senior chihuahua on a walk

My wife, Teresa, and I live with a pack of senior or near-senior animals. We love them dearly, and we’re looking forward to many more happy years with them.

As I’m sure you know, a long life isn’t always a given with dogs and cats, but there are plenty of steps we can take to help ensure that they live well into their golden years. Here are three important preventive measures that may help your pets share your life for years to come.

Feed Him Right

Feeding a high-quality food is so important. Commercial dog and cat foods are highly researched, and I would venture to say that plenty of pets eat a healthier, more balanced diet than a lot of people do.

Does your older pet need a senior diet? Not necessarily. Dogs and cats are highly diverse as far as when they start to age. My friend and colleague Dr. Tony Buffington, who specializes in veterinary nutrition at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says that as long as an animal is still healthy, he can typically stay on his regular diet. One exception is a pet who doesn’t eat very much and is starting to lose weight. Senior pets need to eat enough to meet their protein needs, and if they’re not doing that, you may need to give a food with a higher protein content than what they normally eat.

If your senior pet has health issues, of course, such as kidney disease, diabetes, cancer or other conditions that can affect older animals, you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian about an appropriate food. Many special diets are available that can help support animals with particular diseases and provide the nutrients they need.

Some new foods and supplements can help support brain health. They contain ingredients such as antioxidants and medium-chain triglycerides that work to help keep your pet’s mind sharp by boosting brain energy metabolism. He’s not going to be working the crossword puzzle — at least not if he couldn’t already — but studies show that animals fed certain of these products have shown improvement in cognitive function, especially when started in middle age.

Don’t forget the wet stuff: Free access to water is essential for your pet’s good health. Never restrict his water intake, and contact your veterinarian if he seems to be drinking more water than usual.

Watch His Waistline

Obesity is one of the more common problems we veterinarians see in pets, and it’s especially troubling in older pets. Carrying excess weight stresses the joints and can exacerbate osteoarthritis or hip dysplasia. Being overweight can also cause your pet to have difficulty breathing, make him less tolerant of heat, and contribute to high blood pressure and diabetes. Fat cats and dogs are also at higher risk of problems when they must undergo anesthesia. Those are just a few of the ways obesity can affect a pet’s well-being, especially as he ages.

To keep your pet at a lean body weight, measure his food at each meal (no free feeding!) and adjust the amount he receives based on his body condition. If you have multiple pets, you may need to feed each one in a crate or separate room to prevent food theft.

Talk to your veterinarian about the best way for your pet to lose weight. He can evaluate your pet and help you determine how to proceed.

Care for His Body — and Brain

Your senior pet might be arthritic or have a heart condition, but physical activity is still important. You just need to tailor it to his abilities. Walk instead of run; take shorter strolls instead of all-day hikes; play in the yard or indoors; and practice obedience skills such as sit, down and come to get him moving.

Mental exercise is equally important. Employ puzzle toys that require your pooch to manipulate them to get at the goodies inside. Even better, put his kibble inside a food puzzle or slow feeder and let him “hunt” for his meals. Another way to do this is to hide small amounts of his food throughout the house so he can search for it while you’re gone.

Last but definitely not least, schedule veterinary visits at least annually — and consider going twice a year once your pet becomes a senior. The immune system can weaken with age, and a titer test can determine if he needs any booster vaccinations to help protect him against disease. In addition, organs can also begin to work less effectively at this time of life, and aging pets are more prone to cancer. If we can catch these things early, through physical exams and bloodwork, we have a much better chance of treating or managing disease successfully and usually at lower cost to you.

That’s what I call a win-win.

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