New Study: This Behavior Could Be a Sign of Dementia in Your Dog

New research reveals one key clue that could help you recognize that your aging dog needs an extra-gentle hand

Through the years, witnessing your dog grow from that energetic (sometimes exhausting!) puppy stage to their serene senior days is a journey like no other. The American Kennel Club says that for small dogs, the golden years arrive between ages 7 and 10. For larger breeds, that era often arrives around age 6.

As the fur on their faces starts to transition innocently to white and you perceive what seem to be signs of disorientation or confusion, maybe you’ve wondered whether dogs get dementia. Recent findings from North Carolina State University seem to hint that cognitive dysfunction can occur not only in our human loved ones but in our animal companions too. The research even suggests that dementia symptoms between these two tight-knit mammals might even show some similarities.

Identifying the markers of dog dementia

A dog’s behavioral shifts might indicate cognitive dysfunction, from aimless wandering to getting stuck in corners. A June 2023 study from NC State and published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science presents an intriguing observation: The speed at which senior dogs walk might directly correlate with their brain health.

Natasha Olby, PhD, study author and Distinguished Chair in Gerontology at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, notes in a news release: “Walking speed in people is strongly associated with cognitive decline. We hypothesized that the same might be true in dogs.”

The study involved measuring the gait speed off-leash in both adult dogs, serving as a control group, and senior dogs. These senior dogs underwent additional cognitive tests, and their owners completed a cognitive assessment questionnaire known as the “CADES questionnaire.”

Findings revealed that senior dogs that moved slower exhibited more pronounced cognitive decline, as gauged through the questionnaire and cognitive testing.

The science of gauging a dog’s gait speed

Measuring a dog’s gait speed isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. “The challenge with measuring gait speed is that dogs tend to match the speed of their handler when on leash,” Olby explains. This led researchers to test both on-leash and off-leash speeds. Olby adds, “We found that on-leash, size does correlate with gait speed, but off-leash it doesn’t make a difference. Capturing gait speed off-leash lets us see the effects of both physical ability and food motivation.”

What’s interesting is that size wasn’t a determining factor for speed among the senior dogs. Essentially, senior dogs in the last 25% of their expected lifespan were slower than adult dogs, irrespective of their size.

This decline, Olby says, mirrors human patterns, where walking speed remains fairly consistent before declining as we approach the latter part of our lives.

Walking speed and cognitive decline

Olby emphasizes the deep-seated connection between mobility and cognition, both pivotal morbidity markers in functional aging. “Mobility relies heavily on sensory input, central processing and motor output—in other words, the nervous system—and as a result, mobility and cognition are super interconnected,” she explains. Hence, reduced mobility leads to diminished input to the nervous system, establishing the link between walking speed and dementia.

For Olby and her team, the exciting takeaway from this research is twofold: The established correlation between gait speed and dementia in dogs mirrors that in humans, and the testing methodology’s simplicity, being food-motivated and short, can easily be replicated by veterinarians, potentially serving as a fundamental screening test for aging pets.

With these new findings from NC State, recognized changes—particularly in your aging dog’s walking speed—could be an early sign of cognitive decline. Consulting with your veterinarian and staying updated with the latest research ensures a more informed approach to your pet’s golden years, better empowering you to provide them with the best possible care.


The Healthy
Originally Published on The Healthy

Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO
Tricia Varacallo is a doctor of osteopathy with experience in primary healthcare. She received her medical degree from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and conducts clinical research in Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, motivated by the desire to contribute to the development of innovative treatments and therapies. She is also a certified lifestyle coach for the CDC-recognized National Diabetes Prevention Program, empowering individuals to make lasting, healthy lifestyle changes. Dr. Varacallo loves to write— especially about health, wellness and grief. Drawing from her own experiences of loss and caregiving, she wants to offer support and encouragement to those navigating their own grief journeys. Outside her professional life, she enjoys traveling and exploring the sunny beaches of Florida with her significant other, always ready for their next adventure.