Five Ways Pets & People Can Stay Mentally Fit Together

By Friday, November 21, 2014

Especially among the Baby Boomer set, there’s a lot of talk about how to age gracefully by staying physically and mentally fit. And it’s no secret that our pets are a big part of the puzzle by keeping us socially engaged and encouraging us to remain active.

More than half of pet owners don’t realize their pets can experience significant cognitive decline during aging, according to a recent Purina survey. However, our four-legged friends aren’t immune to the cognitive effects of aging any more than we are.

As pets get older, they may experience symptoms of mental decline similar to those in humans, including confusion, increased sleep, apathy, anxiety and forgetfulness. But the good news is that there are steps we can take to keep both ourselves and our pets mentally sharp as we age. Here are a few of my favorite tips:

1. Enjoy a healthy diet

We’ve long known that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and cold-water fish may reduce heart attack and stroke and protect the brain. In addition, some evidence suggests that medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), found in coconut and palm kernel oils, may improve cognition in humans. The same appears to hold true for our dogs and cats. In fact, the pet food company Purina has been researching the effects of MCTs in cats and dogs for years.

A company fact sheet on the subjects states, “As cats and dogs age, there is a drop in brain glucose metabolism. MCTs increase brain levels of metabolites which serve as an energy source, promoting healthy brain function.” Purina’s research is so promising that, according to nutritional research director, Janet Jackson, the company plans to include MCT formulations in some of its brands early next year.

2. Maintain a healthy weight

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “A long-term study of 1,500 adults found that those who were obese in middle age were twice as likely to develop dementia in later life.” In addition, those who also had high cholesterol and high blood pressure “had six times the risk of dementia.” Keeping extra weight off Fido and Fluffy is equally as important to their overall physical and mental health. Overweight pets are at an increased risk for all sorts of ailments including diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

3. Get plenty of exercise

We all know how important regular exercise is for our bodies. But more and more research shows that it’s just as important for our brains. A recent article on the Harvard Health Blog noted that a study by the University of British Columbia found that “regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.”

Luckily for us who have dogs, we have a built-in daily walk reminder lying at our feet. And that brisk stroll can also keep your pooch’s brain in tip-top shape, too, according to a 2005 study supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

4. Stay social

Many scientists now believe that staying connected with the outside world, maintaining old friendships and making new ones are critical keys to warding off mental decline. One study of 2,249 older California women found that “larger social networks have a protective influence on cognitive function among elderly women.”

Not surprisingly, spending time with friends seems to be just as important for their mental health as it is for ours. And it’s not just dogs who benefit from friendly interaction. Recent research has shown that cats are highly social animals who suffer from isolation just like we do!

5. Play some brain games

One of the most important aspects of brain health for both pets and humans is to continue to challenge our minds as we age. The same study mentioned above also noted that exercise was more effective in staving off mental decline when paired with stimulating toys and games.

In addition, the article states: “Other studies suggest that stimulating environments improve learning ability, induce beneficial changes in cellular structure, and may help the brain grow new neurons, and increase the resistance of neurons to injury.” In other words, old dogs (and humans) can and should learn new tricks!

What’s your favorite way to stay mentally fit with your pet? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

  • Melanie

    Buzz loves to play a game we call “Tricks for Treats”. We give him commands he knows, like “Find Daddy” or “Bring your bone”, “sit”, or “down”. When he completes his “trick” he gets his “treat”. He loves to show us how smart he is and the game gives him exercise for his body and his brain.

    • I love that! Chilly knows a few phrases too. I never thought of quizzing him though as a way to exercise his brain.Great idea Melanie!

  • Keeping active is so important for both our pets and ourselves. Did you know that petting also has health benefits for both your pet and you? For more information, please visit our blog at to read about the benefits of petting.
    Happy Thanksgiving, All.
    Susan Lyman, President
    Tails Untold Personalized Pet Books

    • Thanks for sharing that post Susan! I love the concept of the “love loop”!