10 tips for healthy dogs and cats

As a pet parent, you are responsible for keeping your animal companions happy and healthy. Here are ten tips to help you care for him.

You’re only as old as you feel, right? But what about our dogs and cats? With the right care, even large breed canines can stay happy and healthy into their teens, and it’s not unusual to hear of cats over 20. You don’t need a miracle elixir to add years to your beloved companion’s life. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Follow these ten health tips to help your four-footed friend enjoy his mature years to the fullest.

1. A wholesome diet

While it’s best to feed your companion a healthy diet from babyhood, it’s never too late to switch, as long as you do it gradually and under the guidance of a vet if your animal has an existing health problem. You can choose from a home-prepared diet made from raw or cooked meat and vegetables, or purchase a high-quality packaged food made from natural, whole ingredients. It’s not usually necessary to feed a diet specially formulated for seniors, although you may need to cut quantities, fat and protein levels. Fresh, pure, filtered or spring water (not tap water) is vital, especially to older animals who are more prone to kidney problems. Make sure the water is changed daily and is accessible 24/7. To increase hydration in animals that may not drink enough, especially cats, consider a pet fountain – running water stays cleaner longer and also encourages them to drink more.

2. Vitamins for vitality

Mature animals need to be supplemented with specific vitamins and other nutrients to maintain good health and deal with age-related problems. Your companion’s requirements may vary, depending on his individual condition, so consult with a holistic vet before starting a supplement regimen. In the meantime, here’s a basic guide:

• Antioxidants – Vitamin C (Ester C) boosts the immune system and maintains bone and blood vessel health; good for animals with degenerative joint disease. Vitamin E helps with allergies, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Co Q-10 raises flagging energy levels and protects the heart from oxidation; can treat allergies, periodontal disease and cancer. Vitamin A helps fight infection and cancer and is good for the skin and liver.

• Essential fatty acids – Omega-3 oils are helpful for arthritis, allergies and immune problems while Omega-6s alleviate dry, itchy skin. Cold water fish sources are recommended.

• Digestive enzymes – enhance digestion and intestinal health by improving nutrient absorption.

• Glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM – very useful for arthritis, hip dysplasia and other joint diseases.

• Glandulars – support aging glands and organs, thereby helping to prevent thyroid problems, Cushings disease, diabetes and other disorders.

3. Keep him moving!

A mature animal may not be as active and energetic as he once was, but he still needs regular exercise to prevent obesity and keep his joints, heart and lungs in good working order. An older dog should still be walked every day, or every other day, depending on the individual, or engaged in some light play. Indoor cats are especially prone to becoming sedentary and overweight as they age, so they should also be encouraged to play a little each day. Just don’t overdo it – stop the activity when the animal shows signs of tiring or wants to rest. And who doesn’t love a massage after exercising? Massage soothes stiff joints and muscles, and alleviates the discomfort associated with arthritis and hip dysplasia. Because massage also improves circulation, it enhances immune function and helps the organs and body systems function better.

4. Long in the tooth?

Periodontal disease affects dogs and cats of all ages. If not dealt with early on, it worsens as the animal ages, causing pain and leading to gingivitis, tooth loss, and infections that can spread to the kidneys, heart or other organs. A healthy, natural diet helps maintain good dental health. The preservatives, sugars and other ingredients found in many commercial foods contribute to tartar buildup, while many kibbles break down into mushy particles that lodge between the teeth. Raw meaty bones (chopped raw chicken necks for cats) can serve as a natural “toothbrush.” Not only do they give his teeth and jaws a good workout, but the natural enzymes and probiotics found in raw bones support healthy bacterial flora. Raw vegetables such as organic carrots are also good. You may need to clean your animal’s teeth occasionally, using a toothpaste and brush especially formulated for pets. With some animals, especially older ones, this may be easier said than done, so you may want to look at products that you can spray or wipe on the animal’s teeth and gums. Many contain anti-bacterial herbs such as myrrh, thyme, fennel seed, or goldenseal.

