7 rules for the over 7 set: rule 6

Dr. Ernie Ward
Posted by Dr. Ernie Ward on Oct 08 2015

Pets don’t get old – at least they don’t know it. Yesterday, we talked about the importance of paying attention to subtle signs that can indicate sickness. Today we turn our attention to mental matters.

Rule 6: Play mind games
Older pets’ mental abilities may dull and their behavior may change. As pets age, plaques form in the brain, leading to the death of certain brain cells. This can result in increased forgetfulness and impaired ability to perform high-level mental tasks.

To keep mental reflexes sharp, constantly provide your older pet with new experiences; a stimulating home and varied lifestyle can help avoid cognitive decline (not to mention prevent excess weight gain!). The goal is to provide activities and toys that are not just fun, but also can help your pet’s mind stay fresh and strong. Teach a new trick, take a trip to a different dog park or enroll in therapy pet classes. If you want to regularly challenge your pet with new activities, consider the following tips to help him live life to the fullest:

Make feeding time fun.
Feeding your pet in a traditional food bowl is lazy — for your pet, that is. Dogs and cats are scavengers and hunters by nature, and they get satisfaction out of working for their food. Dump it into a bowl, and some of the thrill is lost. That’s why I feed all my pets with a food puzzle. It engages their brains, makes feeding a little more stimulating, prevents food gulping, and taps into their primal instincts. Cats love them as much as dogs. Plus, it’s fun to watch them flip, pull, push, paw and generally enjoy their meals.

Provide tricks with treats.
Food-dispensing toys have been the rage for the past few years. For older pets, gnawing on a toy-that-treats can keep them mentally engaged, strengthen jaw muscles and provide them with hours of satisfaction. I love any toy that allows you to stuff something yummy inside. I remember early in my career advising pet parents to fill rubber chew toys with peanut butter whenever they left their pooch home alone. Crude and messy, but highly effective! Cats and dogs alike seem to really enjoy the challenge of food-dispensing toys.

Change it up.
Too often we humans fall into habits that cease to stimulate our brains, and wind up living sedentary, lonely lives that can accelerate cognitive dysfunction syndrome (the formal name we give to the effects of age on the mind). To combat this, as often as possible, ask yourself, “How can I make this more fun or interesting?” Even a simple change like reversing your normal walking route can provide freshness to an otherwise stale routine. Old dogs and cats can learn new tricks, so start with something really simple that your older pet can feel proud accomplishing. Expose your pet to new stimuli whenever possible to help fire up stagnant synapses.

As a veterinarian, I’m concerned with the majority of pets (and people) who experience cognitive decline as a result of a lifetime of unhealthy habits. If you can commit to making even one change in your pet’s lifestyle each year, there’s hope that he or she will live well into old age with a sharp mind.