Want your dog to live its longest life possible? Experts say extra love and healthy habits can help.
As veterinarians learn more about canine aging, owners are finding ways to get dogs to a ripe old age and delay a difficult goodbye. Regular check-ups, agility games and even calorie counting are just a few tools humans can use to keep their canines spry, veterinarians said.
Dr. Elizabeth Murphy, the Indianapolis-based author of “How To Age-Proof Your Dog,” said owners should view themselves as the guardians of their pets’ health. An average dog lives 10 to 13 years, with small dogs generally living longer than large dogs. But all of that can change depending on how much time you invest in your canine, the veterinarian said.
“I see plenty of dogs old enough to drive a car, even large-breed dogs,” she said. “We are the key to their longevity. So we should strive to be near them, and find things that they enjoy, that we enjoy doing. Doing things together will be healthier for the dog, and it’s also better for you.”
Like humans, dogs are vulnerable to a slew of injuries and illnesses. Some are simple, such as arthritis, sunburns and ear infections. Others are more complex, such as kidney disease and cancer. Most, though not all, are preventable with the right amount of TLC, experts said.
Dr. Madeline Yamate, founder of the Center for Integrative Animal Medicine in Davis, encourages healthful diets, exercise regimes and maintenance care for longevity. At her practice, which is rooted in Chinese medicine, she offers acupuncture, massage and herbal supplements.
“It’s just like going to the auto mechanic – you need to have regular checks to see if there are problems,” she said. “Your dog may look fine to you, but may be in the early stages of a disease. If we catch it early enough, we may be able to turn that around.”
Here are four tips for helping your dogs live life to the fullest:
1. Keep them lean
It’s easy to giggle at a chunky pug or a dachshund with a beer gut, but those extra pounds shave years off a dog’s life the same way they do with humans, Murphy said. Overweight dogs are particularly susceptible to conditions such as hip dysplasia, diabetes and cancer, and may die up to two years earlier than lean dogs, according to one study from dog food company Purina.
As a dog’s chef, personal trainer and at-home health care provider, owners have to be vigilant about not fattening their dogs, Murphy said.
“They don’t go to McDonald’s and order a Big Mac,” she said. “It’s totally in our control, how heavy they are. We choose dog foods for our dogs, we choose how much we feed them, we choose what treats to give them, and we govern a lot of their energy expenditure.”
Murphy recommends keeping a close eye on how much a dog moves, and modifying their portions as they age. Yamate forbids owners from giving out table scraps, but encourages them to cook meat and veggies for their dog whenever possible.
Chris Ouchida, co-owner of Healthy Hounds Kitchen in Sacramento, said he believes the dogs who eat whole foods, especially U.S. Department of Agriculture-grade meats, will fare better than dogs living off of highly processed kibble.
“Just like with people, their bodies respond to quality ingredients,” Ouchida said. “I think avoiding those preservatives is a huge plus.”
2. Brush their teeth
Owners don’t need to brush their furry friends’ teeth every day, but twice a week is a good idea, Murphy said.
Like humans, dogs develop plaque on their teeth after eating. If not tended to, that plaque can cause gingivitis and lead to tooth loss. If bacteria from the dog’s mouth spreads to the bloodstream, it can affect a dog’s kidney, liver and heart.
Brushing plaque off a dog’s teeth while it’s still soft – about every three days – is the best way to ensure it doesn’t become tartar, Murphy said. Dog toothpaste comes in multiple flavors and can be applied with a standard toothbrush.
Some chew toys can help dogs clean their teeth, but choose wisely, Murphy said. Too-hard bones and hard plastic toys may fracture teeth, so stick to solid but edible treats such as Milk Bones and Greenies.
3. Play games
Like humans, every dog has a niche when it comes to exercise. Some enjoy trotting up mountains, while others just like to stroll around the block. The key, experts said, is to find something that both you and your dog enjoy and do it regularly.
Many canine training facilities offer games such as barn hunt, where dogs sniff through bales of hay to find targets, or fly ball, which sends teams of dogs racing each other as they leap over hurdles.
Even sedentary games that challenge the mind, such as a puzzle with a treat hidden inside to sniff out, can help dogs stay young and stave off cognitive decline, said Alice Symons, an instructor at Competitive Canine Gym in Sacramento. Research from UC Davis suggests that nearly 70 percent of dogs ages 15 years and older show symptoms of cognitive dysfunction, such as becoming lost in familiar places or forgetting bathroom habits.
“It helps engage their mind and keep them active,” Symons said. “People tell me that their dogs, once they go home from their nose work classes, they’re completely exhausted and they just sleep.”
4. Show them love
Sacramento resident Pamela McKinnon is convinced that love keeps dogs alive.
Her most recent pet, a poodle named Maggie, survived to the age of 20. Before that, she had a Newfoundland mix that lived to be 19 and a Labrador that made it to 17. The trick, she said, is keeping them close.
“I had (dog) beds everywhere in the house,” McKinnon said. “(Maggie) felt protected and secure with me. That’s the really important thing, is that you put them close to your heart.”
“It’s very very important to take your dog out every day, even if it’s just to the mailbox or a for a ride in the car, because it’s stimulating,” she said. “Dogs are pack animals – they want to go places with you and be with you.”