Cognitive dysfunction syndrome: How thinking games help senior pets stay sharp

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Brinx is a healthy senior lab mix at Save-A-Pet in Grayslake, IL.

Senior pets, like people, can suffer mental decline that is not considered a normal part of aging. Last time we wrote about how cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS, is diagnosed. This week we’re looking at how using environmental enrichment can prevent or delay it. (Read all our CDS posts.)

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of enriching pets’ environments. Games that make your pets think can help with all kinds of behavior issues. (Read about my tub wars with Toby to find out why.)

And there’s another benefit to keeping your pet’s mind active: Studies show that it can prevent or delay cognitive dysfunction syndrome.


How does keeping my pet’s mind active help?
Enrichment activities may help pets build up a sort of cognitive reserve that shores them up against age-related mental decline later in life. And according to a study published in Ageing Research Reviews, early enrichment may also increase the creation of neurons in a dog’s brain later in life.

“There is evidence that providing environmental enrichment such as games, training and walks to dogs actually enhances the brain’s ability to compensate for age-related decline later in life,” says Dr. V, a veterinarian and author of the blog Pawcurious.

Senior pets can benefit from thinking challenges too. “One of the most important parts of treatment for [pets with CDS] is to increase mental stimulation,” says Karen Johnson, DVM, of Banfield Pet Hospital in Portland, OR.

What kinds of games and enrichment help CDS?
The idea is to keep your pet thinking in a fun, positive way. “To help keep your pets mentally, physically and emotionally healthy, engage their problem-solving skills by using food puzzles, teaching new tricks and introducing new toys,” says Dr. Ernie Ward, a Calabash, NC-based veterinarian. “And physical activities such as walks and playtime not only keep away unwanted pounds but also sharpen their minds.”

According to the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, “learning new tasks — ‘teach an old dog new tricks’ — has been shown to improve learning and memory” in pets with CDS.

Here are some easy ways to keep your pet thinking:

  • Tricks for treats: Teach your dog (or cat!) a trick he doesn’t know, or practice some of his old favorites such as sit, stay, wait and coming when called.
  • Hide and seek: Position yourself and a pal at two different points in your home. Then take turns calling your pet and rewarding him with a treat when he finds you. Each time your dog or cat goes to one person, the other person changes location so your pet has to search for you again. (Watch this Hide and Seek video for ideas.)
  • Searching game: Hide treats or favorite (i.e. smelly) toys around the house, then tell your dog or cat to find them. (Find out how to train your pet to search for rewards in this video.)
  • Puzzle toys and feeders: Build a pet-powered feeder or use a pre-made one like these that you can buy from PETCO.

Remember that treating CDS usually involves a combination of therapies, so work with your doctor to identify which treatments might work best for your pet. But don’t forget to add in a few extra minutes of playtime with your pet each day — your pet will thank you for it.

Tell us: Do you do anything to keep your pet’s mind and body active while you’re not home?

Coming soon: How changing your pet’s diet may help with cognitive dysfunction syndrome.


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