We’ve all seen people who look like their dogs: the burly man who owns a Siberian husky, the tiny woman with a miniature poodle. In fact, it’s actually been proven that dog owners resemble their pets. But man and his proverbial best friend aren’t just alike on the outside: We age similarly too.
Just as people lose physical and mental capabilities as we age, so do our pets. Thankfully, along with the research being done on Alzheimer’s and dementia in humans, there is also a new focus on how we can slow the effects of aging on the brains of our pets.
Cognitive decline in dogs comes in different varieties: memory loss, reduced social interaction, learning impairment and disorientation, even house-soiling “accidents” that make it seem as if your pet has forgotten all that potty training you tirelessly worked on years ago. Although you may not want to believe your once spry dog is slowing down, the fact is that 28 percent of dogs aged 11 to 12, and 68 percent of dogs between 15 and 16 show some form of cognitive decline, according to a study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
But the situation isn’t hopeless. Dr. Karen Becker, a Chicago-based veterinarian, says that regular exercise, well-maintained dental health, and biannual visits to the vet are good starts for keeping your dog mentally healthy. It’s also important to not overlook the symptoms of cognitive decline by chalking them up to normal “aging.” Often, something can be done if you let your vet know of any mental abnormalities in your pet early on.
Yet those are just the basics. If your senior dog is afflicted with cognitive decline, what could be most important is what you’re putting into his or her food bowl.
Piggybacking on a 2009 study in Neurochemical Research, a study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that giving dogs food that contains medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, improves their cognition and delays potential cognitive decline.
MCTs are a common nutrient that comes from vegetable oils, but the way it affects dogs’ cognitive function is anything but ordinary. Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, a professor of animal behavior at Tufts University, summed it up, saying MCTs “reduce cognitive decline and improve cognition.”
More specifically, the study found that feeding your senior dog (any dog over age 7 is considered “senior”) meals that include MCTs, such as Purina’s new dog food, gave them increased learning abilities, better spatial awareness, and more energy overall than dogs who weren’t on a diet that included MCTs.
In creating their MCT-infused dog food, Purina scientists Gary Pan, Janet Jackson and Mark Roos were, according to Purina’s website, “stunned by the results.” When the senior dogs were switched to dog food containing MCTs, the researchers witnessed them beginning to regain their ability to “understand their surroundings, recognize their owners, respond to verbal commands, find what they were looking for around the house and become more active.”
In fact, the Purina scientists are such believers in MCTs that they incorporate it into their own diets, which can be as simple as using coconut oil in place of regular cooking oil. (And that’s really great news: It means the next batch of cookies you whip up could really be good for you!)
So even as life rumbles forward and our beloved pets inevitably age, we don’t have to just cross our fingers and hope they are lucky enough not to undergo cognitive decline. There are things that can be done. The first step is carefully choosing what we pour into their favorite bowl.