Can Food Supplements Protect the Minds of Aging Dogs?

Changes in diet might help stave off the canine version of Alzheimer's disease.

Posted Jan 18, 2018

Creative Commons License CC0
Source: Creative Commons License CC0

Our dogs are living longer than they ever did before. This is a result of better nutrition and better veterinary care. Unfortunately older dogs are susceptible to the same kinds of physical and mental problems that older humans are. Thus we see more incidences of cancer in dogs and cancer is generally a disease of the aged. We have now also grown to know that dogs are susceptible to Alzheimer's disease. The equivalent of Alzheimer's disease that we find in dogs is called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.

Dogs with this canine version of Alzheimer's show many of the same physical signs found in humans, including large protein accumulations called "amyloids" in the brain. They also show some of the same behavioral problems that humans with high levels of amyloids do. Specifically they have poorer memories (and may forget things that were well learned earlier) and have difficulties learning new material, especially if it involves more complex thinking and problem solving. Human Alzheimer's and Canine Cognitive Dysfunction cause damage that is irreversible, however evidence has been accumulating which shows that there are ways to stave off the appearance of these age-related mental problems. Some of these solutions that have shown some promise involve behavioral changes and changes in routine that a dog's owner can apply. However over the past two decades or so researchers at the University of Toronto, mostly in the laboratory of Norton Milgram, have been exploring the possibility that the minds of older dogs can be protected through the use of dietary supplements. A recent publication in the British Journal of Nutrition seems to show that some degree of success has now been obtained using nutrition to deal with the problems of the aging canine mind.

This newest research involved a team of researchers headed by Yuanlong Pan who is part of the Nestlé Purina Research group in St. Louis, Missouri. Their study looked at aged Beagles (between 9 and 11.5 years of age). This study extended over an approximate six month, and the dogs in the experimental group were given a food supplement involving a nutrient blend consisting of antioxidants, B vitamins, fish oil and L-arginine, which the researchers dubbed a "Brain Protection Blend."

The measure of mental ability and learning efficiency involved two series of tests. In one series the dogs were presented with an apparatus which had several shallow wells, one of which could contain food. The dogs were then trained to seek out the well which had a marker next to it. The task could be made more difficult by moving the marker some distance from the well containing the food, or displacing it at an angle. The other task involved seeing how well dogs could learn to respond to their left side, right side, or center. This task could be made more difficult by asking the dogs to switch away from their learned response to a new one (so perhaps going from the left side to being correct all of the time to the right side now being the correct response). Switching away from previously learned responses is always more difficult than initial learning in dogs.

What the researchers learned was that the dogs who were receiving the dietary supplement performed better than the control group. The interesting thing was that at the easiest levels of problem solving there was no difference between the groups which had the food additives and those which did not. However, as the task became more difficult the effect of the changed diet began to show much more clearly. Thus it is clear that some of the losses in mental ability associated with age can be staved off by making sure that dogs have the appropriate doses of various nutritional chemicals.

As you might guess, companies that make dog food (such as the Nestlé Purina group) are quickly trying to capitalize on these findings by making different types of dog food which have these additional supplements. It may well be that using these reformulated dog foods may be a convenient way to help your aging dog's mind, however it is also possible for you to bump up the levels of these nutrients in your own dog by simply making some changes in what you feed him.

For example, one component of the supplement used in this study was fish oil. Fish oil is easily obtained in many food stores, or health food outlets, however you can also simply give your dog a helping of fatty fish to provide this nutrient. Since it appears that the reason that the fish oil is in the mix is because it is high in the nutrient omega 3 it is likely that one can substitute flax seed oil since it is a vegetable product that is high in this nutrient and it is much more widely available (and it costs less).

Another component of the supplement was arginine, which comes from many protein-rich foods including pork, beef, chicken and dairy products. It also comes from many types of fish, so that same fish serving that you are using to provide fish oil can provide it. You can also get arginine from plant products particularly nuts, such as peanuts, and a variety of whole grains.

The antioxidants that were used in this study were vitamins C and E, plus selenium. Selenium is easily gotten from seafood, lean meat, and whole grains. Vitamin E is highest in vegetable oils, nuts, and whole grains. Unfortunately dogs are not particularly fond of some of the high sources of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits. However, some foods which dogs seem to tolerate quite well that also contain high levels of vitamin C include broccoli, snow peas, sweet potato (best with the skin on) green peppers and cauliflower.

Finally, the experimental supplement contained a vitamin B complex. Vitamin B occurs naturally in fish, poultry, meat, eggs and dairy, and can also be found in potatoes cooked with the skin on. Other components in a vitamin B complex, such as folic acid, can be found in beans and whole grains.

When I considered the list of helpful dietary supplements and their sources, it occurred to me that if I made up a melange of cooked sweet potato with the skin on, some fatty fish, cooked eggs and some beans or brown rice, I would pretty much have hit all of the bases in the dietary supplement. I could substitute meat or poultry for the fatty fish if I added a bit of fish oil or flax seed oil to the mix. I don't know if this type of pottage is protecting the brain of my oldest dog, but both of my dogs seem to like it. Since it is easy enough to throw together this mix I am considering making this an alternate meal for my dogs a few times each week in the hopes that it might help to stave off the effects of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome as they grow older.

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Yuanlong Pan, Adam D. Kennedy, Thomas J. Jönsson and Nortan W. Milgram (2018).Cognitive enhancement in old dogs from dietary supplementation with a nutrient blend containing arginine, antioxidants, B vitamins and fish oil. British Journal of Nutrition, doi:10.1017/S0007114517003464

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