Some 80 million of us own pets in this country — and keeping our dog, cat, or other animal as healthy as possible is obviously one of our foremost goals as devoted owners. Good preventative health care is critical.
One of the top experts in the world on aging dogs, Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, PhD, co-founder of the University of Washington’s Dog Aging Project, believes many of us can do a better job of taking care of our older dogs, as they have unique health needs. And letting “sleeping dogs lie” isn’t necessarily the right advice.
Kaeberlein is a professor of pathology, adjunct professor of genome sciences, and an adjunct professor of oral health sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also has three dogs of his own: Dobby, a four-year-old German Shepherd; Chloe, a 10-year-old Keeshond; and Betty, an elder-dog rescue of unknown age that he says is an “interesting mix” of basset hound, lab, and beagle.
LifeZette engaged him on some key questions and advice for dog owners.
Question: What are some of the most surprising signs of aging in dogs — things pet owners wouldn’t realize?
Answer: Dogs experience nearly all of the same changes with age that people do. Some of these are obvious, like graying hair or “slowing down.” Some are less obvious or more gradual and likely to be missed at first — such as cognitive and behavioral changes or changes in metabolism.
“The most exciting thing pet owners probably don’t know about aging is that it is a biological process that can be slowed down.”
Another thing many owners don’t realize is that periodontal disease, or gum disease, is also a disease of aging. As animals get older, they lose the bone around their teeth, called alveolar bone. This can be caused by declining immune function and is exacerbated by poor dental hygiene.
Q: So how can devoted owners help their dogs through some of these key issues?
A: In general, owners can help support their aging dogs by maintaining regular visits to the veterinarian. A veterinarian can often identify changes that may reflect underlying disease early, providing more options for treatment and better prognosis.
Q: Aside from that, what can people do better to help their dogs — smaller or larger dogs — live longer?
A: What is most important is to maximize health span — the period of life spent free from chronic disease and disability. We all want our pets to live as long as possible, but only if that time is spent in good health.
There are several things owners can do to give their pets the best opportunity for maximizing health span. Regular veterinary checkups and vaccinations are obviously important, as is dental care. Most people don’t realize how important good dental health is to overall health in both humans and pets. Just like in people, regular exercise is also important.
Obviously nutrition is also a big consideration, and there is unfortunately a lot of misinformation out there about what types of diets are best for pets, with relatively few good studies to guide veterinarians and pet owners.
Regardless of the specific food owners choose, it is important to keep your pet at a healthy weight and to not allow it to become obese or malnourished.
It’s also important to make sure your dog gets enough exercise. The great thing is that by taking your dog for regular walks, both you and your dog get the benefits of exercise. Other factors that influence how fast a dog ages include size (big dogs age faster than small dogs), breed (mixed-breed dogs live longer than purebred dogs when normalized for size), and reproductive status (fixed dogs live a little bit longer than intact dogs).
Q: Let’s talk about the diet for dogs as they get older. What is your best advice here?
A: In general, owners should avoid overfeeding their dogs at all stages in life, especially in their senior years. Just as in people, obesity in dogs is associated with a host of health problems.
Also, it’s very important that owners understand that the nutritional needs of dogs change as they get older. I’m excited to partner with Purina Pro Plan to help educate pet owners about their pets’ aging process. In dogs, brain glucose metabolism changes at around age 7, such that their brains are no longer able to utilize glucose, the main fuel for the brain, as efficiently. This can result in decreased activity levels and affect memory and decision-making. Fortunately, this can be overcome by providing alternative fuel sources in the form of medium chain triglycerides.
The Pro Plan Bright Mind Adult 7+ formulas contain enhanced botanical oils shown to promote alertness and mental sharpness in dogs seven and older. As a scientist, I appreciate that these diets are designed based on peer-reviewed scientific research, and that’s why I feed both my older dogs this food at home.
Q: What other key points do you feel we should know about maintaining the health of our beloved animals?
A: The most exciting thing pet owners probably don’t know about aging is that it is a biological process that can be slowed down. Over the past two decades, we have learned a lot about the biology of aging — and scientists like myself have been successful at using this knowledge to increase the longevity and health span of small animals like mice by up to 50 percent.
There is no reason this can’t be accomplished in our pets through similar approaches, such as my involvement in the Purina Pro Plan . That is my primary goal with the Dog Aging Project. As someone who loves my own dogs very much, I understand how important it is to give our cats and dogs as many extra years of healthy longevity as possible.