Will your dog have dementia? A comprehensive study provides clues

Specifically for the New York Times Infobae.

When Dante turned 8 years old, he started acting a bit strange. The 70-pound Bernese Mountain Dog paced his family’s home in Interlaken, New York, like a caged bear. Then he stopped and stared at the pedals of the family organ as if in a trance. Or in a corner of the room. He woke up in the middle of the night and started barking non-stop for no apparent reason.

Then came the room incontinence.

A brain scan confirmed that Dante had canine cognitive dysfunction, colloquially known as canine dementia. It is often described as the canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies have found that it can occur in at least 14 to 35 percent of older dogs. However, since the symptoms are similar to those of other diseases, it is difficult to confirm its true prevalence.

A new large-scale study of 15,019 dogs participating in the Canine Aging Project, an ongoing investigation of disease and aging in dogs, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, identifies the key factors associated with the risk of having a dog suffering from this disease.

An important finding: exercise can play an important preventive role. Dogs that were not active were 6.47 times more likely to be diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction than very active dogs, researchers at the University of Washington found. But they also said the disease itself could lead to sedentary lifestyles, stressing that the study’s results, which are based on owner observations, suggest a correlation rather than causation.

Dogs with neurological disorders or hearing or vision problems also appear to be more likely to contract the disease. Annette Fitzpatrick, co-author of the study and research professor at the University of Washington, expert on dementia in humans and dogs, commented: “If you don’t get outside stimulation, it seems to increase the risk that we won’t be able to use our brains well.

He added that the study: “Shows that there may be other things we can look at to try and reduce the incidence of cognitive dysfunction.”

Also, age matters. Life expectancy often depends on breed, size and body mass: think of a Great Dane (six to 12 years) versus a Chihuahua (12 to 20 years). According to the study, in the final years of a dog’s expected life, each consecutive year contributed to the potential development of the disease.

In fact, the researchers found that the risk factors correlated with cognitive dysfunction in dogs mirror some of the factors present in people with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Previous studies of canine cognitive dysfunction were generally based on veterinary evaluations of smaller samples of older dogs; This new study includes dogs ranging in age from puppies to 20 years of age. In the years to come, as these dogs age, the project, which has registered more than 40,000 dogs and hopes to reach 100,000, will produce more complex results on cognitive dysfunction and other diseases.

In this study, the prevalence of canine cognitive dysfunction in all dogs, young and old, was 1.4 percent. But the average age of the dogs was just 6.9 years, and only 19.5 percent of the dogs tested were in their last quarter of life.

“This study compares dogs with cognitive dysfunction and dogs without,” Fitzpatrick explained. “But over the years we can see that a dog that may have had great cognitive function now doesn’t seem to have it to the same extent.”

The results come from only a baseline census of canine health and lifestyle of their owners between 2019 and 2020 and a questionnaire with a very wide range of cognitive functions.

Some of the questions are:

— How often does your dog pace, circle and/or around aimlessly or purposefully?

— How often does your dog get stuck between objects and cannot move on?

— How often does your dog bump into walls or doors?

— How often does your dog have trouble finding food lying on the ground?

If the study results have a familiar, even intuitive ring to them, perhaps that’s because the Canine Aging Project, funded by the National Institute on Aging, a branch of the state’s National Institutes of Health, could help us explain what factors affect it the life expectancy of humans as well as dogs that share our home.

Unlike experimental animals like fruit flies and mice, companion dogs are influenced by their owners’ environmental and social factors, such as secondhand smoke, gardening pesticides, and access to sunlight.

“Estimates of human longevity say that about 75 percent is environmental and 25 percent is genetic,” said Matt Kaeberlein, a biogerontologist at the University of Washington and co-director of the Canine Aging Project. “So, companion dogs give us the opportunity to really understand the role of this environmental variability in biological aging,” he added.

Because dogs age much faster than humans, the studies conducted as part of the project allow us to understand aging in humans and dogs over an accelerated timeframe.

Cognitive dysfunction in dogs is difficult to pin down. A dog’s failure to understand a common command may indicate deafness or senile obstinacy rather than a stunted brain. Symptoms resembling those of cognitive dysfunction could actually be due to a stroke, brain swelling, diabetes, or Cushing’s disease, according to Nicole Ehrhart, veterinarian and director of the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging, Colorado State University.

Vets initially rely on the owner’s close observation, the doctor said, and then run diagnostic tests.

“Look at your dog when he meets your eyes and note how long he holds your gaze, especially if you have a treat near his face. When dogs develop dementia, they are unable to focus on objects as they normally would.”

Ehrhart, who was not involved in the Canine Aging Project study, called the new research a “wonderful confirmation of something we know across species: that exercise is good for healthy aging and that exercise habits in all people can prevent Alzheimer’s disease.” and other cognitive problems.”

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