Cognitive Function and Aging in the

Interest in the cognitive abilities of dogs can be traced as far back as the late 1800s, with anecdotal reports of dogs displaying long-distance navigational memory and associative learning (Romanes, 1884). Although subsequent studies under controlled laboratory conditions supported these early observations, the effect of age on cognitive function in dogs did not gain scientific appeal until the 1970s, focusing primarily on the developmental stages (Fox, 1971).

The single most comprehensive research program to examine cognitive aging in the dog, however, is the work conducted in the Beagle dog by N.W. Milgram and colleagues. Using a modified version of the Wisconsin General Test Apparatus (Figure 35.1), dogs are tested on a number of standard tasks (Figure 35.2) designed to measure changes in learning, memory, and executive processes as a function of age.

Over a decade of research using these testing procedures has revealed that cognitive aging in the dog, like humans, is complex and nonlinear; striking individual differences are more the rule than the exception (Adams et al, 2000a,b; Head et al, 1995, 2001). Like elderly humans, some dogs show very little cognitive decline with age (i.e., successful agers) and perform at levels comparable to young animals (Figure 35.3).

Others exhibit a mild decline frequently observed in normal human aging. In certain cases, some dogs exhibit severe impairment corresponding to features of dementia observed in humans. Our studies have also revealed that learning and memory impairments can occur independently of one another and that executive dysfunction may be the earliest hallmark of cognitive decline in aging dogs.

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