Devoted dog owners often claim that their pets understand them. A new study suggests they could be right.
By placing dogs in an MRI scanner, researchers from Hungary found that the canine brain reacts to voices in the same way that the human brain does.
Emotionally charged sounds, such as crying or laughter, also prompted similar responses, perhaps explaining why dogs are attuned to human emotions.
The work is published in the journal Current Biology.
Lead author Attila Andics, from the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, said: “We think dogs and humans have a very similar mechanism to process emotional information.”
Eleven pet dogs took part in the study; training them took some time.
“We used positive reinforcement strategies – lots of praise,” said Dr Andics.
“There were 12 sessions of preparatory training, then seven sessions in the scanner room, then these dogs were able to lie motionless for as long as eight minutes. Once they were trained, they were so happy, I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it.”
You’ve probably heard about domestic dogs that are trained to sniff out drugs, explosives, and bad guys.
You may also know that canines can detect the tiny molecular changes that distinguish cancer cells from healthy ones. Dogs in studies have perceived lung and breast cancer via a whiff of a patient’s breath, ovarian cancer from smelling blood, melanoma from the scent of skin, and colorectal cancer from the stink of stool samples. (Explore a human-body interactive.)
But enough about canines; they aren’t the only creatures with olfactory systems many times more sensitive than ours that we can tap for help.
This list is ever growing, but here’s a quick look at some unexpected “sniffers” that can perceive scents undetectable by humans—such as the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) associated with diseases—and then share their findings with us.
In brand-new work published online in Scientific Reports, scientists reveal that fruit flies—those tiny, pesky buggers that dive bomb your fruit bowl but also contribute vastly to the world of lab science—have quite a penetrating sniffer that can be used to detect cancer cells.
The insects’ antennae are covered in receptor neurons that let them recognize very low concentrations of medically relevant odors. What’s good about flies versus dogs as sniffers is that their response is physiological (a boost in calcium within the cells), not behavioral, and can be observed right there on the antennae surface. (The scientists use a technique called calcium imaging, which employs a fluorescing sensor that lights up calcium as it increases.)
Also unlike dogs, flies’ “answers” to questions (i.e., “is there breast cancer here?”) aren’t affected in any way by the handler, which is one critique of some sniffer-dog techniques. Study co-author Giovanni Galizia of the University of Konstanz in Germany said that flies could become the gold standard when it comes to assessing sniffers of the future.
Giant African Pouched Rat
Tuberculosis kills… especially in sub-Saharan Africa where, in 2012, there were more than 255 cases of this bacterial disease per 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. And one of the tools used to detect this disease? The giant African pouched rat.
Maybe it’s not so surprising; if you’ve ever watched a rat of any sort skittering around in the bushes or a back alley, you’ll note that its whiskered nose vibrates nonstop. But these super-size, big-cheeked rodents in Tanzania are following their noses to save human lives.
While the smear biopsy (looking at a patient’s spit under a microscope) is still the most widely used TB detection method in Africa, it isn’t very precise and the diseased cells are easy to miss.
The rat, on the other hand, can smell the difference between TB and other germs in human saliva more than 86 percent of the time, according to studies. And the animal picks up around 44 percent more cases than does the microscope. The same species has been used to smell for landmines in war-torn countries.
We humans aren’t the only animals that suffer from disease, and detecting illness in our creature cousins can be vital to industries such as beekeeping and farming.
Scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia found that mice react strongly to a disease-related chemical, or more likely a suite of chemicals, in the poop of birds (in this case, ducks) with avian flu.
Most likely the smelly bit isn’t actually the stink of the flu, but is instead released by the duck as part of its immune response, the scientists wrote of their finding.
Regardless, the research showed that mice have highly perceptive snouts and can be trained to find markers of avian or other diseases—leading to an earlier response to outbreaks, and with that a reduced chance of the disease spreading to humans.
You are still more likely to see dogs making rounds at the airport, but in some terminals honeybees have invaded security checkpoints. (Related: “Detection Dogs: Learning to Pass the Sniff Test.”)
