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Preventing Cognitive Decline in Older Pets

Written By: Stephanie Rodgers, Behavior Training Programs Manager

If you are a lucky member of the older pet owner club you may be looking for ways to keep your pet active and engaged in daily life. Keeping our pets active can be helpful in actually extending their lives and will keep them young at heart and, more importantly, mentally young. It can also be easy to slip into a sleepy day- to- day routine that can be boring and uneventful for your pet. There are lots of ways to help your older pet enjoy life even when their activity level may be more physically limited.

Starting Off on the Right Paw
Having a plan is a good place to start. Providing a variety of daily activities can provide for different species-specific needs your pet has. Cats and dogs will require different approaches to environmental enrichment. The important thing to remember is to have fun!

Food Toys and Puzzle Toys:
KONG makes many different food toys that can entertain your dog and cat for hours. While these food toys are developed more for dogs there are some choices for cats as well. The primary KONG toy you may be familiar with is designed to stuff with your dog’s favorite treat and then they will work on how to get the yummy stuff out. I like to make KONGs for my dogs fun and easy and not frustrating. If you smash soft food or something sticky in there it can be almost impossible to get out and will be hard to clean when your dog is finished playing with it as well.

Nina Ottosson by Outward Hound. These puzzle toys offer many different varieties and are designed to be easy to use and easy to clean. Your dog can use his nose or paw to open compartments and push small doors open to find food treats. These food puzzles are inventive and fun!

Simple food toys you can make yourself. A used plastic water bottle with the label and cap removed and filled with kibble and a few treats can be great fun for you dog or cat. It makes noise and will spin and bounce around and can be very enticing for some pets. If you choose to use homemade food toys, provide close supervision while your pet is interacting with them as they may be easy to chew and destroy. Once the toy has had its moment in the sun simply toss it. Remember to recycle!

Slow Feeder Bowls. These types of bowls were originally designed for dogs that eat too fast and gulp their food which can result in vomiting. These bowls can also be used to perk up dinner time with a little challenge. The deep grooves and puzzle type designs can have your dog spending a little more time figuring out how to get to the food. Much more interesting than a plain boring food bowl!

Snuffle Mats. Soft blanket type mat that allows you to feed dry food from or just hide treats in it for your dog to find. This product can be bought or you can make one yourself.

Cognition / Training Games and Activities:
Training your pet can be a great way to spend time together and keep the fun going year after year. Learning helps keep the mind and body active and engaged.

Touch or Targeting. Teaching your pet to touch your hand with a nose or a paw is easy and fun. Nose touches are the easiest as most animals will investigate by sniffing the offered item (hand). Hold out your hand (palm facing pet is best) and when your pet sniffs your palm tell him “good boy” and deliver a food treat. To train targeting a different item you can use a food treat to lure the desired behavior (touching an item such as door chimes that lets you know your dog has to go out). Where food goes the nose will follow.

Chin Rest. This behavior is a good way to show your dog he has a choice and can communicate consent when you are interacting with him, such as grooming or trimming his nails. He can use this behavior to say yes you can continue that thing you are doing or no I would like to take a break from doing that thing. You can shape a chin rest by using a food treat to lure your dog’s chin into the palm of your hand or onto a resting perch (a piece of equipment that you can use for your dog to rest his chin on). When your dog has his chin in the resting position say “good dog” and deliver a food treat. A perch should be comfortable for your pet and at the correct height to be easily accessible if your dog is sitting, standing or laying down.

The Bucket Game. Another consent exercise. Fill a small bucket or cup with treats (he will likely stare at the bucket) brush or comb your dog and if he continues to look at the bucket (and he probably will because it is full of his favorite treats) you may continue to groom him. If he looks away from the bucket this communicates the “stop” signal. Food treats from the bucket can be delivered when your dog looks back at the bucket as this will communicate “go” or that you can continue the grooming. For full instructions for this game google Bucket Game with Chirag Patel.

Teach Simple Tricks. Shake, give paw, high five, balance a treat on your nose, catch a treat in the air, roll over. I always encourage people to look for behaviors that your pet will offer naturally and then mark it and reinforce it with a food treat. Once your pet is offering the behavior with reliability you can name it. It is important to remember if you reinforce it your pet will do it more, so make sure it is really something you want your pet doing. “Speak” for instance, will increase vocalization…..be careful what you wish for in other words.

Tips and Hints
Some things to consider when your pet enters into their golden years will be directly related to their temperament and personality. You know your dog best and when they don’t seem like themselves it may be time to schedule an appointment with your vet for a full geriatric checkup. If they still seem a bit off or just not enjoying daily activities as much as they used too some simple environmental enrichment may help them get their mojo back!

Don’t overdo it with too much physical activity. Remember your aging pet may have arthritis and in general less energy than they once did. Let them set the pace.

Make training and games fun and not frustrating.

Don’t forget about outside time. Your older pet may enjoy basking in the sun while spending quality time with you.

Dog Obedience classes – learning never ends.
Plan outings together. A trip to the pet store to buy a new toy, lunch at your favorite café.

Playdates– play with another animal can be great fun! Keep in mind your geriatric pets limitations when playing with younger more energetic animals.

While punishment is NEVER a good way to communicate with your pet, this is particularly important when planning exercises and training games for your older pet. Time together should be FUN!