Five Health Tips for a Long-Lived Pet

Healthy Pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • Most pet owners agree their furry family members don’t live nearly long enough. That’s one of the reasons we’re inspired to keep our pets healthy -- so we can keep them with us for as long as possible.
  • There are many things you can do as a cat or dog guardian to give your pet the best possible chance at a long, vibrantly healthy life.
  • Dr. Becker’s top recommendations include feeding a species-appropriate diet, keeping your pet lean, insuring your companion gets plenty of exercise, visiting the vet for wellness exams on a regular basis, and refusing to allow your dog or cat to be over-vaccinated.

By Dr. Becker

If you've ever suffered the loss of a beloved pet, you know how truly devastating it can be. That's why loving pet guardians everywhere are motivated to keep their animal companions with them as long as possible.

Here are five of my top recommendations to help extend not only the quantity of your pet's life, but also the quality.

1. Feed Your Pet a Balanced, Species-Appropriate Diet

The food you provide your canine or feline companion serves as the very foundation of a long, healthy life. The right diet supports your pet's immune system, digestive health, musculoskeletal system -- and much more. Diet is the first thing I evaluate when I meet a new pet patient, and it's almost always the first thing I tackle to improve a sick animal's health, or to further enhance the well-being of an otherwise healthy pet.

When it comes to food for cats and dogs, my first recommendation is always to feed balanced, species-appropriate meals prepared by you, preferably with raw food components. Preparing homemade pet food means a significant investment of your time, but for many dog and cat owners it's the only way to feed a nutritious diet without breaking the bank. And an added benefit of home-prepared meals is that you get to exercise complete control over the quality of food your pet eats.

Another option if you can afford it is to feed your pet a commercially prepared raw or dehydrated raw diet. If you're concerned about pathogens in raw food, look for brands that have undergone high-pressure pasteurization (HPP). These pathogen-free foods are actually the cleanest, most sterile pet foods currently on the market.

If you feed your dog or cat a canned pet food, I don't recommend buying a lesser quality brand to save a few pennies. Chances are you'll spend what you saved and more down the road on veterinary care, because the health of pets fed low quality diets tends to degenerate much earlier in life and more dramatically than does the health of animals fed species-appropriate nutrition.

For more information on how to shop for high-quality commercial pet food, read "You Asked for It ... The 3 BEST Pet Foods You Can Buy," and part 2.

2. Help Your Pet Stay Lean

In order to feed your pet for good health and a long life, you must also feed the appropriate portions for his size, age and activity level. That means not overfeeding at mealtime, and offering healthy treats only occasionally.

Calculate how many calories your dog or cat should consume each day to maintain a healthy weight, and practice portion control to insure your companion doesn't fall prey to the current pet obesity epidemic in this country.

Not only do overweight cats and dogs have a poorer quality of life than their lean counterparts, they also often suffer a long list of obesity-related health problems – including a significantly shortened lifespan -- that can be difficult and costly to manage.

For more information on how to calculate the number of calories your pet should eat each day as well as tips for helping her lose weight, read "How to Tell If Your Pet Needs to Shed Some Pounds." 

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3. Insure Your Pet Stays Physically Active

As is the case with humans, a well-exercised dog or cat is naturally much healthier than his couch potato peers, and your pet's overall health contributes to his longevity.

Dogs especially need the mental stimulation that walks and exercise provide so they don't grow bored and destructive, or develop neurotic coping mechanisms.

Companion animals are built for physical activity – they're natural athletes. Walking, jogging and other exercise, regular aerobic exertion and playtime are necessary for a sound frame, good muscle strength and tone, and mental stimulation.

4. Schedule Regular Wellness Exams with Your Veterinarian

I recommend taking your dog or cat for veterinary wellness visits twice a year, and this is why: animals don't get sick overnight. They progress from health to illness (or from illness back to good health) in stages. These stages, which I call the grey zone, are where efforts to halt or reverse disease are most beneficial. The goal is to stop the slide toward ill health before full-blown disease develops and shortens the life of your precious companion. For example, finding out your dog is Lyme positive before she exhibits symptoms is critical, or that your cat's kidney enzymes are creeping up, despite the fact he looks fine. Identifying these changes prior to an actual health crisis really defines "proactive" medicine, which is the kind of veterinary medicine I practice.

Your pet also needs regular at-home wellness exams so you can stay on top of his health in between vet visits. It's much smarter and less costly to keep your pet well than to try to reverse or manage a serious illness after the fact.

5. Don't Allow Your Pet to Be Over-Vaccinated

Since the introduction of dog and cat vaccines, the traditional view of their use has been that they are safe and can be given as frequently as once or twice a year. This approach, tragically, has caused terrible suffering and shortened lifespans for millions of pets.

As the truth about the potential dangers of vaccines slowly emerges, a growing number of veterinarians are acknowledging that vaccines are not the benign, "better safe than sorry" tools they were once thought to be. But if your vet is still recommending yearly core vaccinations, ask him (or her) to run titers instead to measure your pet's current immunity. Chances are excellent, if your pet was vaccinated properly as a puppy or kitten, that he's protected for life against most life-threatening viral diseases. It's important to remember the only vaccine required by law is rabies.

If your vet is no longer pushing yearly core vaccines, but instead is recommending items off a menu of non-core vaccines, you should have a frank discussion with him about the actual risk your pet runs from whatever diseases he wants to vaccinate against. I also recommend you do your own research on the risks and benefits of all non-core vaccines, which are generally not as safe or effective as core vaccines.

For more information on the revised guidelines and my vaccine recommendations for dogs, read "Good News About the Latest Canine Vaccinations."

For a very informative 4-part video interview with renowned veterinary vaccine expert Dr. Ronald Schultz: part 1 ("How Often Should You Vaccinate Your Cat or Dog?"), part 2 ("The Alternative to Re-vaccinating Your Pets Annually"), part 3 ("The Vaccine That's Mandatory in Every State in America"), and part 4 ("Does Your Pet Really Need That Rabies Shot?").


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