Like flies, honeybees have incredibly sensitive antennae, and they are surprisingly quick and easy to train if you reward them with enough sugar water.
Developers from a company called Inscentinel have come up with a handheld device, resembling a hand vacuum cleaner, that holds 36 bees gently within cells while they work; the “vacuum” draws air over the bees from a sample (a bag, for example), and the insects are trained to extend a proboscis at a particular smell, a movement that sends information to a screen on the detector.
The user can immediately see how many bees respond positively, indicating, say, the scent of an explosive. If enough bees vote “yes,” it’s time to pull a passenger aside. Bees probably won’t replace dogs at airports anytime soon, but they’re another potential tool in the crime-fighting kit.
Called electronic noses or gas sensor arrays, these chemical analyzers are being used more and more to look for markers of cancer in cell cultures and in breath. But scientists and developers aren’t satisfied yet with the existing products and continue their research to improve the design and sensitivity, trying to make the electronic noses more precise than animals (a tough goal; dogs can tease out scents present in parts per trillion).
Said fruit fly researcher Galizia, “Natural receptors are still far superior to e-noses. I would guess the most promising path for quite a while will be to learn from the animal world and even build hybrid systems” that use both electronics and nature. (Read about robots in National Geographic magazine.)
Meanwhile, work like his team’s on the fly could propel us toward a more sensitive electronics-only olfactory machine—a tool that wouldn’t beg for sugary treats or belly rubs.
For polar bear pregnancy tests, it’s all about the poop. Elvis the beagle is helping zoos around the country figure out if their polar bears are pregnant, and he gets it right 97 percent of the time. But Elvis has never met a polar bear. Instead, he sniffs samples sent to him from zoos around the country, anxious to know whether they can expect a little cub or not.
A chocolate Labrador retriever named Papa Bear and a golden retriever named Bretagne are even trained to let diabetics know when their sugar levels are too high or too low, according to ABC News.
But when Kansas-based dog trainer Matt Skogen received an email from a conservation expert at the Cincinnati Zoo asking him to help figure out if the zoo’s polar bears were pregnant, he was caught off guard.
“A zoo in the Midwest, polar bears, pregnancies—when I first received that email, I really was a little skeptical as to the validity of it,” he says. “I get some doozies, and this is right near the top.”
Dog owners have long suspected that their dogs can tell if the owner is pregnant, but there’s never been a study to prove the suspicion, Skogen says. The pet pooches are likely just reacting to a general biological change in their owner, unless they were specifically trained to detect pregnancy. That’s unlikely, since this is the first time Skogen knows of a dog being professionally trained for the task.
Polar bears only give birth about five times in their lives, and they usually only have or two cubs in each litter—a fairly low birth rate when compared to other mammals, like dogs, that can have more than a dozen offspring in a year or cats, which can have 14 kittens in a single litter. The bears mate in the spring, but females only release an egg, or ovulate, during intercourse.
Even then, there’s no guarantee that the egg will be fertilized—it can take a few tries. If a female does get pregnant, she will gain about 250 pounds during her eight-month pregnancy. Cubs weigh about a pound when they’re born.
The thing is, zoologists can’t always tell if a polar bear is pregnant because females often become “pseudopregnant.” The bears show all the signs of pregnancy after mating, like weight gain and even nesting behavior, but come December, there’s no baby cub. The San Diego Zoo reports that this isn’t just a problem with bears—it also happens with mice, dogs, and even humans. The hormones in pseudopregnant and pregnant bears are close enough to throw off lab-based pregnancy tests.
And so, at zoos across the U.S., the staff must resort to waiting, setting up cameras and monitoring the dens 24/7 to see if their polar bears will give birth. But last year, only three polar bear cubs were produced in U.S. zoos, two of them in Toledo, Ohio.
Erin Curry, who works with the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife in Cincinnati, thought there had to be an easier approach than waiting anxiously. Training a dog to help them detect the pregnancies might be a long shot, but it was worth a try.
