Long walks and romps at the dog park keep your dog in top physical shape, but what about her mental health? Like their owners, dogs can have mental decline, says Leticia Fanucchi, DVM, a veterinarian and clinical instructor at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. "Dogs shouldn't stop being mentally and physically active just because they get older," she says.
A decline in thinking skills often affects dogs older than 8 years. Signs of canine mental decline include disorientation, changes in sleep/wake cycles, housetraining accidents, higher anxiety, and less desire for physical activity and social interaction. Dogs that have memory loss may have forgotten routine commands such as "sit" and "stay."
Medications can help slow this decline, but a 2018 study found that mental stimulation could also improve brain health. Researchers at Messerli Research Institute in Vienna used a touchscreen to teach dogs simple computer games; the dogs received treats for getting the answers correct.
"These kinds of mental games help wake up areas of the brain that have been inactive," Fanucchi says. The combination of sight, scent, and spatial orientation required to solve the puzzle helped make connections between different parts of the brain. The tasty reward motivated the dogs to stick with the activity.
While the touchscreen games used in lab research aren't sold in stores (yet), Fanucchi suggests creating your own brain games at home. Offer your dog interactive toys that require her to move a puzzle piece or roll a cube to release a treat. And get your pet outside. Regular walks allow her to explore new sights, sounds, and smells, which can be mentally stimulating, and keeping her active during daylight hours can also help reset a confused sleep/wake cycle.
Don't wait until your pet starts showing signs of doggie dementia to introduce brain training. "Mental stimulation benefits dogs of all ages and is especially important for older dogs," Fanucchi says.
Worried about your older dog's brain health? "Tell your vet about recent changes in your dog's behavior," says Fanucchi, and consider these questions.
Does your dog show signs of mental decline? Don't assume that ignoring commands and having accidents in the house are signs of a defiant dog.
Could other health issues be causing these symptoms? Before diagnosing mental decline, Fanucchi says your vet will want to rule out endocrine issues, heart disease, and other medical conditions that could cause similar symptoms.
Is medication available? There is a medication approved to treat mental decline in dogs. Fanucchi suggests talking to your veterinarian about whether it's right for your pet.
Will changes in diet help? Research shows that kibble made for senior dogs could help improve mental skills and slow decline. Ask about brain protection blends that contain triglycerides, B vitamins, and antioxidants.
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