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How Researchers are Finding New Ways to Help Senior Dogs Stay Healthy and Happy

This series is brought to you by our partner, Purina ONE®. These stories share the innovations that are changing how we care for and learn from our pets. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.

We’ve all experienced those moments where we forget why we walked into a room, or what someone’s name is, or where we put those keys. As we get older, often it takes a little more effort and practice to stay as sharp as before. And for dogs, researchers have found that they may exhibit similar behavioral changes as they age. Inspired by initial findings about nutrition and human brain function, scientists at Purina Research set out to discover if they can help delay—or even restore—cognitive decline in senior dogs.

As our best friends grow older alongside us, we accept that they might not be as quick to fetch balls or obey commands. But researchers have found that the dog’s brain can also experience some of the same “senior” moments that we do, which can not only alter their physical behavior and capabilities, but their personalities, as well.

“Generally, at around seven years of age, dogs start to show internal biological and physiological indicators that they're aging, including cognitively,” explains Dr. Mark Roos, Director of Global Nutrition and Technical Communications at Purina. “Externally, signs might not start showing until much later.”

These signs might be more subtle than you think. “Indicators could include the dog being less sociable, less willing to explore, less mobile, and having a smaller territory that he’s comfortable in,” says Roos. “There are also dogs that were always active and agile but then maybe over time they're not going up the stairs as easily, or you have to coax them to do things they used to do regularly.”

While exploring ways to address cognitive decline in senior dogs, researchers at Purina realized that neurons slowly decline in their capability to use glucose as an energy source. These neurons essentially lack the energy to function, and, in the end, they die. While searching for a solution, Purina’s researchers found a study of enhanced botanical oils that showed promise in improving cognition in aging human brains. “[The study’s researchers] were looking at factors driving cognitive decline, and one was fueling energy to the brain’s neurons,” says Roos. “We wondered, ‘Could that make sense for dogs?’”

One of the researchers at Purina, Gary Pan, and his project team, focused their research on medium chain triglycerides (or MCTs), dietary fats with unique chemical structures, as a way to strengthen an alternate energy pathway to some of the neurons in a dog’s brain. They devised a feeding study that lasted eight months to see if a diet rich in MCTs, which are found in enhanced botanical oils, could alter effects of cognitive decline in senior dogs. During the feeding study, they found that senior dogs showed measureable improvement in both cognitive and coordination tests. They discovered that these triglycerides could be converted, in sufficient amounts, to brain-friendly fuel, powering neurons and keeping brain cells active.

Their research was published in the British Journal of Nutrition, a well recognized nutrition journal. After publishing their MCT breakthrough, Roos says, “Purina found that this nutrition research garnered attention from across the nutrition, cognitive research, and health fields. We’ve had a number of researchers who study cognition in humans approach us about the possibility of applying this knowledge as a benefit for humans.” While more studies are needed to show how well this might translate to humans and even other animal species, the most important lesson may have been in researchers’ approach to fighting the effects of aging.

“We've learned through our research efforts in pet nutrition that we don’t have to simply accept the changes that occur with older age in pets,” says Roos. “We can be more engaged and proactive with nutrition in order to get benefits for the pet and the owner. For pets, it means fruitful quality of life, and, for dog owners, it means the chance to cherish a long, rich relationship with their friends.”

Image via Flickr (cc) user celine nadeau

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