“This is the first time sniffer dogs have been used in biomedical research as it relates to any wildlife species, making this project truly one of a kind,” she said in a statement.
Getting Down to Business
Dogs are so good at this kind of detection because of their heightened senses. In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article on bomb-sniffing dogs, writer Josh Dean explained:
Dogs sniff five times a second, and each nostril pulls in a separate sample, which helps them find the direction of a scent’s source. The dog’s nasal physiology differentiates between air for breathing and air for sampling; the latter is diverted through an olfactory organ that only scent-driven animals have (rodents being the other leading example), where receptors hang from a layer of tissue known as the olfactory epithelium like electrical fixtures from a ceiling. A scent dog has as many as 300 million of these receptors, compared with 5 million in humans. Thirty-five percent of a dog’s brain is dedicated to smell.
For the project to work, Elvis would never actually meet a polar bear. Instead, he would concentrate on their poop. Of the more than 2,000 proteins in polar bear fecal samples, only five are consistent with pregnancy, and he’d be sniffing for those.
The training process was bumpy at first. Skogen started out with two dogs—Elvis and a border collie. Both were trained using more than 200 samples from polar bears that had already given birth. The trainer created a wooden board with holes in the top and canisters underneath containing one test sample each.
Skogen soon decided to concentrate on Elvis because the other dog was guessing too often. After a few months “where he was truly in a fog,” Elvis started to really get it, the trainer said. Skogen then added samples from male bears to test Elvis’s ability to decipher between pregnant and non-pregnant bears.
The trainer remained skeptical until one day in mid-April, when it became impossible to deny Elvis’s skills.
“We’re sitting there mixing and matching, throwing every curveball you can imagine at this little guy, and he’s consistently finding the target odor,” said Skogen. “It was pretty amazing.” When the beagle identifies a positive sample, he is trained to sit, pointing his nose at the sample. Elvis is then rewarded with his favorite treats.
In the most surprising case, Elvis identified a pregnancy in a sample that zoologists had labeled as negative. Skogen thought Elvis was tripping up, but he called Curry to double check.
She went back into the records, and it turns out that a few months after the sample was collected, the polar bear had in fact given birth to a cub. There was no getting it past Elvis.
“That was a great thing,” Skogen said with a laugh. “Here we thought we had a rouge alert, but it ended up being very positive.”
Today, Elvis is identifying pregnancies with a 97 percent accuracy rate—that’s better than many at-home pregnancy tests are at alerting humans.
This month, he’s busy testing 34 samples, two each from 17 polar bears at 14 zoos across the U.S. and Canada.
By the end of the test, those zoos should know whether to expect a fuzzy little bundle of joy this holiday season.
By: Janice Hannah
Watch this video about Nala’s story from Pilots and Paws Canada.
I won’t easily forget when I received the call about Nala.
I was standing in the tackroom of the barn as the story unfolded over the phone.
That afternoon in the community up north, the large, shepherd type dog had just popped out on the street and followed one of the teachers home. The teacher had never seen the dog before, and she figured the smell that clung to her was proof of a good roll on a fish carcass or a dip in some stagnant water. When the teacher got home though she realized that the stench wasn’t on the dog, it was in the dog!
She named the 6 month old girl Nala and along with a friend, worked through Nala’s fur to find a deep and infected wound that went almost the entire way around her neck.
It appeared that the rope Nala had been tied on had become too tight, and as she grew, the rope grew into her neck. When the rope had finally rotted, Nala had found herself out of the backyard and on the street.
Could the International Fund for Animal Welfare help?
Nala’s community is about an 17 hour drive from me and it was early winter, not a time of year I felt comfortable driving north.
As I was trying to toggle logistics together in my head of how to get her down, I was getting play by play from the community end as they shaved Nala’s neck to have a better look at the wound. It was deep, it was infected, it needed veterinary help pronto.
That’s when the calls started to go out and amazing people came out of nowhere to help.
Air Creebec agreed to fly Nala free of charge to Montreal.
