Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Caring for Our Four Legged Senior Citizens

We humans require special considerations as we age, and so do our dogs (and cats!). There are ways in which we can help our pets maintain health and vitality as they continue to get older. Pets aren’t as robust in their older years as they were when they were young, so one of the most important factors to a healthy senior is keeping immune function relatively high. As always, the biggest player in immunity and general health is good nutrition. Make sure your dog is eating the best food possible and feed as much real food as you can (protein and vegetables). Raw or lightly cooked meat and eggs as well as finely ground or lightly steamed vegetables are a great way to get your dogs the nutrition they need. Carrots, broccoli, leafy greens, squash, pumpkin, zucchini, etc. are all dog friendly vegetables. If you are feeding dry food, load it up with supplements like salmon oil, digestive enzymes, sea kelp and vitamin C to aid in digestion and pack in the nutrients.

Another common senior issue is arthritis. There are several ways to combat this disease that ideally start before symptoms arise. The first step is to keep your dog nice and lean. Extra weight adds unnecessary stress to their already compromised joints, so take off any extra pounds to help lighten the load. Also important is to exercise your pet as much as possible. Maybe your senior can’t bound through the woods like she used to, but keeping her muscles strong and developed will prevent her from weakening in her old age. Whereas young dogs need a lot of exercise to burn off all the youthful energy, older dogs need exercise to increase their energy and vitality. Though your older dog may seem just as happy to take a nap rather than go for a walk, opt to go for that walk as her muscles and joints will thank you for it. If your dog is suffering from arthritis, or you want to prevent its occurrence, a glucosamine and chondroitin supplement will help slow its progress. Some foods have glucosamine and chondroitin in them, but I recommend a separate supplement as this tends to be more effective.

One common oversight is letting your pet’s nails get too long. If the nail is long enough that it touches the ground when your dog is standing still, trim them up…or have someone else do it. Nails growing too long effect how your dog steps and can actually cause arthritis in the joints of the foot. Keep those nails nice and short so they don’t interfere with your pet’s natural step.

Investing in a good bed will help support your stiff older pet, taking the pressure off of joints as they resting. Something more substantial than just a pillow or thin mat; a bed with a more dense, but soft filling will make for a more comfortable pet and better quality sleep as well.

As your pet gets older, it becomes more important to pay close attention to his overall state of being. Give him routine massages so you are familiar with his body and will notice any new lumps or sensitive areas. If he has trouble jumping in the back of the car then get a ramp or give him some assistance to prevent injury. Keep his teeth clean, routinely check his ears and eyes and if you notice anything change then promptly ask your vet!

On a behavioral note: older animals (including humans) have less tolerance in general, so be aware that your older dog may act more cranky around other dogs, especially younger dogs. Allow her to establish her space and try not to reprimand if she is appropriately just saying, “Back off!” She has been on this earth for a while and deserves the respect of younger, less experienced dogs. Now it is time for you to give back for all the unconditional love and affection your dog has been sending your way for years. Honor her life, treat her with respect and continue to try to have as much fun as long as there is fun to be had!

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Julie Forbes

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Do You Really Know What Is In Your Pet’s Food?

I recently counted all of the selections of dog food from three different stores in Seattle. I went to a large grocery store, a large pet supply store, and a smaller “natural” pet supply store, covering the range of quality from worst to best. I counted all the brand names available: Orijen,Timberwolf, Wellness, Iams, Science Diet, Purina, etc. I also counted, within those brands, all the different formulas available: “Lamb and Rice,” “Chicken and Rice,” “Reduced Calorie,” “Senior Formula,” “Balanced Nutrition,” “Oral Care,” “Skin and Coat Formula,” and on and on and on (and on and on). My tally reached well over 300 options and I hadn’t even tapped into veterinary offices, raw food diets, and online distributors. No wonder conscientious pet owners feel overwhelmed when it comes to selecting their pet’s food!

My mission: To educate and empower pet owners to make confident and healthy choices regarding their pet’s diet.

Generally speaking, the pet food industry does not exist for the benefit of our pets. It exists as a moneymaking by-product of the human food industry. Commercial pet diets - the hard, dry pellets we scoop into our pet’s dishes – have only been on the market for about 100 years. Dogs have been living with people for thousands of years, so how could their digestive tracts have evolved past a more natural, fresh diet? Do their bodies really thrive on such highly processed, grain-based foods?

How can you tell the difference between This Bag and That Bag? They both say they are “Nutritionally Balanced,” AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) approved, and “The Healthiest Food for Your Pet!” Here is an easy first step: Buy your pet’s food from a smaller store that boasts “natural,” human quality pet diets.

If you split up the entire industry into just two categories, they would be: “human-grade” and “pet-grade.” Pet-grade foods contain ingredients that are not fit for human consumption. A few examples: meat by-products, grain fractions, growth hormones, and dangerous preservatives. Human-grade, which is not an industry-accepted label, indicates the food was made with ingredients fit for human consumption, is preserved naturally with vitamins and fat, and generally contains higher quality, more digestible grains. Most of the local, independently owned stores are committed to carrying only human-grade foods. Yes, these foods are more expensive, but for a very important reason: They are simply better quality. Don’t worry! You don’t have to feed as much of the higher quality foods because they contain less grain filler. Compare the suggested daily feeding amounts listed on the back of an inexpensive grocery store brand versus the suggested amounts on a human-grade brand. You will find that you can feed significantly less of the high quality foods than you would the low quality brands.

One more thing: Stay away from any foods that contain corn, wheat or soy as a grain source. They are the three most troublesome grains to a dog’s digestive tract. They have a very low digestibility and often cause digestive upsets and allergic reactions. Symptoms can include, but are not limited to: loose, wet, large, stinky stools, gas, regurgitation, urinary tract infections/crystals, diabetes, itchy skin, hot spots, weepy ears, chronic ear infections. The list goes on. If you’re feeding pet-grade food, start transitioning your dog to a higher quality, healthier diet today.

REMEMBER: Introduce new foods slowly. Start with a proportion of roughly 10-20% new food and 80-90% old food. Observe your pet’s digestion for a day or two, and if all goes well, increase to 25-30% new and 70-75% old. Continue to gradually increase the new food content until you’ve completely phased out the old. Also, introduce one new thing at a time so you are easily able to identify what your pet is reacting to, good or bad. It is normal for dogs’ stool to change consistency and even get a little soft during the transition. Just go slow and if one brand doesn’t work out, try another!

Bone Appetit!

Julie is a graduate of the University of Vermont with a BS in Animal Science. She writes regularly on the topics of animal nutrition and behavior. Find her on the web at