Categories: Small Dog Mental Health-Published On: October 15, 2023-

1450 Words; 6 Minute Read: In this article on small dogs and dementia,

  • we’ll look at new research on how a dog’s size and breed affects aging,
  • we’ll discover the surprising way human attitudes can inadvertently speed our pups’ entry into old age, and
  • we’ll consider how we can best support our small dogs as they age.

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Small red dog and small, older grey and white dog on hind legs and hugging each other.

Understanding Aging in Small Dogs

In Downward Sizing Dog, I devoted an entire chapter to the science behind small dogs and aging.

As I reported there, small dogs possess certain genetic traits linked to their much longer lifespans compared to large canines. Unlike the rest of the mammal world, where smaller creatures generally live much shorter lives, with dogs, the opposite is true.

Small dogs live very long lives compared to big dogs, statistically speaking.

But the story isn’t a simple one. And new research reveals some bad news for those of us with little canine family members: Small dogs and dementia are more linked than previously thought.

The Big Impact of Body Size on Aging

In an October, 2023 peer-reviewed article published in GeroScience, researchers reported a fascinating link between a dog’s size and its aging process. Larger dogs weighing over 66 pounds might show signs of aging earlier, but they decline much less rapidly than smaller pups.

This slower rate of decline means, as a whole, big dogs don’t experience as dramatic behavioral changes in their golden years as their smaller counterparts. As the study aptly points out, “an extended lifespan does not necessarily mean an extended healthspan as well.”

And clearly, as our small dogs age, we’re as concerned about their quality of life as we are their span of life. Perhaps more so.

Small, aging beagle barking and poised with front legs splayed

Small Dogs and Dementia: The Unexpected Findings Connected to Pure Breeds vs. Mixed Breeds

Researchers at the Canine Brain Research Group reported purebred or mixed-breed status showed no substantial difference in behavioral aging.

But, there IS a catch. Purebreds were found to be at a higher risk of developing Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), a condition akin to dementia.

Of course, no matter your small dog’s heritage, these findings underline the necessity for awareness and proactive healthcare for our pups as they age.

Small black dog with graying face and tongue out

Are We Contributing to the Connection Between Small Dogs and Dementia?

And yet, that awareness requires we also temper our own anticipatory fears. In a finding that surprised researchers, an owner’s perception of when a dog is considered “old” doesn’t match the onset of their dog’s actual age-related decline.

In fact, owners often classify their dogs as “old” starting at around six years of age. That belief occurred irrespective of actual symptoms. The reality, however, is that most small dogs don’t show clinical signs of “being old” until about 10.5 years of age.

That’s a shocking four years where we’re treating our pups differently than we should! Is it possible that our premature attitudes lead to a steeper and earlier mental decline?

This disparity between our beliefs and our pups’ realities underscores the need for increased awareness and education. We must understand more about the natural aging process in dogs to ensure we perceive and treat them in ways that align with their true physical and mental condition.

Monochrome photo with woman's torso in creams massaging head of pug lying on his back.

What We Must Do to Protect Our Small Dogs from Cognitive Decline?

Keeping our small dogs mentally and physically active, as well as properly nourished, can play a significant role in maintaining their cognitive functions as they age.

Here’s a focused list of interventions that may help prevent or delay the onset of dementia in our small pups. As a bonus, much of that interaction will probably help us as well.

  • Daily Playtime and New Toys:

    • Keeping our little dogs engaged with regular play sessions is crucial for keeping their minds sharp. Toys that stimulate their brains, like puzzles where they have to work to get a treat, are particularly helpful.
    • Rotating between different toys provides novelty and new challenges. I’ve begun a habit of switching out toys on the first Friday of every month.
  • Teach New Tricks, Keep Practicing Old Ones:

    • We all know that old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” And we all know that’s simply not true–not for us and certainly not for our pups. Continuous learning stimulates the brain at any age. So many trick books exist, and it’s fun to work your way through them.
    • And, revisiting tricks and commands we’ve taught previously helps maintain our pups’ cognitive clarity.
  • Regular Physical Exercise:

    • Regular daily walks are so important, but try to introduce new routes regularly when it’s safe to do so. The unfamiliar smells and environments help keep our pups’ (and our own) minds active.
    • Engage in other physical activities like playing fetch or agility exercises, which are great for body and mind. We keep a length of rope around and tie new toys to the end. It’s so much fun to hide behind something and pull on the toy as they play stalker.
  • Social Interactions:

    • Regular interaction with other dogs or humans opens up not just our pup’s world but our own.
    • Find ways to bring your pups with you on errands or social visits. Our little pups are so portable, it should be easy to get them out and about at least a couple of times a week. Whether you’re running to the local Home Goods or the hardware store, opt for places that welcome your pup.
  • Healthy Diet with Beneficial Supplements:

    • Consult with your vet about incorporating supplements known to support brain health, such as omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil), antioxidants, and vitamins E and C.
    • A balanced diet that’s appropriate for your pup’s age and size is crucial. Consider finding ways to rotate foods, both with respect to protein sources and textures. Use healthy treats like carrots or frozen pumpkin pops. Keep them interested and guessing.
  • Interactive Feeders and Games:

    • Using food-dispensing toys or snuffle mats that require our dogs to think and problem-solve to get their reward. As I’ve written in the past, breakfast snuffle mats have completely transformed Phoebe and Scout’s morning meals. I love them. And so do they.
    • We’ve also been playing hide-and-seek with treats, which works the girls into a fun frenzy.
  • Regular Veterinary Check-ups:

    • Regular check-ups can help catch any health issues early on, including those that may affect our small dogs’ cognitive functions. Starting at age eight, we also do a senior blood panel
    • Dental care becomes so important here. In my interviews for my second book The Small Dog Rules, expert after expert has emphasized to me the vital need for a healthy mouth, especially with small dogs.
  • Comfortable, Stimulating Living Environment:

    • We need to keep our pups’  living spaces comfortable and enriching. They need their own spaces where they feel safe and secure. Just like us, sometimes they just want some quiet time away from the bustle of the house.
    • In addition, though, we should consistently bring in fresh scents and sounds, to keep their senses sharp. Use background music or safe essential oils like lavender.
  • Massage and Physical Contact:

    • Regular gentle massages can help to reduce stress and create a comforting routine. What’s more, as I covered in detail in Downward Sizing Dog, the affection we provide our pups creates a positive feedback loop that supercharges our own physical and mental well-being.
    • That physical contact and affection reassure and relax our pups, amping up their quality of life at all ages.
  • Consistent Routine:

    While new experiences are important, our small dogs, especially as they age, find comfort in routine.

    Regular feeding times, walk schedules, and bedtime can help them feel secure and less anxious.

Older miniature white dog sniffing puzzle toy

Remember, the goal of these ideas is to provide a full, enriched life for our small pups, supporting their mental and physical health.

Yet, we must always tailor activities to our dog’s individual personalities and physical conditions. And, we need to take on these ideas gradually, so we’re not compounding our own stress.

Yes, this new study reveals some unhappy news regarding the connection between small dogs and dementia. Having said that, the news is also good: it will inspire us to engage even more effectively with our pups. That will benefit everyone. So here’s to enjoying happy, healthy golden years with our pint-sized sidekicks.

*Of course, consult with your veterinarian before starting any new  regimen.

Shopping Inspiration

Gray and blue and cream snuffle mat with white dog sniffing in fleece "grass"

This is our absolute favorite snuffle mat. It’s so quick to fill, the options are wonderful and easy to switch up daily, and it washes like a dream.

For more great ideas, visit our Amazon Storefront: The Small Dog Rules.

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