Pilots and Paws Canada came to the rescue with one of their volunteer pilots offering to fly Nala from the Ottawa area to outside Toronto where I could pick her up and get to the vet quickly.
More volunteers came forward offering to fill in the spaces between her Montreal arrival and her flight out of Ottawa the following morning.
And when people work together, good things happen.
A couple of glitches in the actual transport, two neck surgeries, a spay and some house lessons later, Nala was healed and hilarious.
In the few months that she lived with us, she showed herself not only to be physically beautiful, but sweet, goofy, and a bit of a comic to boot. This charming girl was a special case regardless of her neck. I just happened to get to know her because of the circumstances.
Luckily for me, I have been able to keep her in my life by finding her a home close by that fits her comic personality to a T.
This story doesn’t happen without the wonderful community members, Air Creebec and Pilots and Paws Canada, and volunteers down here who came to Nala’s rescue when she needed them most.
Have a look, and see for yourself.
Rebecca Ascher-Walsh for National Geographic
Dog owners know how how much joy our beloved canine companions bring to our lives.
They enrich us in small and undramatic ways every day—by making us laugh, keeping us company, and offering us unconditional love. My new National Geographic book, Devoted, focuses on 38 stories about the bond between extraordinary dogs and their humans—five of which are described below. (Related: Can Dogs Feel Our Emotions? Yawn Study Suggests Yes.”)
We also want to hear the story of you and your dog. Please share your photos with the National Geographic Your Shot community through October 2.
In 2003, an English policeman discovered a greyhound cowering in a locked shed. The dog was severely malnourished, filthy, and clearly abused.
The policeman took her to the Nuneaton and Warwickshire Wildlife Sanctuary, a place founded and run by Geoff Grewcock to care for sick and injured animals. And so an act of fate would change the life of not only a dog and a person, but hundreds of other animals as well.
“When I first met Jasmine, you could tell she had been emotionally devastated but was a gentle dog by nature,” Grewcock said. “And soon, she started nurturing the other animals.”
Jasmine became famous for playing mother over the years to puppies, foxes, a fawn, 4 badger cubs, 15 chicks, 8 guinea pigs, 15 rabbits, a deer—and one of her favorites, a goose.
“There are certain things only an animal mother can provide, and Jasmine provided it,” said Grewcock.
Jasmine passed away in the fall of 2011, an event marked by worldwide donations made in her honor to the sanctuary, which continues to care—if not with Jasmine’s personal style—for animals in need.
“Her passing was so sad,” said Grewcock. “But she was a legendary animal, and her legacy continues. “
Thanks to Wilma, Steve Sietos may very well be the world’s only fireman/herbalist/energy healer. It was love at first sight when Wilma the pit bull was brought into Sietos’s Brooklyn firehouse. She was hungry and sick, her hair was matted, her tongue hung out at a weird angle—but she never stopped wagging her tail. (Take National Geographic’s dog quiz.)
But after Wilma was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Sietos went bankrupt spending $8,000 on futile treatments.
“I said to myself, ‘No more vets,'” he said. “I started researching herbs and flower essences that help immune systems, and that was the beginning of her healing.”
It was also the beginning of Sietos’s additional career as a clinical herbalist. He now helps both animals and people.
As for Wilma, she’s improved and has taken on a role usually reserved for dalmatians: Firehouse Fido.
Wilma was rescued by the captain of Steve Sietos’s firehouse; Sietos later adopted her.
Photograph courtesy Brad DeCecco, National Geographic Books
A little enthusiasm can take you far—in the case of Pearl the black lab, all the way from a California pound to Haiti.
At the animal shelter, a group that trains seeing-eye dogs saw promise in her. Then they got to know her.
“Halfway through testing her, the rescue said, ‘This dog is way too hyper,'” said Pearl’s owner and handler, Los Angeles firefighter Captain Ron Horetski.
That was music to the ears of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, since search and rescue missions require round-the-clock work and a “Wait, I’m just getting going!” attitude. (Watch a video of working dogs.)
