The same principles proven to contribute to a longer healthier life in humans also apply to our pets.
– A diet of fresh, minimally processed ingredients helps the body to function properly
– A lifestyle that includes vigorous exercise promotes the health of all systems, from muscle to heart to brain
– Mental stimulation keeps us all thinking and functioning at our peaks for much longer
Do older dogs need senior food? Through vigorous advertising, we are often advised to start feeding our dogs “senior” food, sometimes for dogs as young as 6 years old. These foods usually have less fat, more carbohydrate, and less protein. Sometimes they contain small amounts of supplements that are supposed to help joints and mobility, but the amounts are rarely at levels that would help. These formulas are based on ideas that are dated and were not quite accurate to begin with.
Senior dog food formulas in general include less protein. Decades ago, researchers looked at diets for those in kidney failure whose kidneys could no longer process the amount of protein they once did, and made the leap that then if we feed dogs (and humans) less protein as they age, their kidneys will be spared and last longer.
This has not proven to be true in humans or dogs, and research by big pet food companies agrees. *** In fact, older bodies need better protein and more of it but, the products hang on. Why is this? Well, in the world of marketing and sales, the more shelf space your product occupies, and the more product varieties you have, the better your chances of selling something.
Senior formulas frequently have less fat than all-life-stages formulas. This allows them to have fewer calories. The idea that a low fat diet is a healthy diet has been around for a number of decades, long enough for years of research to show us that in fact, low fat diets do not make bodies healthier. The natural, ancestral diet of dogs (all life stages) provides about equal calories of fat and protein. Since fat has twice as many calories as protein, on a plate, the fat would take up half as much space as the protein.
Senior foods are also formulated to be lower in calories to help pet caretakers keep their animals at normal weights. This is an excellent goal. A four-year study compared two groups of labradors, one group was allowed to “free feed” (left dish full and available all day) and one group fed only scheduled meals. At the close of the study, conclusions were clear. Those dogs kept lean by eating scheduled meals lived two years longer, The muscle wasting associated with old age was delayed by two years compared to the group allowed to become overweight. Lean dogs did not develop arthritis until many years after the overweight dogs, who began to show arthritic changes at 2 years of age. *** These dogs were fed a standard grain based dry food.
Whatever you feed your dog, keeping him lean will promote the healthiest functioning of your dog or cat’s body. In our opinion, “senior” and “Light” foods are detrimental to the health of our pets.
If Sparky could talk, he’d tell you it’s true. When I met Sparky, a 9-year-old Brittany Spaniel, he was not feeling very good. He was on a “senior”, limited calorie dry food. He was seriously stout, with no waistline, and moving pretty slowly, had a dull coat. but his people said he was in good health and had ho problems. They wanted to try a meat-based, fresh food diet to see if a lower carbohydrate diet would help him lose weight. We got reports on Sparky regularly; he was losing weight and doing well. When I saw him next, 4 months later, he looked like a different dog. Perfect weight, glowing coat. His owners reported that these issues (which they had not mentioned – they thought it was “just Sparky”) had disappeared: flaky coat, itchy skin, frequent bladder infections, general pain and achiness, and most of the tartar on his teeth. At 9, Sparky was no longer an old dog. Senior food certainly didn’t help Sparky live a healthy, active life.
A species appropriate diet, based on meat and vegetables, provides the protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants needed to keep the immune system and the brain working well. Good fats keep inflammatory processes in balance and hormone systems working properly.
Those with achy and overweight dogs will be amazed to see the difference in how their dogs feel and act when they are fed meat and vegetable based diets. Often creaky, achy dogs are transformed by a change in diet. Dogs with common chronic medical conditions need the supervision of a veterinarian who is skilled with fresh food diets to supervise and fine-tune a fresh food diet. Many chronic conditions (diabetes, Arthritis, Irritable Bowel Disease and Syndrome, liver and kidney problems, dental disease) will improve on a commercial or home-prepared meat-based diet.
Fat cells themselves contribute to inflammation, so the benefits of helping your pet reach a proper weight are immense. Perhaps, and a proper weight, your dog would not need those NSAIDs or pain meds. This is much easier and healthier to do with meat and vegetable based diets than with starch-based diets, which tend to result in the productions of more inflammatory chemicals.
