by Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM
Getting older…it's happening to all of us every day, including our pets. And just like humans, dogs and cats are prone to a number of medical problems as they get older. With diet, supplements, and extra care, many of these conditions can be prevented, delayed, or managed, to give your pet the best possible quality of life throughout the senior years. Here are a few of the health issues you may run into as your pet ages, and some things you can do treat them naturally:
Most older pets eventually develop arthritis. What is usually considered "slowing down," or "a little stiff," or even sleep disturbances (because they just can't get comfortable) may be a sign of significant joint disease. Extra weight makes arthritis that much worse, so an older dog may need a good weight loss program (older cats tend to lose weight by themselves). A high protein diet helps protect lean muscle mass while shedding fat. Proper weight and moderate exercise are the keys to comfort.
Joint protectors and anti-inflammatories can help, and they include glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, and MSM (methyl-sulfonyl-methane); all of which can be added to wet food. Other herbs and minerals may also be helpful. Antioxidants provide good anti-inflammatory action and pain relief. It may take 3-5 weeks for improvement to be noticeable.
As they age, pets experience a decreased ability to digest and metabolize protein and fat that occurs with age. Older pets need more and better quality protein. Wet foods are ideal for older cats and dogs—this includes food in cans or pouches, as well as frozen raw diets. They're easier to digest, and much more palatable. Adding digestive enzymes and probiotics will help your pet get the most nutrition from food, and there are specific digestive support remedies available for more severe issues.
Kidney Disease (Chronic Renal Failure, CRF, or Chronic Kidney Disease, CKD)
The kidneys have a lot of responsibility, and they work hard 24/7. Over time, cells die and are replaced by scar tissue. Only when 75% of kidney function is irreversibly lost will signs of kidney disease occur. CRF is very common in older cats, but dogs can also develop the disease.
One thing you'll hear from friends and even from vets is that protein is bad for the kidneys. But dietary protein has nothing whatsoever to do with the development of kidney disease (in dogs or cats). In fact, in older pets without pre-existing kidney disease, canned food or other high protein, high moisture diets are recommended.
Antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil or cod liver oil) are proven to be highly beneficial for pets with kidney disease. There is new evidence that probiotics can also be helpful. There are also specific kidney support products available.
This is the most common problems that vets see in dogs and cats. It often begins by the tender age of 3 - and gets worse from there! Many dogs and most cats are relatively stoic about pain, and problems such as abscessed teeth and oral tumors can easily be missed. One solution is to take your older pet in for a thorough checkup twice a year instead of just once. (But don't let the vet vaccinate your older pet, unless the rabies vaccine is required by law. See our article about vaccinations for more information.) Try to brush your pet's teeth at home, or use one of the products that help minimize plaque.
Cognitive Dysfunction (Senility)
Both dogs and cats can develop cognitive (learning and memory) problems as they get older, which are increasingly recognized as a form of dementia or even Alzheimer's. Antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids (cod liver oil is best for this condition) are valuable in keeping your pet's brain functioning at its best.
Half of dogs over age 10 will develop cancer, the most frightening diagnosis of all. At its most basic, cancer is the result of immune system failure - itself the result of poor diet, over-vaccination, genetics, and environmental factors. Keeping the immune system in peak condition is, of course, fundamental to good health overall, but given the role it may play in so many degenerative diseases, including cancer, is just good sense. Besides exercise, fresh air, and great nutrition, there are supplements especially designed for immune support. Antioxidants and Omega-3s are vital to the immune system. There are also ancient healing remedies such as herbs and medicinal mushrooms that have been used for generations or even centuries to deal with serious health issues.
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