Many physical health problems can also cause CCD-like signs, Borns-Weil said. Pain stemming from conditions like arthritis is a big one.
“If you think your dog is showing signs of cognitive dysfunction, take him to the vet and rule out physical causes,” said Borns-Weil, who was not involved with the study.
Though CCD has been on the radar for years, previous studies on it have been small, according to the researchers of the new work, led by Sarah Yarborough of the University of Washington.
For their study, the researchers used data from over 15,000 dogs nationwide enrolled in an ongoing research program called the Dog Aging Project. During the first year, owners completed two surveys: one about their dogs’ health and activity habits and another with questions testing for CCD.
The group as a whole was young and just over 1% of the dogs were classified as CCD. In animals older than 10 years, each additional year of life was associated with an increase in the likelihood of CCD, according to the results published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Beyond age, activity levels in dogs showed a strong association with CCD: sedentary dogs were more than six times more likely to have the disease than dogs of the same age and breed that were active.
That doesn’t prove exercise thwarts canine dementia, both Peters and Borns-Weil said, since CCD itself can change activity levels.
“A dog with cognitive dysfunction may not want to go for a walk anymore because it’s confused,” Borns-Weil explained.
However, Peters noted that human research has linked physical activity to better brain function later in life. So the idea that exercise could benefit canine brains isn’t far-fetched, she said.
Also, Borns-Weil says, exploring or playing is a big part of the dog’s mental stimulation. Again, staying mentally active as humans age has been associated with a lower likelihood of cognitive decline—although, again, the question of cause and effect remains.
Despite the unknowns, there are no downsides to dogs leading a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity and mental stimulation, both experts said.