vets, and Mark Rishniw, of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, found that older dogs with CCD tend to show higher levels of periodontal disease, and that the more severe the gum disease is, the more significant their cognitive decline. Based on these results, at-home and veterinary dental care may be very beneficial to reduce the risk of cognitive dysfunction and should be added to these CCD prevention steps.

1. Incorporate regular exercise, socialization and mental stimulation. While they can’t exert themselves with the same intensity as younger dogs, senior canines derive tremendous benefits from walks—especially unhurried “sniffaris”—and other age-appropriate physical activity and strengthening exercises. Short periods of play time with people and other pets in controlled situations can also help. Food puzzles and treat-release toys provide fun, mental stimulation, while brief training sessions refresh their memory or teach new skills.

2. Take them to twice-yearly wellness visits. Keep abreast of metabolic changes to catch disease early. Many Alzheimer’s patients have insulin resistance and persistent hyperglycemia, so keeping a dog’s A1c levels low and steady is important.

3. Optimize their nutrition. The best fuel for canine cognitive health is a combination of healthy fats—especially omega-3 fatty acids like sustainably sourced krill oil and medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil—and a variety of antioxidant-rich whole foods suitable for a carnivore, including high-quality protein. Eliminate refined carbohydrates like sugar, grains, potatoes and legumes, as well as extruded diets (kibble) that contain toxic byproducts of the manufacturing process that are linked to neurodegenerative disease.

4. Improve memory with nutraceuticals. Because studies show that MCT in coconut oil can improve cognitive function in older dogs, add a quarter-teaspoon of coconut oil for every 10 pounds of body weight to food daily. Other supplements to consider are S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), jellyfish extracts, glutathione, resveratrol (Japanese knotweed), lion’s mane mushroom, vinpocetine, phosphatidylserine, curcumin, ubiquinol, digestive enzymes and probiotics.

5. Reduce doggie stress. Senior dogs, especially those with dementia, often become disoriented. To help them remain stable and reduce anxiety, stick to a consistent daily routine, feeding and walking them on a set schedule. To control arthritis and degenerative joint disease, keep dogs active and at a healthy weight. Consider acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care, stretching and hydrotherapy (exercising in water). If a dog is experiencing incontinence because of age (and not caused by an underlying condition that should be addressed), provide them with more frequent potty trips outside or reintroduce them to a crate if they were crate-trained initially. Acupuncture may also help.

If a dog has problems hearing or seeing, use odor cues like pet-friendly essential oils or pheromone products to help them find their way around. Also consider purchasing or building ramps if they’re having trouble getting into the car or up on the bed or a favorite chair. If they’re slipping or unsure on bare floors, add runners, yoga mats or area rugs.

For sleep problems, try increasing their daytime activity level. Let the dog sleep in the bedroom to ease any anxiety that may be contributing to nighttime restlessness. Melatonin supplementation may help. Guide the precious pet with clear cues and easy-to-follow instructions, and when talking to them, use a quiet, calm and loving voice.

Veterinarian Karen Shaw Becker, DVM, has spent her career empowering animal guardians to make knowledgeable decisions to extend the life and well-being of their animals.