On a recent Saturday morning I (Perry Jameson) could hear my dog, Flipper, whimpering at the dog door. I knew the door was open so I was not happy to be awoken before dawn on a cold morning to see why he was not coming inside.
To be fair, our “dog door” is actually a small cat door that Flipper figured out. If he lowered himself enough, he could squeeze through. We were happy when he figured this out as it meant we no longer had to get up and open a door to let him in and out of the house.
When I reached the door, I found Flipper standing outside not wanting to come through the door even though it was unlocked. As I watched him, he would lower himself as he normally did and attempt to come in, then whimper and pull back. I opened the full door to let him enter and noticed him limping on his front left leg. The soreness in that leg was preventing him from comfortably getting down low enough to squeeze through the small opening.
At the clinic the next day, I had Dr. Henri Bianucci look at him as this is his area of expertise. After he watched Flipper walk, palpated his joints and assessed a few X-rays, Henri informed me that our dog had osteoarthritis in his elbows, with his left being the worst.
My first thought was there was no way Flipper has arthritis; he still acts like a puppy. He steals the girls’ dolls to chew on, he tries to sneak food from the table when we are not looking and wants to play tug of war with his rope. Henri gently reminded me that even though he may behave like a puppy, Flipper was 10 years old and his body was aging.
With pets, it is often hard to realize they age just as we do. In reality, they age faster than we do with their lifespans only one-seventh of ours. Depending on the dog, their whole lifespan from baby, puppy, mature adult, senior adult to geriatric adult may all occur within a 12-year span compared with 80-90 years for us.
With the advances in health care for pets, more and more are living longer into their senior and geriatric years. Our goal as veterinarians is to not only help them live longer but to improve their “healthspan.” This is the period of life spent in good health, free from chronic diseases and the disabilities of aging.
Here are five tips you can implement to improve your dog’s healthspan:
Watch their weight: Dogs are similar to humans in that at middle age their metabolism and activity slow down. This means they are using fewer calories. So if you keep feeding the same diet and the same amount, as they age, they are going to gain weight.
The most significant weight-related issue we see in pets is joint problems. A certain size dog was designed to weigh within a certain weight range. When this is exceeded, they put added stress on their joints, resulting in ligament tears and arthritis.
Adjust their diet: To combat this age-related slowing in metabolism, you need to feed an appropriate diet as well as the appropriate amount. At 52, I can no longer eat the way I did at 22 and expect to maintain a consistent weight. And Flipper is affected in the same way. Feed your pet a diet designed for their age and be sure you are feeding the correct amount. Most of these diets have increased fiber, so they can eat enough to feel full but not have too many calories.
Regular veterinary visits: Pets should visit the veterinarian once a year for a full physical examination. This is the best way to prevent disease and catch problems at an early stage. At 7 years old, pets should begin having annual blood tests as a way to assess their overall health.
Keep them moving: The only way to burn calories is to stay active. Every dog benefits form regular, moderate exercise. These will change with time. A young dog may be able to jump and catch a Frisbee, while for an older dog, this might be a mile walk in the morning.
Spend time together: In our family, we have had to be intentional with this one. At the present time we have four human children, Flipper and two cats. It is too easy after helping with homework, making and cleaning up after dinner, bathing and finally putting everyone to bed, to have ignored my pets other than putting food in a bowl. They want and need our attention for their emotional well-being. I try to give each one 15 minutes of my undivided attention daily.
The goal for our pets is not just a long life but a long healthspan.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.