February  is my birthday month (32 again!!!hehe) and I have had a request to address some of the special needs of the aging pet, so I thought it would be specifically appropriate to write my column about this topic.

It is well known that aging is an expected and natural process.  It is not technically a disease. Things just age and break down over time. We can use what we know about body systems and what we know about aging to tweak things to slow the progression a little bit. So, here is my educated (and somewhat "up close and personal") opinion on the matter.

Body Weight

You know from my last article that obesity shortens life and speeds up the consequences of aging for pets.  This has been shown in scientific studies (Purina's life span study in 2002 found that normal weight Labs outlived their obese counterparts by an average of 1.8 years). It is also common sense to know that one's joints are going to wear more slowly if they bear less of a load. The same study found that the average age of the dogs requiring treatment for a chronic condition was 12 years for the lean dogs versus 9 years for the obese ones.  We know from human models that abdominal obesity creates extra workload on the heart and the list goes on and on. So keep your senior pet trim and you will reap the rewards of a longer and happier life.

Medical Care

I know it sounds like gratuitous self-promotion for me to say "include your vet in your older pet’s care", but it is astoundingly true. A few years ago, I did a retrospective look at our patient records and I found that 68% of our patients lived to 12 years of age. As an educated and objective observer, your vet can see things about your pet that you have not noticed being so close.  Do not miss frequent physicals on your older pet.  Here at my hospital, we suggest a thorough exam every 6-12 months and routine wellness testing for common age associated diseases once a year.  Careful monitoring for older patients does make a difference.

Diet and Supplements

It is true that you are what you eat and it is the same for your pet. Your dog is an omnivore (like you) and if you start with a high quality premium diet and add in selected whole foods, you will be doing your dog a service.  Cats are carnivores and their diets must be balanced for them. There are lots of high quality premium foods on the market and my senior Great Dane eats a premium diet with joint supplements already added to help with her aches and pains. Another thing that I swear by is Omega 3 supplement.  Omega 3 supplements have shown promise in reducing inflammation in chronic skin conditions and improving joint lubrication. Some human studies suggest a decrease in cancer-associated inflammation also.

So, premium pet food base diet and supplement with whole, low fat choices and pet formulated omega 3 supplements. I do not recommend giving human supplements to pets and always give my pets the ones that are formulated and tested for their specific species.  Cats are not tiny dogs, any more than dogs are tiny humans.  When it comes to food choices to share with your pet, here is my rule: If you would not eat it (or would not want your doctor to know you ever ate it) do not give it to your pet.  This includes things that are downright toxic to pets like chocolate, but also fatty things like ground meat, BBQ and food that is potentially spoiled (like when you clean the refrigerator out and give stuff that is iffy to the dog).  Good choices (IN MODERATION) might include: Whole grain breads, vegetables, like squash or green beans and some fruits for your dog and stick to lean meats for your cat. Never offer pets grapes, raisins, garlic, onions or chocolate.

Dental Care

Veterinarians know that dental infections spread to the liver and heart, but also that dental disease is very painful. If you want your pet to live long and prosper, don't ascribe to the notion that bad breath is ok for pets.  It isn't.  If the breath is bad, there is infection.  I believe that our aggressive dental program is a big part of our impressive longevity numbers.  Let your vet flip your pet's lip and tell you what is needed. It makes a difference. 

So if you are hoping that your pet will be there with you for years to come start reading labels and be selective for your pet.  Have him/her evaluated by a vet for body condition score and wellness testing. Make sure she does not have visible tartar and bad breath. Aging is a natural process, but we do not have to take it lying down!


Dr. Kathryn Primm is a veterinarian and author. Her first book is Tennessee Tails: Pets and Their People, and you can visit her author site at http://www.drprimm.com/