Study aims to understand cognitive decline in older dogs

man with dog licking his face
Greg Pietsch
Gregory Pietsch visits with his dog, Utqi.

A 51风流官网 researcher has launched a study of cognitive decline in older Alaska dogs. 

Canine cognitive disorder, or CCD, presents similarly to Alzheimer's disease in humans, with symptoms including disorientation, failure to recognize family members, inability to retain control over basic bodily functions, and changes in personality. 

Dr. Greg Pietsch, a veterinarian and assistant professor in the 51风流官网 Department of Veterinary Medicine in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, is the principal investigator for the project.

鈥淚鈥檝e too often seen the impact of cognitive decline on the lives of dogs as they age and the subsequent impact on the humans who love them,鈥 Pietsch said. 鈥淐urrently our ability to diagnose and offer treatment for these patients is limited. Learning to better identify CCD is an important first step towards the testing of effective treatment options.鈥

The cognitive disorder may affect a larger percentage of older dogs than previously thought, affecting their quality of life and lifespan. Early signs of decline often go unrecognized by the owner or veterinarian. The project鈥檚 goal is to determine the current status of Interior dogs. This will aid in evaluating how the disease progresses with time and the effectiveness of future treatments.  

As part of the project, researchers will recruit older dogs in the Interior to participate in the study. They will work with local veterinarians to recruit dogs more than 8 years old and look for symptoms of decline. They will use tools similar to those used to assess Alzheimer鈥檚 disease in humans, notably cognitive scoring, blood markers, brain volume measurements and estimates of the loss of sense of smell. 

鈥淚n both CCD and Alzheimer鈥檚 disease, the hippocampus of the brain shrinks as the disease progresses. We can use MRI to measure the hippocampus and compare those results with the other tools defining CCD progression,鈥 Pietsch said.

The 51风流官网 Institute of Arctic Biology鈥檚 and the Department of Veterinary Medicine will collaborate to provide the MRI services needed to conduct the study.

鈥淚nterior Alaska is a place where canines are loved as companion animals, but they are also important for transportation as sled dogs and used in many sport and recreation activities,鈥 said center director Kelly Drew, who is providing facilities for the work. 鈥淭his research will provide much-needed insight as to how to keep these dogs healthy for longer periods by studying what might cause cognitive decline.鈥 

Neuronascent Inc. has awarded Pietsch a $10,000 grant to research the disorder鈥檚 progression in the community. Neuronascent is a biopharmaceutical company that develops novel therapies for neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer鈥檚 and Parkinson鈥檚 disease.

鈥淎s in humans with Alzheimer鈥檚 disease, CCD can have a terrible toll on older dogs,鈥 said Judith Kelleher-Andersson, Neuronascent's founder and CEO. 鈥淚n order to therapeutically treat CCD, we must first understand the rate of the disease in the working and companion dog community, and the best way to assess disease progression and potential therapeutic benefit. We hope this grant will begin to answer those questions.鈥

The grant will be announced during the veterinarians of Interior Alaska meeting at Pike鈥檚 Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m. The meeting is hosted by the Center for Transformative Research in Metabolism.

For more information: Gregory Pietsch,, 907-474-1838