For humans, old age is as much a mindset as it is a physical circumstance. But to a dog, the thought of “yielding to the wheels of time” never occurs. Your dog isn’t concerned about growing old. She doesn’t really care about the old ligament injury that makes her right leg wobble after exercise. She doesn’t even care about the egg-sized fatty tumor she might have on her flank— she just wants to enjoy every moment of every waking moment.
As a loving caregiver with a responsibility to provide you companion with the longest, happiest “dog’s life” possible, you must be careful not to let your worries of losing her interfere with her fun. That just wouldn’t be fair, so instead of focusing all effort on sheltering her from all possible harm, I propose that you provide her mind and body with everything it needs to remain healthy, efficient and fulfilled.
Although we cannot turn back the hands of time and may not be able to prevent the inevitable, a great deal can be done to assure optimum health and well-being during a dog’s later years of life.
Old age should not be viewed as a downhill slide to inevitable suffering and death. Nor should chronic disease be perceived as part of growing old. Each year hundreds of elderly dogs are put to sleep prematurely— not because they are deathly ill, but because their guardians can’t get past their own fears of watching their companions grow old and die a natural death. Granted, it’s difficult to live in anticipation of a companion’s death, but with all things considered, this is really our problem, not theirs.
The fact that an animal is growing old and becoming more susceptible to illness does not automatically predispose him to chronic disease— it just means that he needs some added care and attention. With your loving support, your old best friend can enjoy life right up to his last day.
THE SENIOR DIET
Each month of nutritional deficiency can trim healthy years from the latter end of your dog’s life.
Please think on the last sentence for a few more seconds, and then get to work at improving the diet, because most chronic problems seen in elderly dogs are very often related to nutritional deficiencies.
Regardless of how good the food is you are feeding, the fact remains that as your dog’s body ages her functional abilities to utilize food and properly eliminate waste will begin to decline. Liver problems, chronic renal failure, diabetes, arthritis and hip dysplasia, as well as neurological problems (such as canine cognitive dysfunction) are just a few of the problems that may be prevented by not only improving the quality of the diet, but also the efficiency by which you dog’s body can utilize it.
Diet should be frequently reevaluated and adjusted as needed to accommodate any reduction in digestive efficiency. The food must be highly digestible and rich with vitamins, chelated minerals, meat proteins and fats that are easy for his aging body to assimilate.
Depending on your companion’s specific needs, a vitamin-mineral supplement may be needed to assure that senior is getting everything she needs. Digestive enzymes and probiotic (beneficial bacteria) supplements should be added to each meal to optimize nutrient absorption and assist with the breakdown and elimination of waste.
A good essential fatty acid (EFA) supplement should be added to the diet as well. This will help support and protect the liver and immune system, while aiding in the production and maintenance of healthy skin, coat, bones, muscles and nervous system.
To find out exactly which foods and supplements are best for your “chronologically-challenged” companion, talk to a holistic veterinarian.
In older animals, herbs are especially useful for providing added support to body systems that have become less efficient over time.
Digestion and waste elimination can be improved with the use of mild liver stimulants, such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) or burdock root (Arctium lappa). This will help with the removal of solid wastes from the body, while increasing the production of bile and digestive enzymes.
Marshmallow root (Althea off.) fed fresh or dried or in any form of low-alcohol liquid, can be used to aid in the passage of stool by providing a protective, anti-inflammatory, and lubricating barrier to the intestinal mucosa. Flaxseed or psyllium husks will work in a similar manner as well
Spirulina, dried nettle leaf (Urtica spp.), wheatgrass or other “green foods” can be mixed with food to provide added measures of trace minerals and antioxidant protection, while Astragalus root or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosis) may be useful for strengthening the immune system and your companion’s resistance to physical or emotional stress.
The kidneys have a difficult life too, and over time they may become scarred and dysfunctional from repetitive infections, stones, and other damaging influences that may or may not have been detectable earlier. To increase urinary efficiency and help strengthen mucous membranes in the urinary tract, dandelion leaf, nettle, cleavers (Gallium aparine) or parsley leaf tea can be added to your dog’s drinking water. Add just enough to noticeably tint the water— this will also provide alterative qualities that the animal’s body can selectively utilize for the purpose of eliminating waste and maintaining clean, well-nourished blood. This can be done every day, for the remainder of your companion’s life.
If your dog displays early symptoms of renal failure, twice daily doses of ginkgo and hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha) will help improve blood circulation and may help reduce blood pressure in the kidneys, while cornsilk (Zea mays), marshmallow, or plantain leaf (Plantago spp.) will help reduce inflammation.
Oat tops (Avena sativum) serves as an excellent nervous system tonic that can be fed on a daily basis to help improve and regulate nerve transmission. In dogs who display diminished mental clarity or odd behavior that is attributable to brain dysfunction (e.g., cognitive dysfunction in canines) blood circulation and neurological functions of the brain can be assisted and sometimes improved with the use of ginkgo, gotu kola, or peppermint. In certain cases, St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.) may be useful as well, but this determination should be left to a holistic veterinarian who is familiar with your animal.
Aches, pains, and loss of mobility as a result of joint and connective degeneration may be relieved with supplements of glucosamine and/or chondroiton sulfate, horsetail, or yucca root. In cases of arthritis flare-ups, licorice (Glycyrrhizza glabra), or Boswellia may bring symptomatic relief.
Cardiovascular efficiency can be supported with daily supplementation of hawthorn berry extract. If circulatory impairment is evident in the legs, ears, or tail, then tincture of ginkgo or encapsulated preparations of yarrow (Achillea millifolium) or cayenne may be of assistance.
All of the herbs and supplements in this article are readily available at health food stores, and many can be accessed in products that are specifically formulated for use in dogs. To determine which herbs are appropriate for your companion, consult a holistic practitioner who specializes in veterinary botanical medicine.
A Few Words on Herb Safety
Although the herbs mentioned in this article are very safe, some may interfere with certain types of drugs or may be contraindicated in certain preexisting health conditions. If you have questions or doubts about the safety or the proper use of an herb or herbal preparation, consult a qualified practitioner before using it.
Although many types of herbal products intended for use in humans may be used similarly in dogs, common sense dictates that it is better to seek herbal preparations that have been developed specifically for veterinary use. These products have been formulated to better address the systemic and therapeutic requirements of animals, carry animal-specific feeding instructions, and are more likely to deliver positive results.
Most important of all, don’t give up on your old friend. With a little loving help, your companion’s senior years can be as rich with fun and adventure as puppy hood was. The pace will just be slower. And in my dog Travis’s case, especially for his caregiver! –GT