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Improving Brain Function, Memory and Cognition in Dogs

Griffens playing with toy

There has been much written recently on canine brain function and cognition. I have even seen supplements on the market to ‘improve your dog’s brain function and memory’. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the ingredients in these products useful, nor have I seen good research behind the ingredients.

It is difficult to ascertain if a dog’s memory or dementia problems are the same or similar as those in humans. A variety of things can cause dementia-like symptom in dogs. These can include poor diet, anxiety, stress, illness, pain and difficulty in sleeping. The first thing to do if you suspect your dog is having memory or cognition issues is to have a complete veterinarian check-up. This would include full blood work, parasite check, urinalysis and a complete hands-on examination that includes checking for pain or other physical symptoms or issues that may be causing odd or unusual behavior.

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Below is a list of the Veterinary criteria for diagnosing canine dementia when physical examinations and lab work results are all normal:


  • Disorientation – changes in spatial awareness, loss of ability to navigate around familiar obstacles, wandering behavior.
  • Interaction changes – decreased interest in social interactions, petting, greeting, dependent or ‘clingy’ behaviors.
  • Sleep/Wake cycle changes – restlessness or frequent waking during the night, increased sleep during daytime hours.
  • House soiling – no longer lets owner know when it needs to go outside, indoor elimination, incontinence.


  • Activity level changes – decreased exploration and response to things, people, sounds around the house, decreased grooming, decreased appetite; increased anxiety, including restlessness, agitation, and/or separation distress.


A few studies have been done with oils and dogs and one study proclaimed coconut oil improved cognition. However, the same study used not only coconut oil in the dog’s diet, but also fish oil and corn oil. So, which of the oils proclaimed to do the trick and improve cognition? Additionally, the oils were used with a dry dog food, which lacks fresh nutrients and fresh fats, which are essential in a dog’s diet.  Dry dog foods contain poor animal protein sources and are high in carbohydrates which are detrimental to a dog’s health. This is because carbohydrates are very difficult for a dog to digest and can cause digestive issues.  Carbohydrates also convert to sugars which promote inflammation, tartar, tooth decay and tooth infection.


puppy dog face

Another study with dogs showed that medium chained triglycerides (MCT oil) along with arginine (an amino acid) helped somewhat with cognition. However, these tests were run by a pet food company using laboratory dogs, and again, the dogs were fed a dry dog food. This caused me to ask how valuable or nutritious the dry dog food might be, as maybe the addition of any supplement or oil might be helpful. Additionally, the increased attention these dogs may have received during the study may have also helped their cognition as mental stimulation and exercise helps increase memory and alertness in both dogs and people.


In humans, MCT oil has been used with some mild success, as the idea is, that high doses of MCT oil release ketones which help with memory. However, the results were not long term and the MCT oil were administered at high doses. Such high levels couldn’t be obtained by plain coconut oil or other MCT oils – at least not without using several tablespoons daily. Most of these studies were stopped due to gastrointestinal issues with the participants, and caution is given not to use these high doses if renal problems or diabetes is present. In dogs, the issue of pancreatitis becomes a factor. Also, MCT oils are very high in calories – about 115 calories per teaspoon – so imagine the calorie and fat load in several tablespoons daily.


The difficulty with trying to load dogs with fats (including MCT oils) is that this often results in pancreatitis. While humans may decide to try a ketone diet, trying it with dogs it is a completely different matter. Remember, dogs are carnivores, and even the NRC (Nutrition Research Council), the ‘gold standard for measuring and developing nutritional needs for dogs’ states dogs have no need for carbohydrates (grains, fruits, vegetables) and receive no nutritional benefits from them. What dogs DO need, are animal-based foods such as meat, organ meat such as kidney and liver, eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, fish, fat (found in all of these animal-based foods), and calcium. In raw diets, the calcium is in the bone, and in home-made diets, we add 900 mg of calcium carbonate or calcium citrate per pound of food served. Dogs normally – in the diets they need – would eat a high protein, medium fat diet. To raise the calorie levels with fat means the dog would eat LESS protein (amino acids, which they need for organ health, skin, coat and immunity) and higher fat ratios. However, this would cause weight gain, gas, intestinal distress and possible pancreatitis. They do NOT benefit from this diet, and this is why it also doesn’t work for them in some of the suggested cancer diets I have seen on the internet. However, a home-made diet or raw diet will provide most of the nutrients that pet food companies and supplement companies recommend for good cognition and brain health. A good fresh food diet will provide the most help in restoring some cognition, and if fed early on, offer the best chance for good cognition through the dog’s life.