After arduous training, the pair was deployed in 2010 to earthquake-stricken Haiti as part of the first ever international canine search and rescue team. The pair also traveled to Japan after the 2011 tsunami.
When at home, Pearl accompanies her owner 24/7, as part of the program’s guidelines, but “she’s a work dog, so she’s not on my lap watching TV at night,” said Horetski.
“And we don’t go to the dog run to play, because she needs to be ready and have the energy for an emergency. But she’s so much more than a pet to me. She’s my partner.”
Pearl, a Labrador retriever who lived in a shelter, is a search-and-rescue dog who helps after natural and man-made disasters.
Photograph courtesy National Geographic Books
Sometimes, in order to really listen, it helps when you can’t hear anything at all.
That’s the case with Luca, a deaf pit bull whose gift as a therapy dog comes from what others might perceive as a disability.
Luca, who was adopted as a puppy from a shelter, was trained by his owners, Brooke Slater and Dave Goldstein, to make constant eye contact so he could follow their signed commands.
For the at-risk or disabled youths with whom Luca now interacts, that can often mean feeling—and being—recognized for the first time. “He doesn’t give these kids a choice but to make eye contact, because he walks right up to them and demands it,” said Slater.
Luca—who inspired Slater and Goldstein to start Bruised Not Broken, a Facebook page devoted to pit bull rescue that has more than 100,000 followers—is also an ambassador.
“We are part of a program that teaches empathy and compassion. When Luca walks in the room and they see a pit bull, kids hit the deck screaming,” Slater said with a laugh.
“So the first lesson is, ‘No prejudice. Decide how you feel after spending time with him.’ This is the work he was born to do.”
Luca is a deaf pit bull whose gift as a therapy dog stems from what others might perceive as a disability. Even though Luca is deaf she has learned to follow her owners’ instructions by their special hand signals.
Photograph courtesy Josh Ferris, National Geographic Books
The joy a dog can find in comforting the stricken has transformed the Winokur family, whose adopted son, Iyal, displays symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The teenager, who has damage to his brain and central nervous system, experiences rages, delayed emotional growth, and sleepless nights—all of which were undoing a family exhausted by a decade of round-the-clock care.
But within 24 hours of being paired with Chancer, a golden retriever, the family’s lives were transformed. On his first night in their home, he crawled into Iyal’s twin bed to sleep beside him; after years of nocturnal disruptions, the entire family finally slept until the sun came up.
Now, when Iyal has a temper tantrum, Chancer nestles next to him or lies on top of him to soothe him, and “the rages don’t escalate the way they used to and they don’t last as long,” said Iyal’s mother, Donnie Winokur.
Chancer also makes it easier for the family to enjoy their relationships with the teenager.
“I have a child with a severe disability but a huge kind heart and soul—and it’s about making sure we have access to that heart and soul,” says Winokur.
“Chancer helps us do that.”
Chancer is the first service-trained dog for people living with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Service dogs can help children born with FAS improve self-confidence and independence.
Photograph courtesy Bill Simmons Photography/National Geographic Books
Credits: National Geographic
Dingo will be featured in an upcoming National Geographic book about the devotion between dogs and their best friends.
By: Liam Casey
Dingo was in trouble. A deep cut on the dog’s back paw, with bone exposed, was infected. He was lethargic and near death.
Nathan Moody needed to get Dingo to a proper veterinarian fast — the clinics in the Bahamas weren’t like those in Pickering, where Dingo came from. So Nathan called his brother, Rob, to hatch a plan.
And so began a rescue operation for a pooch that faced death not once, but twice within months, and whose story of survival is immortalized in an upcoming National Geographic book, Devoted: 38 Extraordinary Tales of Love, Loyalty, and Life with Dogs.
This latest injury occurred in May 2012 when three potcakes — wild Bahamian dogs — burst into Nathan Moody’s home. Two went for Dingo. The other attacked Moody. Their blood splattered the house.
Ziggy, Moody’s pit bull, charged in from another room, killing one of the potcakes before the other two wild dogs ran off.
