Study Reveals Older Dogs Who Sleep Badly May Have Dementia

Nevena Nacic
by Nevena Nacic

It’s hard to watch a beloved dog get old, as it seems like only yesterday your senior pooch was a teething puppy with a penchant for chewing your slippers. 

The American Kennel Club, the expert on all doggy things, says that most small breeds become seniors between the ages of seven and 10. Larger breeds age faster than their small counterparts and are considered old when they are six years old. 

Like old people, senior dogs can get dementia.

As they age, dogs can develop canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CCDS), a condition that is very similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

Scientists have long known that people with dementia can find it harder to get to sleep. Now, researchers from North Carolina State University have discovered that senior dogs with dementia experience the same sleep problems as people with dementia. 

Just like humans with Alzheimer's disease, dogs with CCDS, experience sleep disruptions, such as insomnia, and sleep fragmentation,” said senior study author Dr. Natasha Olby, a professor of veterinary neurology, neurosurgery, and gerontology at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine. 

To discover whether sleep problems are a sign of early dementia in dogs, as they are in people, Dr. Olby and her team used a group of senior dogs who were part of an ongoing trial testing antiaging supplements. Scientists selected 28 dogs between the ages of 10 and 16 to participate in the new sleep study. 

To be included in the antiaging study, the dog must have lived more than 75% of the expected lifespan for their breed. The dogs also couldn’t suffer from arthritis or be blind, as they needed to complete tasks designed to test their cognitive abilities. 

Scientists evaluated each dog’s cognitive abilities by having them perform a series of tests and asking their owners to fill out a list of questions, known as the Canine Dementia Scale Questionnaire.

In the new study, researchers used polysomnography, a form of electroencephalogram (EEG) used to diagnose sleep problems in people. The researchers affixed electrodes on the dogs’ skulls using a water-soluble gel and recorded brain activity during a two-hour nap. 

Past sleep studies in dogs often involved surgically implanted electrodes,” said Alejandra Mondino, a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University. “Non-invasive studies are relatively new. We are one of a handful of groups doing this work.”

When results from cognitive testing were compared to sleeping brain waves, researchers discovered that dogs with more advanced dementia took longer to fall asleep and spent less time sleeping. 

“These dogs have dementia and sleep disruption is a part of that,” said Mondino. “In addition to the shorter time spent sleeping, when we look at the EEG, we saw their brain activity during sleep was more akin to wakefulness. In other words, when they do manage to sleep, their brains aren’t really sleeping.”

These results don’t explain the link between sleep and dementia, but studies like this one may help scientists to better understand the process and find ways to treat it. 

“There’s a possibility we might be able to identify an early signature of change on the EEG that can tell us ‘Hey, things are starting to slide’. Because with a chronic neurodegenerative process, of course, we’d love to be able to intervene sooner rather than later,” said Olby according to CNN Health.

Until that happens, veterinarians can prescribe medications for anxiety and melatonin for sleep to senior dogs with cognitive decline. Diet and exercise also appear to be a factor. 

Studies have shown that diets rich in flavonoids, antioxidants, and medium-chain fatty acids could potentially slow the development of dementia in dogs. 

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Nevena Nacic
Nevena Nacic

Nevena is a freelance writer and a proud mom of Teo, a 17-year-old poodle, and Bob, a rescued grey tabby cat. Since childhood, she had a habit of picking up strays and bringing them home (luckily, her parents didn't know how to say NO). When she's not writing for her fellow pet parents, Nevena can be found watching Teo sleep. To her defense, that's not as creepy as it sounds!

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