Fortunately for us, many dogs now live well into their teens. So what can you do to make his senior years his best years ever?
Start with diet
A balanced nutritional plan is the number one factor in preventing and treating illnesses, improving overall health and ultimately increasing longevity in dogs. A balanced senior diet should start with high quality protein, and include fibre. Protein is good for maintaining muscles, organs and immunity. Sources of protein such as salmon and pork also have anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce pain and inflammation.
Fibre-rich, low calorie foods such as dark leafy green vegetables, zucchini, pumpkin and other fruits and vegetables have many healthy benefits, including flushing out toxins.
The older a dog gets, depending on genetics and health, the more you may need to adjust his diet. While some carbohydrates may be helpful for a younger dog with lots of energy, older dogs generally don’t need the calories. As a general rule of thumb, fresh is best. Whether the food raw or home-cooked, this is where dogs can get the most bioavailable nutrition.
Remember, seniors need to eat a bit less to keep their weight in check! Feed them well and they will live well.
Serve up supplements
Supplements are a great way to support your senior dog’s health and may be necessary to maintain balanced nutrition. Older dogs benefit from a diet rich in antioxidants, essential fatty acids and probiotics.
- Antioxidants prevent cells in the body from mutating, reducing the risk of illness such as cancer. They can also help prevent vision and brain deterioration. Blueberries, cranberries and blackberries pack a lot of antioxidant punch. Other antioxidant-rich foods containing vitamin C, E, beta-carotene and selenium include carrots, green beans, broccoli, kale, spinach, pears, apples (no seeds), beets and coconut. Flavourful antioxidants like cinnamon, carob and honey make a yummy topping to your dog’s regular meals.
- Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are, as their name suggests, essential to your companion’s health. Dogs can’t produce EFAs naturally, so they need to get them from food or supplements. The Omega 3-containing EPA and DHA from fish oil or other healthy oil sources such as hemp, coconut and sunflower help boost your dog’s metabolism, and improve his heart, brain, joints, vision, thyroid, skin and coat, and even his mood. A higher intake of EFAs can guard against diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
- Probiotics help address gastrointestinal issues (GI) in older dogs, which is quite common. They can strengthen your dog’s digestive and overall immune system, ease stress, and even help him recover from a treatment of antibiotics. Try adding plain yogurt to your dog’s food, or look for a scientifically developed strain supplement formulated for canines.
Tip: When it comes to senior dogs (unless otherwise noted on directions), new foods and supplements should be introduced gradually to check for reactions.
Protect her immune system
While a healthy diet and exercise are the foundation of a strong immune system, there are other steps you can take to ensure your dog stays as healthy as possible. Consider reducing exposure to environmental toxins and forgoing unnecessary vaccines (talk to your vet about a titre test if there’s any question about whether or not your dog is still protected from previous vaccines). Look into natural products for maintaining your home and garden and avoid conventional pest protection. Additionally, try to provide a low stress lifestyle – it’s good for the whole family!
Digestive enzymes for better digestion
As your dog ages, his digestive tract may not function as well as it once did. He may experience loose stools, for instance. Plant-based digestive enzymes are a great solution. Found in tropical fruits like pineapple and papaya, as well as grasses such as milk thistle and slippery elm bark, digestive enzymes break down difficult-to-digest proteins, starches and fats and help support the stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder and small intestine. They can improve the absorption of vitamins and minerals in your dog’s food so he gets as much nutrition as possible from his meals.
As with us, a dog’s eyesight starts to deteriorate as he ages. Maintain his vision with antioxidant-rich foods such as blueberries and cranberries, or add carob or honey to his food. Orange vegetables like carrots and pumpkin contain carotenoids such as beta-carotene, which promote eye health. For extra protection, you can add a vision supplement.
Despite popular belief, dogs are not colour blind. Although they don’t see the colour spectrum as we do, they can detect contrast. Therefore, using contrasting shades for items such as toys, bedding and feeding bowls will help your dog identify objects better and be more engaged with his surroundings. A healthy diet will also help prevent the vision-related problems associated with diabetes.
Watch the thyroid
The thyroid is a small gland in your dog’s neck. Its function is to produce hormones that regulate the whole body. In older dogs, hypothyroidsim is common. Symptoms of this thyroid hormone deficiency include weight gain, dry skin, hair loss, lethargy, muscle weakness and eye and ear infections. Kelp, a natural supplement high in iodine, can help regulate your dog’s thyroid and keep his hormones under control.
Help for hips and joints
Hip and joint problems tend to be the first visible signs of aging in dogs. But stiffness doesn’t have to mean a compromised quality of life. Help your dog feel better by supplementing his diet with specific ingredients such as fish or coconut oil that help build back cartilage and target fluid function. These natural lubricants can be used as a preventative measure, or to help improve mobility in dogs suffering from osteoarthritis. Take it a step further by investing in a supplement specifically formulated for hip and joint function.
Once you’ve covered all the nutritional bases, make sure your lifestyle is suited to your senior dog’s needs. When it comes to exercise, refrain from high impact activities such as jumping and hiking. Keep his food, water and sleeping quarters on one level of the house to limit his use of stairs, and prevent falls by placing non-slip area rugs on hard flooring. When it comes to car rides, a ramp can help him get in and out of the vehicle without putting unnecessary stress on his joints.
Taking care of your dog’s teeth and gums is just as important as providing exercise. The most noticeable sign of poor oral health is bad breath, but it can also affect your dog’s heart, kidneys and liver. Stay on top of his dental hygiene by brushing his teeth regularly to break down plaque and tartar. Look for a toothbrush and toothpaste designed specifically for canines and/or consider a tooth spray or gel specifically formulated for dogs.
Keep him sharp
Stimulating a senior dog’s mind can add years to his life. Engage him through play, using soft toys to avoid harming his sensitive mouth, and consider investing in a puzzle toy to keep him occupied throughout the day. Simply hiding low-cal treats around the yard and house gives your dog a job to do and keeps him mentally active. When walking, add a new route to his daily outing. New smells and sights can stimulate his brain and ignite his senses.
Regular vet checks are vital
Catching health problems early can help prevent any issues from getting worse. It is recommended that senior dogs receive a veterinary checkup every six months. Talk to your vet about minimal vaccine protocols for seniors, and ask what you can do on a daily basis to improve his health and maximize his comfort. Massaging your dog, for example, is a great way to loosen up stiff joints and muscles while checking for lumps, bumps, pain, and other warning signs.
Get him moving
You may notice your older dog sleeps more. It’s important to keep him moving to build muscle and get the blood flowing for health and vitality. Get him into a scheduled physical routine that’s not too vigorous, such as swimming. Swimming puts less impact on a dog’s joints, improves muscular function, and boosts his cardiovascular system. Leisurely walks on even terrain are also a good option. Before and after exercise, a gentle stretch and massage are beneficial to promote recovery and help your companion relax.