I’ve had pet parents come to me and say things like, “I just adopted a 10 year-old cat, and she’s a little overweight. Since she’s older, maybe I should just let her go on as she is and not try to help her slim down or slow the aging process.”
Or the owner of an older pet will tell me, “Oh my gosh! What have I done? I just realized I’ve been feeding my 13 year-old dog terrible food his whole life!”
I want all of you in a similar situation to take heart. I’m here to tell you it’s never too late to implement small changes that can make huge gains in the overall wellness and quality of life of your beloved companion animal.
I Learned the Hard Way
I was in my second year of veterinary school and I had a rottweiler named Gemini.
I was getting free food from the school for Gemini. I was told it was good food (Science Diet), I was broke, and I liked the idea of free food for my dog.
Unfortunately, when Gemini was 7 she went into acute liver failure from an additive in the Science Diet food called ethoxyquin. Ethoxyquin is a stabilizer commonly added to pet food that is known to damage the liver.
I didn’t think Gemini was going to make it.
I made a change to her diet literally overnight. I started preparing homemade foods for her and she remained on a homemade diet for the rest of her life. Gemini lived to be 13.
My experience with Gemini was pivotal for me. It changed my belief about how companion animals should be fed.
It changed forever how I feed my own pack and the nutritional guidelines I give my veterinary clients, other pet owners and pet caretakers.
Health is a Dynamic Process
Because Gemini was so seriously ill and the cause was her diet, I had to make an overnight change to save my pet’s life.
I hope you never find yourself in a similar situation, and it’s likely you won’t. In fact, the majority of you reading or watching here today will witness a gradual unraveling of your pet’s health over several years.
It’s important to recognize that health and aging are dynamic processes. Every living creature, including your beloved pet, is moving either toward or away from health at any given time.
On the health spectrum — which ranges from a near perfect state of well-being at one end to debilitating disease at the other — the process of aging inches living organisms in the direction of debilitation.
As your pet ages, his immune system, other organs and his physical body grow increasingly out of balance. The reality is that pets in the second half of their lives gradually lose the vibrancy and stability of good health.
If you’re not actively taking steps to improve the quality of your furry friend’s life, which includes eliminating obstacles to a healthy lifestyle and fine tuning the care you give him as he grows older, his well-being is degenerating.
Take It a Step at a Time
Many pet owners who’ve cared for animals all their lives are just learning for the first time how to keep their animals healthy. These folks tend to feel overwhelmed and guilty when they realize the health of their pets has been compromised by poor nutrition and other lifestyle obstacles.
If you’re in that group, don’t panic. I’m here to tell you that you can start today with small, consistent changes in the way you care for your pet that can quickly make a positive difference in the quality of his overall health.
The same advice applies to those of you who’ve adopted an older or unhealthy pet — an obese cat for example.
Don’t panic about the prospect of diabetes, liver disease, or other obesity-related health problems. Relax in the knowledge you can start today to make the right choices for kitty – choices that will result in big health gains for her down the road.
Build a Solid Nutritional Foundation
Regular readers and visitors to this website have seen or heard me say over and over that nutrition is the foundation of a pet’s health.
If you’ve reviewed my 13 best-to-worst foods list, you know I encourage pet owners who are feeding their animals from the less desirable end of the list to simply make a step at a time up the pet food improvement ladder.
Let’s say you’ve just realized the all-you-can-eat buffet of dry food you’ve been feeding your cat for years is a bad idea. You now know that many cats become obese, out of shape and ill from being fed in this manner.
Begin to make a difference today. Remove the all-day buffet and control the portions of food you serve kitty.
Then take another small step. Transition your cat from dry, processed kibble to canned food. This change will give your cat the moisture she requires from her diet and will help to preserve her kidney function.
The next step? A final transition from a high quality canned food to a raw diet.
Or maybe you’re feeding your dog a food containing rendered ingredients. You’ve done a little research and you’re shocked (and also a bit mortified) because you’ve just learned ‘rendered’ means food that is not approved for human consumption.
Do not panic!
All you need to focus on for the moment is improving your pet’s diet from a rendered pet food product to a human-grade canned or dry formula.
The step after that will be to a raw diet, either homemade or commercial. Another option is cooked homemade food, which is still better than the vast majority of food you can purchase at any retail store.
Partner with an Integrative or Holistic Vet
Any change you make to improve the well-being of your pet – whether she’s elderly, frail, overweight or has a debilitating health condition — should be done slowly. I also recommend you enlist the help of an integrative, proactive veterinarian who will partner with you to create abundant health in your pet.
You can find a list of integrative wellness/holistic vets at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) website at AHVMA.org.
If you can’t find a holistically oriented vet in your area, you may be able to find one from the list – perhaps in a neighboring city or state – who will conduct phone consultations with you in lieu of in-person appointments.
This is especially important if your pet has a medical condition, as you don’t want to risk creating additional health concerns while you’re trying to solve existing ones.
Balancing the Immune System
The largest immune organ in your pet’s body is her GI tract. That’s why it’s so important to make sure the fuel you feed your dog or cat is nutritious.
Food either heals or harms. You want to nourish your pet with healing foods that are biologically appropriate for her species – foods that provide the raw materials her body needs to be optimally healthy.
A balanced immune system is vital to your pet’s well-being. An underactive immune system can result in cancer. An over-reactive immune response can cause your pet’s body to attack itself, resulting in an autoimmune disorder.
Allergies are an example of an immune system that is overly sensitive to environmental substances like, for example, ragweed, grasses, or other pollens. Food allergies are another instance of an immune system out of balance.
If your pet’s immune system is out of balance, you can work with your integrative vet to make lifestyle changes for your dog or cat, for example:
- Improving the quality of the water she drinks and the air she breathes
- Reducing her chemical load from pesticides and herbicides
- Providing homeopathic, nutraceutical and herbal remedies
These suggestions and so many more — including eliminating unnecessary vaccines — can help rebalance and strengthen your pet’s immune system, no matter her age or physical condition.
Exercise for a Long Life
Getting your pet physically active is the final positive change you can make to turn his health around.
Many pet owners mistakenly believe that once their dog or cat reaches middle age, he no longer needs to exercise and is better off just laying around.
Actually, the opposite is true – an aging, obese or physically debilitated pet needs more exercise than an animal in good condition.
People also wrongly assume that teacup-sized pooches (small dogs) get all the exercise they need by walking around the house.
Senior dogs and cats or pets with compromised health need to move with less intensity, but they still need to move their bodies regularly to achieve optimal health.
Again, it’s important to go slow when you’re increasing the exercise level of a sedentary, older or debilitated pet.
Stay tuned next week for more on keeping your pet healthy through movement.