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Slower walking speed in dogs could be a sign of dementia

In humans, gait speed is a significant component in geriatric evaluation. Doctors say decreasing speed is often related to cognitive decline and the onset of dementia.

Now, a team of researchers led by North Carolina State University has discovered a similar correlation in dogs, suggesting that, just as humans, dogs who slow down physically also slow down mentally

Thus, measuring gait speed in senior dogs could be a simple method to monitor their health and document neurological decline during aging.

“Walking speed in people is strongly associated with cognitive decline,” said senior author Natasha Olby, an expert in Gerontology at NC State. “We hypothesized that the same might be true in dogs.”

How the study was conducted

The scientists measured gait speed off leash in 46 adult and 49 senior dogs. The adult dogs – serving as a control group – only had their gait speed measured.

The senior dogs did additional cognitive functioning testing. Also, their owners had to complete a cognitive assessment questionnaire (CADES). It is designed to measure cognitive impairment in dogs.

After grouping together senior dogs based on their CADES and cognitive testing scores, their individual gait speed was measured first by walking them over a five-meter distance on a leash, and then by offering a treat at the same distance, and calling the dogs to retrieve it off leash.

“The challenge with measuring gait speed is that dogs tend to match the speed of their handler when on leash, so we measured both on and off leash to see which was the most useful measure,” Olby explained.

“Additionally, we are always concerned that body size and limb length will affect gait speed – but if you see a chihuahua and a great dane walking together off leash, the shorter one isn’t always behind the other. We found that on leash, size does correlate with gait speed, but off leash it doesn’t make a difference. Capturing gait speed off leash lets us see the effects of both physical ability and food motivation.”

What the researchers learned 

The experiments revealed that, in the senior dogs, size did not matter when it came to speed. All the specimens in the last 25 percent of their expected life span moved more slowly than younger dogs, regardless of their size.

“Just as in humans, our walking speed is pretty stable through most of our lives, then it declines as we enter the last quarter or so of our lifespan,” Olby said.

Moreover, senior dogs that moved more slowly also had more severe levels of cognitive decline (according to the CADES questionnaire), and did worse on cognitive testing.

Finally, joint pain did not seem to correlate with walking speed. Although, no dogs with severe conditions, such as osteoarthritis, were examined.

“When you look at functional aging, the two most important predictors of morbidity are mobility and cognition. Mobility relies heavily on sensory input, central processing and motor output – in other words, the nervous system – as a result, mobility and cognition are super interconnected. When you have less mobility, the amount of input your nervous system gets is also reduced. It’s not surprising that walking speed and dementia are correlated,” Olby explained.

“For me, the exciting part of the study is not only that we show gait speed correlates with dementia in dogs as in people, but also that the method of testing we used is easy to replicate, since it’s food motivated and over a short distance. It could become a simple screening test for any veterinarian to perform on aging patients,” she concluded.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

More about dogs and cognitive decline 

Just like humans, dogs can also suffer from cognitive decline, which is often referred to as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) or dog dementia. This is a condition related to the aging process that affects a dog’s memory, learning, perception, and awareness. It’s similar in many ways to Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

Symptoms of CCD might include:


Dogs may seem lost or confused in familiar environments. They may get stuck in corners or behind furniture, or they may have trouble finding and using doors or stairs.

Changes in sleep patterns

Dogs with CCD may sleep during the day and be awake, restless or disoriented at night.


Even if previously housetrained, dogs suffering from CCD may start to have accidents in the house.

Changes in activity levels

They might display reduced interest in play, decreased response to things happening around them, or increased aimless activity like pacing.

Changes in social interactions

They might show less recognition or interaction with people or pets they know, or they might show increased irritability.

Changes in appetite

Dogs with CCD may forget to eat or drink, or they might forget that they have just eaten and beg for food all the time.

It’s important to note that many of these symptoms can also be signs of other serious health problems, so if you notice any changes in your dog’s behavior, it’s important to consult with a veterinarian.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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