New Study: This Behavior Could Be a Sign of Dementia in Your Dog

Updated: Aug. 21, 2023

It's so hard to watch a beloved pet slow down. Research from North Carolina State University reveals one key clue which could help you recognize that your aging dog needs an extra-gentle hand.

Through the years, witnessing your dog grow from that energetic (sometimes exhausting!) puppy stage to their serene senior days is a journey like no other. The American Kennel Club says that for small dogs, the golden years arrive between ages seven and 10. For a larger breeds, that era often arrives around age six.

As the fur on their faces starts to transition innocently to white and you perceive what seem to be signs of disorientation or confusion, maybe you’ve wondered whether dogs get dementia. Recent findings from North Carolina State University seem to hint that cognitive dysfunction can occur not only in our human loved ones, but in our animal companions too. The research even suggests that dementia symptoms between these two tight-knit mammals might even show some similarities.

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Identifying the markers of dog dementia

A dog’s behavioral shifts might indicate cognitive dysfunction, from aimless wandering to getting stuck in corners. A study published in June 2023 from NC State and published in Frontiers of Veterinary Science presents an intriguing observation: The speed at which senior dogs walk might directly correlate with their brain health.

Natasha Olby, PhD, study author and Distinguished Chair in Gerontology at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, notes in a news release: “Walking speed in people is strongly associated with cognitive decline. We hypothesized that the same might be true in dogs.”

The study involved measuring the gait speed off-leash in both adult dogs, serving as a control group, and senior dogs. These senior dogs underwent additional cognitive tests, and their owners completed a cognitive assessment questionnaire known as the “CADES questionnaire.”

Findings revealed that senior dogs that moved slower exhibited more pronounced cognitive decline, as gauged through the questionnaire and cognitive testing.

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The science of gauging a dog’s gait speed

Measuring a dog’s gait speed isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. “The challenge with measuring gait speed is that dogs tend to match the speed of their handler when on leash,” Dr. Olby explains. This led researchers to test both on-leash and off-leash speeds. Dr. Olby adds, “We found that on-leash, size does correlate with gait speed, but off-leash it doesn’t make a difference. Capturing gait speed off-leash lets us see the effects of both physical ability and food motivation.”

Interestingly, size wasn’t a determining factor for speed among the senior dogs. Essentially, senior dogs in the last 25% of their expected lifespan were slower than adult dogs, irrespective of their size.

This decline, Dr. Olby says, mirrors human patterns, where walking speed remains fairly consistent before declining as we approach the latter part of our lives.

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Walking speed and cognitive decline

Dr. Olby emphasizes the deep-seated connection between mobility and cognition, both pivotal morbidity markers in functional aging. “Mobility relies heavily on sensory input, central processing, and motor output—in other words, the nervous system—as a result, mobility and cognition are super interconnected,” she explains. Hence, reduced mobility leads to diminished input to the nervous system, establishing the link between walking speed and dementia.

For Dr. Olby and her team, the exciting takeaway from this research is twofold: The established correlation between gait speed and dementia in dogs mirrors that in humans, and the testing methodology’s simplicity, being food-motivated and short, can easily be replicated by veterinarians, potentially serving as a fundamental screening test for aging pets.

With these new findings from NC State, recognizing changes—particularly in your aging dog’s walking speed—could be an early sign of cognitive decline. Consulting with your veterinarian and staying updated with the latest research ensures a more informed approach to your pet’s golden years, better empowering you to provide them with the best possible care.

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