If everyone in America had a dog and walked it daily, our brains would benefit — and so would our dogs'. Carl Cottman, director of Alzheimer's Disease Research at the University of California-Irvine, says regular moderate exercise turns out to be healthy for our heads as well as our hearts. And the same goes for our dogs.
As Alzheimer's disease occurs in people, so does a similar syndrome in our pets, referred to as cognitive dysfunction (CD). And like Alzheimer's in people, cognitive dysfunction is increasingly common, or so it seems. "It's always been there," says veterinary behaviorist Gary Landsberg of Thornhill, Ontario, director of veterinary affairs at Cancog Technologies. "Our pets are living longer, and we're learning much more about identifying cognitive dysfunction." Landsberg is now researching the disorder in cats.
The acronym for pet owners to identify CD is referred to as DISH:
D — Disorientation and confusion, such as attempting to walk through the wrong side of a doggie door.
I — Changes in interactions, such as an outgoing pet becoming withdrawn.
S — Sleep disturbances: cats yowling or dogs pacing overnight for no apparent reason.
H — House soiling, having "accidents."
"Cognitive dysfunction is a diagnosis of exclusion," says veterinary behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, editor of Good Old Dog. Pet owners and their veterinarians need to rule out medical problems first. Is the cat missing the box because of diabetes? Or is the dog walking into walls at night because of impaired vision? "What makes this complicated is sometimes there is a physical problem as well as cognitive decline," Dodman says.
Early diagnosis is challenging, but it's helpful. Landsberg says the first signs are typically changes in social interactions, which tend to be more subtle in cats.
It seems cognitive changes leading to Alzheimer's in humans might be delayed, minimized or potentially even prevented with lifetime learning and activity. That's why independent-living centers are promoting computer or dance classes, and doctors have even "prescribed" that older patients return to school. Jeffrey Kaye, director of NIA-Layton Aging and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, is chair of a technology task force for the Alzheimer's Association. "Certainly, there's something to all this," he says. "There are studies in people, but it's a challenge to conduct them because you can't control what people do and the circumstances which occur in their lives. In dogs, studies are easier to control."
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