The cognitive abilities of companion animals include learning, memory, attention and communication and, as in humans, can profoundly affect their quality of life. In young animals, cognitive assessment procedures can be used to predict success of dogs used in high level training programs. Cognitive assessment is particularly important in evaluating older animals. Aged dogs and cats are prone to develop a form of dementia, cognitive dysfunction syndrome, which includes, but is not limited to, impaired cognitive skills.
We have developed a battery of laboratory-based cognitive tests that can provide a general profile of cognitive ability in dogs and cats. All of the tasks require the subject to make a specific response, and if correct the animal is provided with a highly palatable food reward. In most cases, cat tests are the same as those used in dogs. Furthermore, cats, like dogs show age dependent decline in cognition, and clinically a percentage develop cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
The delayed-non-matching-to-position task (DNMP) has been developed to assess both learning ability and memory. The task requires an animal to learn a general rule: to remember the location of an object and to subsequently respond to the object at a different location (the non-matching location). This is a particularly useful task because performance varies directly with age: young dogs learn the task rapidly; older dogs learn more slowly, and very old dogs may be unable to learn even with extensive training. Memory can be assessed by varying the time interval between the first presentation and the test trial. The longer the time interval (delay) the more poorly the animals perform.
This task measures attention by assessing a dog's ability to select one correct object when presented with 1-3 incorrect objects (distractors).
Cognitive function can also be assessed in pet animals using a neuropsychological assessment protocol. Cognitive function is also evaluated using questionnaires in which owners are asked a battery of questions about their pet's behavior. These typically include questions about alterations in: alertness, sleep, general activity, house soiling, and interactions between pets and/or conspecifics.
Setting up a cognitive assessment trial is complex and should ideally include both neuropsychological task performance, to help establish level of cognitive ability, and questionnaire data to determine whether signs associated with cognitive ability have declined over time.