Playing With Your Dog Can Help Their Brain Stay Healthy Longer, New Study Finds · The Wildest

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Playing With Your Dog Can Help Their Brain Stay Healthy Longer, New Study Finds

A good old game of tug of war could help prevent doggie dementia.

by Sio Hornbuckle
April 3, 2024
Woman playing with her beagle dog inside.
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Like humans, a dog’s brain changes as they age, causing memory problems (sadly, dogs can get dementia, too) and other cognitive difficulties. The great news is our pups are living longer than ever thanks to advancements in veterinary science and pet care. The not-so-good news is that those added senior years come with some difficulties. Cognitive decline can be scary and painful for dogs; it can lead to symptoms like confusion, pacing, getting stuck behind furniture, and increased aggression.

Fortunately, there are ways to set your pup up for their happiest possible golden years — and it’s easier (and way more fun) than you might guess. A new study finds that pups who get lots of playtime have healthier brains in their old age. 

The study 

To track cognitive health, researchers observed a small group of forty-five healthy Beagles. The Beagles were six years old when the study began, and they were tracked for three years. The pups were placed into three groups: one group were given a placebo, and the other two groups were given two drugs that researchers hoped had the potential to treat Alzheimer’s. All of the dogs were given daily exercise, socialization, toys, and group play. 

Throughout the study, their brain shape and size were measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); they were also given cognitive tests on things like memory, size discrimination, and black/white discrimination.

The results

Researchers found that there was no difference between the placebo group and the groups receiving drugs — the medication didn’t make a difference in the dogs’ brain development. But something else did make a difference: All of the dogs’ brains benefited from socialization and play. “The hippocampus increased … in all dogs,” wrote Jessica A. Noche, the lead author of the study. The hippocampus is a part of the brain related to memory and learning; in humans and dogs, the hippocampus loses tissue during the early stages of Alzheimer’s. 

“Total hippocampal volume increased at an average rate of about 1.74 percent per year across treatment groups,” Noche wrote. In previous research, Beagles showed an age-related hippocampal decline over time. “We argue that these increases may be attributed to the high levels of behavioral enrichment in the present study that included social interaction, exploration, physical exercise, and sensory stimulation, all of which are known to induce a number of neurobiological changes.”

Bring out the toys

Noche added that this finding is significant because it shows “middle age may be a promising therapeutic window of behavioral intervention.” That means it’s never too late to help your pet’s brain get healthier — and even adopting a middle-aged or senior pet into a happy and active home might help them ward off cognitive decline. 

Plus, playing with your dog is good for both of you. Previous research has found that older people with dogs have lower rates of dementia themselves, likely because dogs encourage exercise and socialization in people. Spending time with dogs also increases oxytocin, which can lead to reduced stress, increased pain tolerance, and a better sense of wellbeing. 

The science is clear: Playtime is good for everyone. It’s fun, it’s bonding, and it can literally reshape your brain. So, go start a game of fetch with your pup — doctor’s orders.

Sio Hornbuckle

Sio Hornbuckle is a writer living in New York City with their cat, Toni Collette.

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