We are happy to help you tweak your diet with our nutrition software, choose a commercial food and plan diet program, or help you make your own food that meets all you pet’s nutrition needs.
GOOD FOOD HELPS OLDER DOGS AND CATS STAY LEAN AND HEALTHY, BUT THEY NEED EXERCISE TOO!
Older pets might not feel much like exercising. As most of us know, we don’t feel better until we actually get moving, but it is very important to only do as much as your body is able to do. Before starting any exercise program, check with your vet about your pet’s level of fitness and ask how you can tell how much is too much. Start at a level lower than what you thing your pet can do, and work up from there. Be aware of signs like increased heart rate, curled tongue, gait change, limping – stop BEFORE you have major stress responses. Remember when you started to see that your pet was tired and don’t go that for tomorrow. Their stamina will build quickly as they become fitter, but if we push them past the level that the body can do, we will only to harm and have to wait for the damaged tissues to heal. “Not pain, no gain” is very outdated fitness advice, but many of us have it embedded in our brains.
If we stay within these parameters, starting with frequent, short exercise sessions that challenge but don’t overwhelm the body, excellent progress may be made. Many conditions we might have discounted as “just old age” diminish or disappear with good exercise. Digestion improves, elimination becomes more regular, animals are less achy, and their brains work better, which means that all systems work better Getting more oxygen circulating builds lungs and heart, improves overall muscle tone and general health immensely.
Walking is great exercise, and can be adapted to the needs of your pet easily. Take it easy, this is weight-bearing exercise and your pet might have some areas that are compromised. Creaky knees and rear ends can strengthen. Take advantage of all opportunities for appropriate walking exercise! Weather can limit what your dog can do, from days too hot to walk to weeks of snow after snow after snow.
Swimming is one of the best ways we know to build fitness and to exercise dogs. Cats not so much! At our pool, we closely monitor the progress of each dog, and chart each session for maximal progress. Older dogs often start out with 15-minute sessions, but after a few weeks, they are ready to lengthen their pool time. In winter, many older dogs lose a lot of ground, and injury is much more likely when footing is not solid. Once a week swimming can maintain and improve the condition of your older dog so he can go into the next spring in better shape than the previous spring. Swimming is also a great pain reliever.
Indoor exercise opportunities are unlimited for the creative, but don’t take the place of vigorous exercise. Sit-to-stand for a treat, cookie stretches, backward walking and many more simple exercises help lubricate and tone your dog’s body. Small dogs are easy to exercise, being small – they can charge down a hallway for a treat a few times and get pretty good exercise.
For the bigger dogs, this can be difficult. Walking up and down stairs with a treat on each stair is an excellent workout – slow is good!
Dogs often fade away from simple boredom. We start to accept Snoopy snoozing in the recliner as the way it always is. The more you include your dog and stimulate him with attention and activities the better his brain will function, and the more interest he will take in his life.
Include your dog in family activities and play with him. Small games like “catch the popcorn and “find the treat” take very little human effort, and provide fun and mental stimulation.
Modify activities your old guy is no longer able to do so he CAN do them. For example, throw the ball so it lands close to you. Help him in and out of the car and to accomplish stairs correctly. Many dogs have jobs in the household – encourage them to keep their jobs! Learning something new is great for the brain and keeps dogs (and cats) happy too. It’s a mutually beneficial activity – both human and animal brains get a workout, and your connection to your dog gets even better.
LET’S KEEP THEM AS LONG AS WE CAN!
Get them moving, feed them well, engage their brains – you’ll see a dog or cat who is interested in life, who feels much better. You have perfected your relationship with your friend over many years – and you want to keep it going as long as you can.
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Finco DR. Proc the Waltham/OSU Symposium on Nephrology and Urology, Columbus, OH. Oct. 1992, p. 39.
Kronfeld DS. Aust. Vet. J. 1994; 71:328.
Churchill J, Polzin D, Osborne C, Tet. al. Proceedings ACVM. 1997:675. Kealy, R.D., Lawler, D.F., et al. 2002. Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 220(May 1):1315-1320.