The Road to Longevity

Written by Crystal Ward Kent

As animal lovers, we want our companions to be with us for as long as possible, and to enjoy good quality of life during that time. While nothing can guarantee your pet a certain lifespan, there are ways to promote good health and reduce certain risk factors. 

The Road to Longevity

As animal lovers, we want our companions to be with us for as long as possible, and to enjoy good quality of life during that time. While nothing can guarantee your pet a certain lifespan, there are ways to promote good health and reduce certain risk factors.

Get a Baseline

The first step is to arrange a consultation with your vet. This gives you an assessment of your pet’s current health and may also identify possible conditions that could develop in the future. Being proactive can help forestall these conditions or reduce their impact.

    “Wellness checks are important windows into your pet’s wellbeing,” explains Rob Halpin, director of public relations with MASPCA Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.  “Your pet will undergo a complete physical that includes checking for any masses, painful areas, or bodily changes, as well as having their ears, eyes and mouth examined.  Blood work and a urine test are also recommended so that organ function can be evaluated. Even if your pet appears fine, it’s important to have a wellness check annually. For senior pets, getting a checkup twice a year is advised. ”

Watch Their Weight

The second step is to determine your pet’s ideal weight. According to Halpin, obesity is the number one culprit behind many of today’s pet illnesses, especially for dogs and cats. “We see more than 85,000 pets each year at Angell, and too many of them are obese. Being overweight leads to a wide range of health issues, from cancer to heart trouble and diabetes,” he says. “It also impacts their quality of life by causing or aggravating painful conditions such as osteoarthritis and joint degeneration. The older an animal gets, the more excess weight affects their health. The good news is that being overweight is something that can be corrected, and when your pet reaches their ideal weight, many health issues often improve or resolve themselves.”

     Your vet is the best person to determine your pet’s healthy weight.  Different breeds have different body types and what is a good weight for a one is not the same for another, even if your pets are similar in size or age. However, one guideline is that you usually should be able to feel your dog or cat’s ribs and see some indentation for a “waist.” If you are pinching extra fat along your cat’s sides or belly, then they may be overweight; however, Halpin cautions that because cats come in so many different shapes and sizes, it can be hard to tell based on touch alone, so ask your vet.

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     Halpin states that with breeds which are predisposed to structural conditions such as hip dysplasia, the recommended weight, especially as they age, may be on the thin side. “German Shepherds are a good example; we may recommend keeping them toward the slimmer end of a healthy weight in order to alleviate pressure on those vulnerable hips. But again, this should be decided by your vet and on an individual basis.”

     Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight for your pet starts at home. The cartoon saying, “We have met the enemy and he is us” often applies when it comes to ballooning pet pounds. “Many people let their eating habits extend to their pets, and that comes with a cost,” says Halpin. “You should only feed your pets twice a day—once at breakfast and once at dinner—and feed according to the amounts recommended by your vet. Do not give them people food; it’s not good for pets, and easily packs on the pounds. If you feed just twice a day, that leaves a safe window for some treats. Indulge them with a few small dental treats when you get home from work, or maybe as a snack until dinner is ready. Those will help their teeth and not cause weight issues.”

     Halpin notes that cats eat differently than dogs, and that not all cats eat the same. Some are gobblers, and like dogs, eat all of their food at once. Others are grazers and like to nibble throughout the day. In any case, the same food guidelines apply. 

Keep Them Moving

The other key to weight loss is exercise. Twice daily walks are ideal for dogs, and will not only aid them physically, but also stimulate them mentally, according to Halpin. “Walks let dogs explore and keeps them mentally engaged. After a good walk, they are happy, relaxed and ready to rest.” Cats exercise in short bursts of energy, so finding things that entertain them such as climbing trees, bird feeders, or protected fish tanks are good choices, as is taking 15 minutes twice a day for interactive play.  “I get out a wand toy and play with my cats for a few minutes when I get home,” Halpin says. “They get the exercise and it’s good bonding time.”

     Our fickle northern New England weather can make getting outdoors difficult, but there are solutions. Consider doggy daycare a few days each week, where your dogs can socialize with friends and engage in rousing play. Indoor fitness programs are also popular.  Facilities such as American K9 Country in Amherst, New Hampshire offer a wide range of activities that help pet owners keep their dogs active.  They have several large open play areas, plus structured playgrounds with tunnels, pools and climbing boulders. A fully air-conditioned indoor play area ensures that the fun continues even if the weather is bad.  

     K9 Country also has two unique features that are becoming popular with pooches and their people alike—a swimming pool and underwater treadmill.  

     Owner Amber McCune says that the 26-foot K9 heated indoor resistance pool is an excellent way to keep your dog fit. “Swimming is low impact so it is not hard on a dog’s joints. However, pushing against the water is high resistance, so dogs get a workout. It’s a great way for dogs to burn calories when you can’t get out for a walk. Plus, the dogs love it, and they come home tired!” 

     McCune was initially intrigued by aquatic fitness for dogs because she competes internationally in agility and needed to keep her dogs fit year round. However, the more she learned, the more she realized that any pet owner could benefit. “It’s perfect for senior pets, especially those with arthritis,” she says. “Dogs with arthritis need to move in order to keep moving and being in the water lets them do that, whether it’s in the pool or on the underwater treadmill.”

     American K9 Country’s knowledgeable staff review the pool programs and underwater treadmill with all clients and recommend exercise programs. The pool is only eight inches deep at the shallow end, so most dogs are comfortable entering and know that they can easily walk out. “The treadmill can take a little getting used to because the ground is moving under their feet, but we find that if you offer most dogs a cookie, they quickly get on board and are comfortable with it,” says McCune. 

