Things You Can Do to Keep Your Pet Young at Heart

Melissa Chapman
Oct. 1, 2010

When you think of your children, you make almost no distinction between your two-legged ones and four-legged ones. Unfortunately, our fur babies don't have the same life expectancy as our own human children. But with some vigilant attention to their diet and mental state, we can keep them with us (depending on the breed) for 12 to 15 years. In fact, I'm banking on 20 years for my now 11-year-old Shih Tzu. And I'm willing to undertake any measures that will both prolong her life span and enrich the quality of her life as well.

Here are tips to keep you and your four-legged kid happily joined at the hip for years to come:

Obesity can shorten your senior pet's life: less food equals longer life

According to Dr. Ernie Ward, author of Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs Are Getting Fatter - A Vet's Plan to Save Their Lives (2010 HCI) and owner, chief-of-staff at Seaside Animal Care, PA, obesity is a big problem in older pets that can cause and exacerbate many preventable diseases.

"Do your pet a favor and trade the treats for extra playtime," says Dr. Ward. "You just may add years of high-quality life to both of you."

Dr. Ward recommends substituting treats with healthy, whole foods such as carrots, broccoli, asparagus, celery, apples and bananas. Adding plain kefir or yogurt is also a great way to supply essential probiotics without all the calories. 

Exercise more

Regardless of your pet's current physical state, daily walks or play can rewind years' worth of damage and boost your pet's mental and physical health. For dogs, a brisk 20 to 30-minute walk once or twice a day is just what Dr. Ward orders. For cats, interactive toys such as feather dancers, laser lights or remote-controlled toys can get even the laziest cat on its feet. Whatever activities you choose, just do it.

Brain games

To keep mental reflexes sharp, Dr. Ward recommends that pet parents constantly provide their older pets with new experiences. Add a food puzzle, teach a new trick, take a trip to a different dog park or enroll in therapy pet classes. Rotate toys by packing old ones out of sight and offering a "new" one every two to three days.

"Even a simple change such as reversing your normal walking route can provide freshness to an otherwise stale routine," says Dr. Ward. "As often as possible, ask yourself, 'How can I make this more fun or interesting?'"

Don't forget

Older pets tend to have a higher incidence of phobias and anxiety, notes Dr. Ward. If your pet suddenly becomes fearful of thunderstorms or loud noises, has accidents in the house, or begins to wake unexpectedly at night, see your veterinarian. Nutritional supplements, behavior training and medications can also help your older pet maintain normal abilities and combat age-related behavioral changes.

A new pet can breathe life into an older one

In almost 20 years of practicing veterinary medicine, Dr. Ward says he's witnessed one thing innumerable times - a new pet breathes new life into older pets.

"Not long ago I diagnosed a long-time patient, Prince, with a serious form of heart disease. After outlining a treatment plan, I told the owner that my next best advice was a bit unorthodox: get a new puppy," says Dr. Ward. "I shared with her the fact that many times the older pet seems to regain lost vigor and lives much longer than I'd ever dreamed possible whenever a new pet is introduced. What I didn't tell her was that adding a new pet before losing one helps soften the loss."

"Sure enough, two months later she appeared in my office with a brand new puppy and a brand new "old" dog. It had been years since I'd seen Prince prance like that," Dr. Ward says.  "Prince lived another year and-a-half, at least six to 12 months longer than I originally estimated. The beautiful part of the story was that not only did Prince live longer and have a better life than I'd expected, but when it was time to let him go, the owner had a new friend to console her. I'll keep recommending a new, best buddy for every old friend I see."

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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