Moody was bleeding from his arm and abdomen; Ziggy was fine. But Dingo was badly cut. Blood gushed from his right rear paw — from the same gash he suffered in a near-death experience at sea the previous January.
That’s when Moody found Dingo curled up on a boat bobbing near Memory Rock in the Bahamas.
Dingo and his owner, John Batchelor, had lived much of the past decade at sea, sailing from Pickering down the Intracoastal Waterway to the Bahamas every fall and back again in the spring.
When Moody found Dingo on the boat, Batchelor was last seen three weeks earlier, moored in the same spot, bobbing in the turquoise waters. The Canadian sailor has since been presumed drowned.
Dingo was in rough shape. His ribs protruded from his scrawny frame, he was severely dehydrated and had a massive gash on his leg.
A few months later came the dog attack, and potentially fatal infection.
Moody, an American, was about to return home after several years in the archipelago. But he didn’t have time to deal with bringing an animal into the country. So he called his brother, Rob, who already planned one final visit to the Bahamas.
Rob drove to West Palm Beach, then hopped on a boat with two friends. They cruised through the northern edge of the Bermuda Triangle to West End in the Bahamas.
Then all four sat down and devised a plan to save Dingo: Rob would bring Dingo to his own veterinarian in North Carolina. But first they had to get there.
The weather wasn’t co-operating. The forecast called for several days of three-metre waves, too much for the 10-metre fishing boat with two outboard motors to handle the day-long trip between the islands and mainland.
Moody woke up as the sun rose to check out the waves. The seas were calm, so he woke his brother.
“The waves aren’t big,” Moody told his brother. “We gotta go.”
They packed the boat, but needed something to secure Dingo’s injured leg for the journey. Rob took his Tilly hat, one that he wore all over the world as a journalist, from Afghanistan to Burma, fashioned a makeshift sling and lay Dingo in the bow of the boat.
When the boat cruised past Memory Rock, the same spot where Moody found Dingo, something strange happened.
“This sounds like fiction,” Rob Moody said. “But when we passed Memory Rock, Dingo got up, looked around at the ocean, then curled back up and lay down. It’s like he was looking for John.”
They crossed into the harbour, docked the boat and checked in with customs.
“They didn’t ask about a dog,” Rob said. “And I didn’t tell them about a dog.”
Rob called his veterinarian, in Miami at the time, waiting to fly home. They agreed to meet at the clinic at 8 a.m. the next morning. They drove 12 hours straight, stopping only a few times to let Dingo go to the bathroom.
“We were in such a hurry to get him home we forgot to bring his food,” Rob Moody said. “So we stopped at a store and grabbed some dog treats for him.”
They arrived at the clinic 15 minutes before it opened. From there, Dingo spent six weeks at the clinic where the vets used a variety of experimental techniques, from medical-grade honey that promotes healing, to cold-laser therapy, to skin grafts.
“The treatment took time, but it worked,” said veterinarian Robin Sigismondi, who said Dingo was a lab-rat of sorts, the first to be treated with the laser.
During recovery, Dingo was given his own room with floor-to-ceiling glass so he could see everybody. Otherwise, his severe anxiety would take hold. He ate Prozac to calm his nerves.
“If someone left you alone on a boat for three weeks, you’d have abandonment issues, too,” Moody said.
“This dog is my hero,” Nathan Moody said. “He showed me that life isn’t that bad. If he can survive death twice and continue to love, then so can I. To see where he’s been, from that day when I found him on the boat to now, it’s just, it’s just inspirational.”
Dingo is now healthy and living South Carolina, sleeping on the bed with Moody, his wife, Luzma, and Ziggy.
He spends his days chasing squirrels, his tail wagging, always wagging.
Credits: Toronto Star
A couple of months ago we told you how the age of certain wild animals is determined. Since then, some of you wondered about age-related changes in those animals.
Now that it’s September, aka World Alzheimer’s Month—Alzheimer’s disease accounts for up to 80 percent of all dementia cases, in which mental abilities decline and impede daily functioning—we asked some experts: Do wild animals and domestic pets suffer from dementia or dementia-like symptoms?
