There is a large disparity between the life span of a dog and our life span. After having loved a pet and lost one, it seems unfair. The best we can do is to keep our friends as healthy as possible and "forever young." Several factors have been shown to increase the life span of pets. A veterinary textbook, Geriatrics and Gerontology of the Dog and Cat, by Drs. Johnny Hoskins and Richard Goldston, indicates some of these factors. Tips to help keep your pet healthy and young for as long as possible include:
1. Know When Your Pet is "Old." When pets are considered "senior" depends largely on their breed and size. According to Dr. Johnny Hoskins in Geriatrics and Gerontology of the Dog and Cat, small breed dogs (less than 20 pounds) are in their senior years around nine to 13 years of age. Medium sized dogs (21 to 50 pounds) around nine to 11.5 years; large breed dogs (51 to 90 pounds) around 7.5 to 10.5 years and giant dogs (more than 90 pounds) between six and nine years. In general, smaller breed dogs live longer.
2. Wellness Exams. Geriatric examinations are recommended by many veterinarians when your pet is considered a senior. These examinations help identify early diseases or problems in older pets. Exams should include a history and physical examination with evaluation of the teeth, listening to the heart and lungs (by stethoscope), abdominal palpation (feeling of the abdomen) and inspection of the ear and eyes. Weight monitoring, parasite check (fecal examination) and blood work and urine tests are also often recommended. Other tests may be indicated depending on your pet's clinical signs (symptoms).
3. Watch for Illness. Careful observation at home is extremely important. By nature of survival, pets are very good at hiding their illness until it is often very late. Take time to examine your pet. Feel him or her for masses and indications of weight loss or loss of musculature. Things to watch for at home include changes in water consumption or patterns of urination, poor appetite, weight loss or gain, coughing or difficulty breathing, changes in activity level, vomiting, diarrhea and skin lumps or masses. If you have questions or concerns about your pet – play it safe and have him or her evaluated by your veterinarian. Early diagnosis is vital to the success of treatment.
4. Weight Control. "Obese pets have shorter life spans than non-obese pets," according to Dr. Richard T. Goldston from Geriatrics and Gerontology of the Dog and Cat. Obesity may lead to a number of health problems. Excess weight puts excess stress on your pet's heart. When the heart doesn't function properly, other organs may suffer including the brain, lungs, liver and kidneys. Over time, these problems may become severe enough to cause life-threatening conditions.
5. Keep Close Tabs. In general, "outdoor" free roaming pets have shorter lives than indoor animals. Infectious diseases, poisonings and trauma are common killers. Senior pets have decreased reflexes and may not see and hear as well as they used to. This makes them vulnerable to outside dangers such as predators or cars. Keep dogs on leashes or in fenced-in yards.
6. Monitor Your Environment. Keep poisons up and out of the reach of pets. Common toxins include antifreeze, rat poison and slug bait. Keep trash out of reach. Don't count on your pet to "know better." It doesn't take a large amount of a dangerous substance to make them seriously ill.
7. Nutrition. Feed your pet a premium high quality diet such as Hill's Science Diet®, Iams® or Eukanuba®. Feed low fat and high fiber since high fat and/or low fiber are thought to decrease life expectancy. With your veterinarian, discuss the merits of a diet formulation for "senior" pets. Minimize treats, and if you do give them, make them nutritious and low in calories. Air-popped popcorn is often a good treat for dogs.
8. Exercise. Exercise helps to maintain a healthy body weight, strengthens joints and muscles and provides mental stimulation for your pet.
9. Spay and Neuter. Spayed and neutered pets tend to have fewer health problems. Spaying is the removal of the ovaries and uterus. Without these organs, ovarian cysts, uterine infections and cancer of the reproductive tract are no longer a concern. Studies have shown that dogs spayed before puberty have a significantly lower chance of developing breast cancer than unspayed dogs, or dogs spayed later in life. Health problems that can be associated with birthing are also eliminated with spaying. Neutering is the removal of the testicles. Without these organs, testicular cancer is no longer a concern and the risk of prostate problems is reduced. In addition, the desire to "wander" is diminished, which lowers the chance of your dog running away (and suffering trauma, such as being hit by a car).
10. Mental Stimulation. Provide your pet with toys, games and quality time. Most pets are never too old to play. Encourage mental stimulation. It is never too late to teach old dogs new tricks.