December 16, 2009

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We all want to slow the aging process for our dogs as well as ourselves, but of course there is no exact tool for doing this. Scientific research for a “fountain of youth” has pinpointed some of the culprits that affect how we and our animal companions age.

The major focus of research into the aging process has been placed on the destruction and damage of a system’s DNA, mostly by oxidation. Leading causes of oxidation are pollutants, toxins in the air, water and food supplies, disease, stress, hormone dysfunction, long-term consumption of a poor diet.

While some factors, such as genetics, cannot be changed, there are some “controllable” aspects of aging, which include eating a healthy diet that is free of additives, preservatives and fillers, and living a life that contains minimal stressors and plenty of exercise. Minimal vaccine protocols and conservative veterinary care with an emphasis on prevention are also important in helping to slow the effects of the aging process.

Many age-related health issues can be avoided or delayed with a holistic approach that includes nutrition, supplementation, an appropriate exercise regimen and preventive, routine veterinary care.

Age-related diseases include diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, chronic small bowel inflammation, obesity, Cushing’s disease, cancer and liver problems. The long-term use of steroids or certain other medications, as well as long-term consumption of a poor (or biologically inappropriate) diet, excessive vaccines and insufficient exercise can increase a dog’s chances of developing one of these problems in his senior years. An overload of processed carbohydrates may contribute to many diseases, including pancreatitis and diabetes. Many holistic vets recommend a diet with minimal or moderate grain content and any grains that are included should be whole and unprocessed.

Some of the conditions that commonly affect senior dogs, include diabetes, kidney and liver problems, arthritis or other joint pain, obesity and dental disorders. Many of these health issues can be prevented before they occur, with a holistic-centered approach that includes nutrition, supplementation, an appropriate exercise regime and veterinary care.

Diabetes can arise from a variety of causes including viruses, chronic pancreatitis, chronic small bowel inflammation, obesity, hyperadrenocorticism (Cushings) and long-term use of progesterone or steroids, and of course diet. An overload of carbohydrates, especially poor quality, which is no longer thought to be biologically appropriate, may contribute to many diseases including pancreatitis and diabetes. A minimal or moderate grain content is recommended and any grains should be whole and unprocessed.

For many years, a very restricted-protein diet was recommended for senior dogs as a preventive or management measure for kidney problems. More modern research has actually determined that it is the quality rather than the quantity of protein that is most important. Take a look at the ingredients in some of the supposed ‘kidney diets’ they contain lots of meat by products (which can include hide, hair, feet, feathers and other horrible components that are very hard for the kidneys to process), as well as chemical preservatives that load a senior’s system with toxins and place an additional burden on an aging liver and excretory system.

Arthritis and joint problems can often be managed with an appropriate exercise regime, including gentle walking and swimming if possible, to help maintain mobility. Common supplements such as Yucca, MSM, Glucosamine and Chondroitin can also provide relief without the toxicity and side effects of prescription medication.

Obesity can be prevented or treated with diet and exercise. Sudden unexpected weight gain (or loss) should always be investigated to rule out an underlying health problem, involving the thyroid or other serious disease. Spoil your senior with lots of love and attention instead of too many treats!

Dental disorders can generally be prevented by regular cleaning. ‘Recreational’ raw beef marrow bones are a wonderful way to keep the teeth clean, as are raw meaty bones such as chicken necks, if your veterinarian considers these appropriate for your senior (sometimes vets prefer to stay away from raw, for the very young and old, or immune compromised pets, so it’s wise to check with them first). Dental cleaning at home may form part of a senior pet’s over all care if tartar does build up and many natural pet stores now offer anesthesia-free professional cleaning. Don’t be fooled that feeding kibble will keep your dog’s teeth clean it’s like expecting a crunchy cookie or packet of chips to clean your own teeth!

As a general guide for senior health-care and even for younger hounds: Routine blood-work and urinalysis can provide a useful ‘snapshot’ of your dog’s over all health and uncover hidden problems before symptoms arise. Vaccines should be minimal (titer tests are useful in determining if most of them are even needed at all). Flea and tick preventives should be used only when necessary.

If you’re a guardian to a senior dog, remain extra-vigilant about unusual behavior, health concerns or anything else that doesn’t seem quite right. Remember, old age is not an illness, but part of your pet’s life cycle. Give lots of love and hugs and gentle walks to ensure your senior Fido still feels like an important member of the family!

When to see the Vet

Warning signs that warrant a veterinary exam for any pet, but especially one in her senior years, include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive thirst
  • Coughing
  • Lameness
  • Incontinence
  • Excessive appetite without weight gain
  • Unusual growling/aggression, which can signify discomfort
  • Unexplained vomiting or diarrhea
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Lethargy
  • Sudden weight loss or gain

Lucy Postins is a monthly columnist in Fido Friendly Magazine.