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Take notice of Their Walking Speed - Link Between Dog Dementia and Walking Speed Explored

New research shows a link between cognitive decline and walking speed in dogs, potentially providing useful early indicators for owners and vets.


Introduction


As our canine companions age, monitoring their physical and mental well-being is important, since addressing downfalls in your dog's cognitive function is best addressed early on.


Interestingly, one of the hallmarks of your dog's age is often the deterioration in their physical capabilities. A specific metric that could be useful to owners and veterinarians, walking speed, was recently explored by a recent North Carolina State University study, which has revealed a connection between walking speed and cognitive decline (aka dog dementia).


In this article, we will delve into the findings of the study, and discuss the implications for vets and dog owners looking to monitor their dog's cognitive health as they age.


The Study: Measuring Gait (walking) Speed and Cognitive Decline


The research, lead by Professor Natasha Olby, a professor of veterinary neurology and neurosurgery at the Univeristy, aimed to investigate whether walking speed in dogs exhibits a similar association with cognitive decline as observed in humans. The study involved 46 adult dogs and 49 senior dogs, with the latter group undergoing additional cognitive testing and having their owners complete a cognitive assessment questionnaire.


To measure gait speed accurately, the researchers employed a two-step approach. Initially, gait speed was measured by walking the dogs over a five-meter distance on a leash with a handler. Subsequently, the dogs were offered a treat placed the same distance away and were called to retrieve it off-leash. This variation in measurement aimed to determine the most effective method for capturing gait speed in dogs.

The Correlation: Walking Speed and Cognitive Decline


Contrary to expectations, the study revealed that size did not significantly impact gait speed in senior dogs. Regardless of their relative size, however, dogs in the last 25% of their expected lifespan exhibited slower movement compared to adult dogs. Importantly, the senior dogs who were slower moving tended to exhibit more signs of cognitive decline, indicating a strong association between walking speed and cognitive decline in senior dogs. However, it is unclear if increased frustration or other cognitive processes are contributing to the observed changes.


Implications for Dog Owners The Role of Mobility and Cognition


To understand the correlation between walking speed and dementia in dogs, examining the interconnection between mobility and cognition is crucial. According to Professor Olby, mobility and cognition are the two most important predictors of morbidity.


As she stated: "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. When you have less mobility, the amount of input your nervous system gets is also reduced. It's not surprising that walking speed and dementia are correlated."


Potential Screening Test for Veterinarians


Speaking of the significant implications of this study is the potential for implementing a simple screening test for cognitive decline in aging dogs. The methodology employed, which involved measuring gait speed over a short distance and utilizing food motivation, can be easily replicated by veterinarians.


Speaking of this as a practical tool, Professor Olby stated "For me, the exciting part of the study is not only that we show gait speed correlates with dementia in dogs as in people, but also that the method of testing we used is easy to replicate, since it's food motivated and over a short distance. It could become a simple screening test for any veterinarian to perform on aging patients."


Why Exercise is Important for Senior Dogs and Their Cognition


Speaking of movement and mobility in senior dogs, you can read our article on why exercise is crucial for cognitive function in dogs here, where we explore a recent study by the Dog Aging Project and outline practical ways pet parents can implement exercise regimes for their dogs.


Sources:

  1. Winning the race with aging: age-related changes in gait speed and its association with cognitive performance in dogs. - https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2023.1150590/full

  2. Science Daily, Slow walking could be sign of dementia in older dogs. June 27 2023 - https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/06/230627123033.htm

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