Why old dogs and cats need new tricks

As medical science extends the lifespan of pets, age-related cognitive decline in cats and dogs is on the rise.

Clinical signs associated with cognitive dysfunction include  disorientation, social interactions, sleep-wake cycle disturbances, house soiling, activity changes (apathy or aimless wandering) and increased anxiety. These are reported in almost half of dogs over the age of 10 and 30% of cats over the age of 11.

How to slow the decline

Fortunately, more veterinarians and pet owners are not accepting these as inevitable ageing changes. Pharmaceuticals and nutraceutical supplements to enhance neuron functioning or reduce oxidative damage should be implemented immediately after signs are reported. But non-drug interventions for old dogs and cats such as exercise and environmental enrichment are showing exciting physical and mental benefits.

In one study, older dogs receiving environmental enrichment plus an antioxidant diet showed the most improved cognitive scores, while environmental enrichment alone improved scores more than the group given the dietary treatment without enrichment.

Enrichment can be described as providing enhanced environmental stimuli. For our companion animals this means not just meeting their basic needs for health, nutrition and safety, but also providing low-stress and predictable social interactions, play, outlets for other natural behaviours, and sensory-stimulating opportunities. Of course, medical issues such as metabolic disease, dental disease and orthopaedic pain should be addressed before starting enrichment activities in senior pets.

Teaching old dogs new tricks

Some practical enrichment ideas you can pass on to your clients include:

  • Providing food toys or puzzles that encourage manipulating the device to receive food. EberVet Vetshops stock a wide range of toys and puzzles for cats and dogs.

  • Hiding food pieces around the house to simulate searching behaviour.

  • Taking dogs on outdoor walks to provide some aerobic exercise and sensory exposure; in physically debilitated animals, a pet stroller or car rides can provide the sensory experience. (Note that many dog owners think placing the dog in the backyard can substitute for walks. However, outdoor time in the typical backyard does not provide the same benefits because of the lack of novelty and activity.

  • Ensuring their is vertical space for cats both indoors and outdoors to help foster activity and provide safe places in a multi-cat household.

  • Spending a few minutes each day on reward-based basic obedience or simple trick training—a great method for mental stimulation and appropriate social interaction, especially in less mobile animals.

  • Encouraging play even in older animals. A play partner should support the appropriate level activity and not pester or distress the older animal. Toys can also be a good outlet for older animals but daily rotation, food and owner facilitation may be necessary.

Evidence suggests that attention to environmental enrichment may make the most impact if started at middle-age. As soon as you notice the first signs of cognitive decline,  start supplements, activity and enrichment.