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healthy canine living
Dog waiting for a ball

📷 by Tatiana Rodriguez

We all know dogs need daily walks to exercise their bodies. But what about their brains? Dogs’ brains, like our own, need stimulation to function at their best. As some owners can attest, dogs often exhibit problematic behaviors when they’re bored or understimulated. Also, as dogs age, their brains undergo oxidative stress, which affects learning, memory, and function. Whether you’ve got a puppy, adult, or senior dog, brain health is important throughout any life stage — and can help set your pet up for a long and happy life.

Ways to train your pup’s brain

Here are a few simple and effective at-home methods to keep your pup’s brain sharp:

Try new training techniques — Two things dogs tend to love are having a job and connecting with their owner. Teaching your pup a new trick or training them for sports like rally obedience or agility are just a few ways to introduce them to a new routine and ensure they’re mentally stimulated.

Play brain games — Simple games like “hide and seek” can encourage dogs to work their brains (and noses) while having fun. You can also motivate them with scent work by hiding treats throughout your home or yard. In addition to being fun, brain games have been shown to prevent the loss of neurons in dogs’ brains.

Switch up your walking route — Dogs get bored just like we do. If you walk the same route each day, try switching things up. New smells and sights can help keep your dog’s brain sufficiently stimulated.

Purchase a puzzle toy — Puzzle toys challenge dogs to use their brains to work for food or treats. A snuffle mat encourages dogs to use their noses and foraging skills. Similarly, interactive dog toys require pups to learn and repeat actions to unlock prizes. There are even puzzle feeder toys that allow mealtime to double as a mental enrichment exercise.

Add a supplement to your pup’s diet — Supplemental nutrients and minerals can help decrease free radicals that contribute to cognitive decline. Speak with your pet’s vet about adding a supplement rich in omega-3 fatty acids to your dog’s daily meals.

A brain booster pets (and people) love

Cognition and brain health in senior dogs

30 percent of dogs over the age of seven show signs of cognitive impairment. Some behavioral changes are common with aging and are to be expected in many dogs. However, certain patterns of behavior may be cause for alarm in senior pups. Cognitive impairment in dogs often involves symptoms that are similar to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in humans. As a whole, this set of symptoms in aging or senior dogs can be an indication that your pet may have what’s known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).

CDS in dogs

As dogs’ brains gradually decline with age, they may experience a number of symptoms. Taken together, these signs are often an indication of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Common warning signs of CDS in senior dogs include:

  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Increased anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Forgetting learned skills
  • Housebreaking accidents
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Pacing, often at night
  • Increased barking, often at night
  • Changes in appetite

What causes CDS

In addition to behavioral symptoms, CDS also causes physical changes and atrophy in your dog’s brain. With its limited regenerative ability, the brain is especially susceptible to these effects.

Unlike other canine conditions, breed does not appear to play a role in the development of CDS. While exact causes can be tough to pinpoint, age is the most common factor responsible for the onset of CDS. Since CDS is often caused by free radicals and oxidation in the brain tissues, combatting this build-up in your pup is key.

Slowing the progression of CDS

While aging is an inevitable part of life, there are ways to slow age-related cognitive decline in canines. Since we can’t win the fight against time, the best pet owners can do is target the causes of cognitive decline. This can be achieved by providing your pup with proper nutrition, dietary supplementation when needed, and regular mental stimulation.

Nutrition and senior dogs 

Though CDS can’t be cured, the progression of the disease can potentially be slowed. Recent studies have examined the effect supplements can have on cognitive function in senior dogs. Here are some of the more common nutrients and vitamins believed to improve brain health, particularly in older pups.

  • Antioxidants: An antioxidant is any compound that protects against cellular damage. They target free radicals that cause toxins to build up in the brain. Antioxidants include vitamins C, E, and D, beta-carotene, and others. Take caution, though, as some antioxidant-rich human foods are not safe for dogs. Safe choices include blueberries, carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes.
  • Fish oil: Fish oil contains the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). These compounds are essential for cognitive function and can be found in whole fish or fish oil supplements.
  • Amino acids: Dogs produce amino acids naturally, but can sometimes fall short. L-carnitine and l-arginine are two amino acids tied to improved canine brain health.
  • B vitamins: This group of vitamins helps regulate energy metabolism. B vitamins also help ensure your pup’s central nervous system runs smoothly.

Frequently asked questions

Can dogs get dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?

Essentially, yes. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is the canine equivalent to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Dogs with CDS can experience disorientation or confusion and forget learned skills, like housetraining.

What are the signs of CDS?

CDS in dogs is marked by signs like confusion, disorientation, increased anxiety, forgetting of skills, and changes in sleep, appetite, and energy levels.

Can CDS be cured?

No. But a combination of mental stimulation and balanced nutrition may be able to prevent or slow its progression in your dog. There are also prescription diets, such as Purina’s NeuroCare Formula, that contain arginine, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants to support brain health.

Are there ways to slow the progression of CDS in dogs?

Yes. Research has shown that supplementation with antioxidants and amino acids can improve a dog’s ability to fend off age-related damage to their brain.