     As with any fitness program, the key is gradually building up to the desired level. Most aquatic treadmill programs start with walking, then work up to a mix of walking and jogging that is tailored to each individual dog’s health and condition. 

     “Aquatic fitness can add another dimension to keeping our dogs well and fit,” says McCune. “The high intensity/low impact combination is good for dogs, and allows them to comfortably exercise no matter the weather, their age, or any  infirmities they might have. And it’s fun!  Who doesn’t love being in a pool?”

     For more about American K9 Country, please visit www.americanK9country.com.

Read the Label

Not all pet foods are created equal, and pet owners are often confused by which brands are truly healthy for their pets. John “Jack” Phillips, owner and founder of Wholistic Pet Organics, which makes pet food and supplements for dogs, cats and horses in Bedford, New Hampshire, offers some straightforward tips on how to find healthy food for your companion.

     “My background is in chemistry and biochemistry and my late wife and I are long-time animal lovers and owners,” he says. “A few decades ago, pet food had little nutritional value.  Because we cared about our animals, we decided to create pet food that was made specifically to meet pet needs but made with human quality ingredients. Along the way, we learned a great deal about what pet foods should and should not contain.” Here are Phillips’ tips:

Avoid Fillers and Byproducts: Avoid anything that contains ingredients called “byproducts,” as well as corn, beet pulp, chicken meal, protein meal or any synthetics.

Choose Protein: Beef or chicken should be among the first ingredients.

Grains Are Good: Grains themselves are not bad, and in fact, many key minerals and vitamins needed by dogs and cats are found in grains. While dogs and cats are carnivores, they typically get these nutrients indirectly by digesting their grain- or plant-eating prey. Thus, domestic pets need foods that provide these key elements. “Grains are building blocks,” says Phillips. “Just look for organic, healthy grains and not synthetics or byproducts.”

Skip Specialty Foods: Foods claiming to promote joint health, for example, are misleading. These foods may contain glucosamine, which does help joint health, but a dog needs 1200 to 1500 milligrams of that supplement for it to make a difference. Most servings of joint health food would not contain enough. A dog would have to eat four to six pounds of food each day to get even the minimal amount of glucosamine, and that is far too much food. “It’s better for your dog to eat a regular food and take a supplement,” says Phillips. “ The same holds true for so-called probiotic-enriched foods. A healthy serving doesn’t contain enough probiotics to do any good, and many of these probiotics have been killed by heat during the food production process.”

     “Good nutrition is key to your pet having a long and healthy life,” says Phillips. “You can tell when a pet has a good diet. They have a thick and shiny coat, sparkling eyes, no skin issues, and are at a good weight.  Take time to read the label and you can find good foods that will truly nourish your pet.“

     Halpin notes that while boutique, small-batch pet foods are popular, several large pet food corporations are doing a good job at creating healthy choices. “We have found that companies such as Science Diet have done some significant research when it comes to pet nutrition,” he explains. “They have the resources to study large numbers of pets over many years and have gotten good information as a result. Whoever the supplier is, pet owners should always check the ingredients, but at least pet owners today do have more options.” 

     One more note…an animals’ nutritional needs are much different than a human’s so do not impose your specialty diet on your pet. Keto, vegan or gluten-free diets can have serious and even fatal consequences with pets, according to Halpin. “Animals need well-balanced diets geared toward their needs,” he says. “We have seen an increase in heart disease in pets due to the raw diet, and other tragic consequences from limited diets. Don’t restrict your pet; talk to your vet about good diet choices.”

Ask About Supplements

The right supplements can make a huge difference in your pet’s health, but ask your vet about which ones and correct dosages.  Glucosamine is one of the most popular, as many pets with joint issues have seen improved mobility after taking it. Other vitamins may help with skin issues and probiotics may ease digestive issues.

     According to Joyce Belcher, a herbalist and owner of Sustenance Herbs in Kittery, Maine, supplements can benefit your pet at any age, and help blanace their immune system. “Dogs especially are constantly exposed to outside influences, whether they eat something that they shouldn’t or just from their environment. Eighty percent of their immune system is in their gut, so taking a supplement that helps support gut health may be beneficial.”

     If you do choose to use supplements, Belcher advises learning all that you can about the product. “You want to choose products where you know where they are made and what’s in them; the people making them should have expertise in that area. Many of the supplements sold in pet stores are made by two or three companies who then just ship them to other companies for private labeling. Many have very little of any ingredients that might actually be useful. Most contain a lot of fillers and bulking agents, so your dog is not getting any real benefit.”

     Belcher, who along with her husband, makes her own products, says that choosing organic herbal supplements reduces the risk of the items containing unnecessary fillers and helps ensure that your pet gets the nutrients or supplements that they need.  “With my business, as with other small producers, you can come and talk to the person who is making the product,” she says. “You can learn exactly what’s in it and why.”

     Belcher also urges that anyone considering a supplement, schedule a wellness consultation.  “Once we know your needs, we can guide you to the best options,” she says. “Sometimes supplements are simply that—ways to reinforce good health; other times they are needed to correct an imbalance. Knowing your pet’s needs helps us make the best recommendation.”

     Always make sure that your vet is aware of any supplements that your pet might be taking. 

Consider Acupuncture

    In the past, often the only way to deal with pet ailments, especially as animals aged, was through medication. But medications are not ideal; they can have side effects, and over time, their effectiveness can wear off. Today, many vets are recommending acupuncture for their patients. This ancient Chinese treatment, which uses sterilized needles placed at key points along the body, has proven effective at dealing with a wide range health issues. Surprisingly, pets don’t mind the needles and often relax and become sleepy during their session.

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