Enhancing Cognitive Function in Older Dogs with Diet and More

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Aug. 17, 2012

A few weeks back, we talked about the nutritional needs of older dogs. Today I want to talk specifically about a serious problem that can affect this population: canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). In many ways, the symptoms of CCD appear very similar to those seen with Alzheimer’s disease in people. Affected dogs develop some combination of the following:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Anxiety
  • Panting
  • Lapses of house training
  • Restlessness and wandering
  • Getting "stuck" in corners
  • Memory loss
  • Changed ways of relating to people or other pets
  • Altered sleep patterns

Even if a dog’s symptoms aren’t serious enough to lead to a diagnosis of CCD, owners may be aware of more subtle changes in their dogs’ cognitive abilities as they age.

We don’t yet know exactly why these symptoms develop in one animal and not another. There is some evidence that neurotransmitters in the brain might be breaking down faster than normal, that the build-up of free radicals might damage brain tissue, and/or that a decline in energy metabolism in the brain could play a role. Some research has even pointed to prions (abnormal, infectious proteins like those that cause "mad cow" disease) as a potential cause.

Because we have not yet pinpointed the cause(s) of age-related brain changes in dogs, we don’t have a standard treatment protocol that works in all, or even most, cases. But, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing an owner can do to help a beloved, older dog stay as mentally sharp as possible.

First, make an appointment with your veterinarian. It is important to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms with a physical exam and possibly some routine lab work before beginning treatment. The drug selegiline helps many dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction by increasing the amounts of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain.

Selegiline is a good option for some dogs and some types of supplements (e.g., s-adenosylmethionine or SAMe) might also prove useful, but I tell all my clients not to over look two simple but often underestimated management tools for maximizing mental acuity in older dogs:

  1. Environmental Enrichment — Getting outdoors to explore a new area (on a leash, of course), learning new commands or tricks, playing with toys, and interacting in a safe way with other dogs can all help keep older pets sharp.

  5. Nutrition — The brain requires large amounts of glucose to fuel normal functioning, and some dogs don’t have the best appetites as they age. Specific types of fats (e.g., essential fatty acids and medium-chain triglycerides) appear to enhance cognitive ability in older dogs, and dietary sources of antioxidants can help combat free radical damage. Make sure your canine senior citizen is getting what he needs by feeding him a high-quality food made from healthful (and tasty) ingredients. Your veterinarian can make a specific dietary recommendation based on your dog’s individual needs.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: tstockphoto / via Shutterstock

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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