The answer: yes and (probably) no.
Our domestic dogs and cats, who live in safe environments and get veterinary care, can live very long lives—long enough to develop cognitive dysfunction. Little data has been collected on older animals in the wild, but while they may reach old age, if they were to develop dementia-like symptoms, they wouldn’t last very long. (Read “Animal Minds” in National Geographic magazine.)
In a research paper published earlier this year in Ageing Research Reviews, researchers found that in 334 studies, 175 animal species showed evidence of senescence, or the process of growing old.
Dementia Unlikely in Wild Animals
Study co-author Dan Nussey, of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh, said via email that some of the strongest evidence of and most in-depth studies on senescence come from wild ungulates (such as deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats) and seabirds, like the long-lived albatross.
Nussey said that wild animals can show physical deterioration like arthritis or tooth wear, and some cognitive deterioration may occur in the wild, but anything as severe as dementia or Alzheimer’s would simply not allow them to last.
“Wild animals live a tough life,” agreed David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. “Even early [physical] deteriorations—like age-worn teeth or hips—make it harder for them to survive.” Additional cognitive problems would simply make them too vulnerable to survive.
Domestic Pets Susceptible
On the other hand, domestic pets tend to live in safe environments and receive regular veterinary care. That means many cats and dogs live long enough to develop cognitive dysfunction.
Jennifer Bolser, chief clinician at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado, said veterinarians are seeing more cases of cognitive dysfunction syndrome, commonly called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). (Related: “OCD Dogs, People Have Similar Brains; Is Your Dog OCD?”)
This is probably because domestic dogs are living longer, thanks to better medical and preventive care starting at a younger age and vets who are more adept at recognizing symptoms.
The most dramatic signs owners might notice are dogs “acting disoriented, walking in circles, or staring into corners or [at] the wall.”
Other symptoms include aggression, changes in sleep patterns, loss of interest in family members, and inability to control urination or defecation “in more than just an incontinent way—almost like they’re forgetting how to be house trained,” Bolser said. Cat owners might also notice their pets yowling at random times of day.
Other illnesses have to be ruled out, though, before cognitive dysfunction is definitively determined.
“Usually it’s a diagnosis by exclusion,” Bolser said. “If everything else is checking out normally,” it probably is cognitive dysfunction.
Amy Johnson, assistant professor of large animal medicine and neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, says she doesn’t know if horses are susceptible too. But she does get calls from owners of elderly horses who report changes in the animals’ behavior and ask if the horse might have Alzheimer’s.
To rule out structural brain changes or brain tumors requires medical tests such as MRIs. Most horse owners don’t want to go to the expense or run the risk of putting their animal under anesthesia, so such questions usually go unanswered.
How Can You Help Your Aging Pet?
Bolser says that although there isn’t a cure, there are ways to manage cognitive dysfunction.
“Keep the [pet’s] brain active, even at an older age,” she said. “Teaching them new tricks, getting them outside, and challenging their brains with new environmental stimuli is very important to helping the brain not deteriorate as quickly.”
Also, adding antioxidants to their diets can help with brain health. A prescription diet fortified with antioxidants, fatty acids, and L-carnitine is available, she said.
There are also some medications, the main one being selegiline, which has been used as an MAO inhibitor antidepressant in people and is also sometimes used for human Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients as well, Bolser said.
Mizejewski has some personal experience with CCD, having lost two dogs to old age. The keys to keeping them alive and healthy, he said, were regular exercise, mental stimulation, social interaction, and a good diet. (See dog pictures submitted to National Geographic.)
“There’s a pity involved when we think about our pets losing cognitive function,” he said. “But on the flip side, I think about if my dogs were wild wolves—they would have succumbed to something else long before they got to this stage of old age and dementia.
“Whether domestic or wild, every animal dies at some point. And at the end of the day, I don’t think one way of life ending is necessarily better than another.”
Credits: Weird & Wild