Cues from canines in dementia research

Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

There's debate in the Leis/Newman households over the intelligence of the family basset hound, Daisy Mae.

My mother believes Daisy Mae is purely food-driven, rather than intellectually gifted. Certainly, there are events — such as when my mother puts down a package of roast beef on a chair while watering the plants — that would prove catnip to any dog, and don't display a dog's above-average keenness of mind.

But here's my case for the intelligence level of this specific pooch: Daisy Mae waits until my mother's back is turned to steal food, ranging from carrots to an entire loaf of bread. She once took a half dozen deviled eggs silently before anyone noticed. That's because she's learned how to pull on a towel -  that's under a dish  - in the middle of the table - so that she can pull it close enough to grab without knocking over the dish. She knows noise will alert the humans. Daisy Mae — which, to be clear, is well-fed — plots, plans and doesn't want to get into trouble.

That's why it made sense to learn the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh were developing a dog IQ test that measures problem solving and ability to complete certain tasks. Dogs, in this case border collies, were given tests to measure their ability to navigate and make decisions. Those that finished the test faster were generally more accurate. Results were published in Intelligence.

The significance of the research is how it gives credence to the anecdotal evidence that people who are brighter are living healthier, longer lives. For example, Daisy Mae is wearing a beret in the photo on the right because my mother is fluent in French and English, and science backs up that those who speak two languages are less likely to develop dementia.

In fact, as a researcher noted, if dog intelligence is in fact similar to ours, we may better be able to understand how factors such as smoking, drinking and recreational drugs impact longevity. Even better, dogs could give us clues into Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

There's little sadder than a dog that becomes senile, running around outside and then immediately urinating indoors, becoming agitated, or showing disorientation in common areas. It's common for a dog over age 10 to start declining cognitively. Unlike a resident or loved one who may start developing dementia and realize it, it's unlikely dogs are able to process what is happening to them. Veterinarians saw dogs develop many of the same brain plaques and tangles associated with dementia in humans.

“Learning about individual differences in animal intelligence is a first step in understanding how cognitive abilities fit into the fitness landscape,” the study authors observed. “It will provide crucial information on the relationship between intelligence and health, ageing and mortality.”

The best advice I've heard for helping a person — or dog — with dementia is to focus on “good days” and quality of life. Much as a resident in decline may still appreciate ice cream or a walk in the sun, a dog may appreciate a Frosty Paws treat or the spring weather. Based on her smile in the photo at left, I suspect Daisy Mae will always enjoy a day at the beach. Although, to be honest, I have little doubt that she'll be counter-surfing for donuts until her dying day.

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's. Follow her @TigerELN.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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