Mental and physical stimulus is also very important for senior dogs with cognition issues. Don’t forget to walk your dog often.  Make sure they get to go to parks to play and enroll them in dog classes. Our senior dogs also need to go out to urinate often as seniors dogs are more prone to urinary tract infections, which can cause a systemic infection which are very painful and also affect their ability to think clearly. Senior dogs often ask to go out less often due to arthritis pain, but remember, they do need to go out OFTEN – even if they aren’t asking to go out!

There are a few supplements that can help in SOME cases, but not all. Dementia and confusion can be caused by variety of issues and physical problems such as infections, liver and renal problems, and tumors, so it is very important to start with a full veterinarian work up that includes a complete blood panel and urinalysis. If all those areas are clear, then it MIGHT be helpful to try some supplements. However I would start by feeding your dog a fresh diet, raw or home cooked, to insure your dog is getting the highest quality nutrients.

Some supplements that may help include:

’Acetyl L-carnitine’ is used for a variety of mental disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, age-related memory loss, late-life depression, thinking problems related to alcoholism, and thinking problems related to Lyme disease. It is also used for Down syndrome, poor circulation in the brain, cataracts, nerve pain due to diabetes, nerve pain due to drugs used in the treatment of AIDS, and facial paralysis.” Acetyl L-Carnitine also helps support the heart. I have seen several treats sold for pets that contain L-carnitine, however, it is Acetyl L-carnitine that seems to produce the best results.


Fish oil. This is for the omega 3, mainly DHA, which helps brain function. Fish oil capsules (for the integrity of the omega 3) work best. I have also seen something called Gold DHA, which is made from algae. But to date, studies have shown it is not as effective as DHA from fish. Omega 3 is harder to find in the diet as it is located mostly in fish. But Fish Oil capsules (superior to bottled oils, as it is fragile and can be destroyed by heat, light or oxygen) contain good amounts of EPA and DHA and should be given daily. EPA and DHA also help with immunity and good skin and coat, and are renal, heart and liver protective.

I would also include B complex vitamins, including B12, vitamin E and vitamin D3. D3 is also thought to help with brain function and mental clarity. You can find all 3 of these, plus vitamins A and C, in the Berte’s Immune Blend or Berte’s Daily Blend. B vitamins help with neuro transmission in the brain and vitamin E is a great anti-oxidant.

dogs and horseSo, to recap all I have said here, don’t count on a commercial pet food to handle or maintain good mental cognition in your dog. Many commercial pet foods use flax oil instead of omega 3 fish oil, which dogs can’t convert to a usable form (dogs must have animal-based sources of omega 3 – fish oils) and the pet food and supplement industry often use the wrong kind of carnitine – L-carnitine instead of Acetyl L-carnitine.

It is important to remember that the most important element in providing your dog the best nutritional value is a fresh food diet, raw or home-cooked! At the very least, if you must feed kibble, add fresh animal protein to your dog’s kibble – up to 50% of the diet if you can – with fresh foods such as ground meat (beef, turkey, chicken or pork), organ meat (liver and kidney), eggs and yogurt. Secondly, be sure to add fish oil capsules, the Berte’s Immune Blend (for the anti-oxidants such as E and C, for the D3, and especially the B complex). And lastly, if you notice cognitive loss in your dog and a medical evaluation shows no health issues, try Acetyl L-Carnitine and B-12. B-Naturals now carries Berte’s Brain Power Pack, which contains Acetyl L-Carnitine, Berte’s Immune Blend, Fish Oil Capsules, and Liquid B Complex with B12.