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Exercise is essential for your brain -- and your dog's.
Exercise is essential for your brain -- and your dog's. / Rhea Anna, Getty Images

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What can you do in real-life to potentially delay or even – who knows – prevent cognitive decline in pets? It all begins with providing lots of enrichment, a lifetime of learning, adequate exercise and appropriate nutrition.

Many dogs attend puppy classes, but learning shouldn’t stop there. Use the techniques you’ve learned in your puppy class to continue teaching your dog. Sometimes those approaches come in handy; for example, you can teach your dog not to jump at the door greeting visitors. You can also teach dogs (in good health) to find dinner in a game of hide ‘n seek. Pour the kibble into enrichment toys (such as Busy Body or Kong toys, or the Talk to Me Treatball), which you hide for your pup to seek. This game provides exercise for the brain as well as some physical activity. There are even ‘board games’ for dogs, such as the Nina Ottoson interactive brain games for dogs.

In truth, let out to run in the backyard, most dogs typically sprint around a few times, and then chill because unless you are there, there’s little for a dog to do. A walk around the block is far more enriching; with each sniff the pup checks out the 4-1-1 on every dog, cat or squirrel who has recently dropped by. There’s usually an opportunity to meet other dogs and their people; and Carl Cottman, director of Alzheimer’s Disease Research at the University of California, Irvine, notes that it’s been shown that social activity stimulates canine brains. Cottman says that brain exercises (thinking and learning) are good for the brain, and physical exercise turns out to be good for brain health as well.

“We’re pretty convinced that engaging novel activities and increasing and changing around the complexity of the environment are all effective at helping to preserve brain volume in rats, and probably in dogs and in people,” says Jeffrey Kaye, director of NIA-Layton Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, and chair of a Task Force for the National Alzheimer’s Association.

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For cats, enrichment and exercise are no less important – and veterinary behaviorist Gary Landsberg, of Thornhill, Ontario, director of veterinary affairs for Cancog Technologies, says our cats may be in more need of both compared to dogs. While increasingly people keep their cats indoors, they are likely under-exercised and bored. However, by changing around the environment too dramatically, you could instantly have one stressed out cat, since cats unaccustomed to change generally detest anything new and different.

“One easy way to change up the environment for a cat or a dog is to rotate the toys,” says veterinary behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, and director of the Behavior Clinic of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Aside from playing with your cat, and having a second cat or another pet in the home for the cat to interact with, some of the same techniques to enrich lives in dogs can be used for cats. Feeding some or even all of the cat’s food in toys that dispense kibble is a great idea for activating a cat’s prey drive. You can do the same with moist food by spooning small portions of the food into several little containers or plastic lids, and put them in various locations around the house.

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