5. Limit vaccines

By now, most animal guardians are aware of the risks of over-vaccination. Even in young animals, too many vaccines can cause a wide number of side effects, ranging from fever and stiffness to injection site sarcomas, autoimmune problems, allergies, dermatitis, thyroid problems, and even kidney and liver disease. These risks increase as the animal gets older, especially if he is in any way immunocompromised by illness. The irony is that most vaccines protect against illness for three years, perhaps even longer, which makes annual boosters completely unnecessary. Rather than scheduling a full set of vaccinations every year, ask your vet if he/she can do a titer test instead. This simple, inexpensive, blood antibody test will tell you if your animal can get by without being re-vaccinated.

6. Keep his mind sharp

We’ve all heard how important it is to keep our minds active as we grow older. The same holds true for our companion animals. Your dog or cat can suffer memory loss and cognitive problems as he ages, so you need to keep his mind busy. Regular exercise and socialization are important, as are a wide variety of toys and even a raw bone once or twice a week. Some animals, especially cats, get bored with their toys quickly, so introduce new ones now and then to refresh their interest. This is especially important if your animal spends a lot of time indoors. The jury is still out on whether ginkgo biloba is useful for animals. In any case, it is a good circulatory tonic that improves the health of capillaries in the brain and other organs.

7. Off to the vet

Even with the best of care, an older animal is more prone to developing health problems than a younger one. Many of the disorders often found in senior animals, such as cancer, diabetes or kidney disease, may not show visible symptoms until they’ve become relatively advanced. It’s therefore important to get your mature companion checked over by a vet once or even twice a year. Because your dog or cat can’t say when he’s feeling under the weather, learn to pay attention to any subtle changes that might signal ill-health. Unusual behavior or lethargy, lumps anywhere on the body, changes in weight or appetite, increased urination and/or water consumption can all be signs of developing disease that warrant a jaunt to the vet.

8. Avoid chemical pest control

Fleas are a perennial problem in many areas. While prescription medications such as Frontline and Advantage are convenient and effective, think twice before putting them on your mature animal. The same goes for commercial flea powders and collars. Use similar caution with heartworm medication, which may not even be necessary for your animal, depending on where you live. As with any drug, pest control products are powerful chemicals that can have an adverse impact on many older (and younger!) animals. They can suppress his immune system and weaken the ability of his liver, kidneys and lungs to rid the body of toxins. For flea problems, explore the growing number of more natural products on the market – you can find everything from powders and sprays to shampoos and dips for a complete flea control regimen that’s safe and gentle.

9. More than skin deep

Good hygiene is as important for older animals as it is for younger ones – even more so in cases where the animal has allergies or skin problems, which can get more pronounced as he ages. Switching to a healthy diet with the correct supplements will help a lot with shedding, itching and odor, but you should also consider regular bathing and grooming. Be sure to use a natural shampoo and conditioner – commercial products contain harsh detergents that can dry out the hair and skin. An oatmeal and aloe shampoo is an ideal choice for an older animal with a skin problem. Just make sure to protect him from potential chills until he’s completely dry. Daily grooming is also essential, particularly in animals who really hate baths. Grooming not only helps keep your animal’s coat and skin in good condition but, like massage, also enhances his circulation. Many dogs and cats will enjoy being groomed, as long as you use a good quality, properly designed comb or brush that doesn’t scratch his skin or pull his hair.

10. Lavish him with love

Helping your beloved companion through his golden years involves more than physical care. Lots of love and pampering from his best friend (you!) are also crucial to keeping him happy and healthy. Regular interaction with you, whether through play, exercise or just quiet time together, is essential to his well-being. Remember also to be patient – your companion will be slowing down, so you’ll need to adjust your pace to match his when exercising and playing. If his hearing and/or eyesight begin deteriorating as well, keep in mind that he won’t be as quick to respond to your commands as when he was younger. It’s a proven fact that positive emotions have a beneficial effect on physical health, so just spending time each day petting, touching and stroking your companion can greatly enhance his well-being.