Of the 62.4 million dogs in the United States, 18 million are age seven and older, therefore they qualify as “Seniors”. This represents almost one-third of our canine population. In fact, over 75% of our dogs and cats have passed middle age and are entering their “golden years”.
To call a dog old, one mustn’t consider chronological age, but rather physiological condition. Biological and chronological aging are not inexorably linked. Aging begins when the body’s systems start to slow down – when cells deteriorate faster than the body can repair them. We think of it as a progressive decline in mental and physical functioning and appearance which is accompanied by an increase in susceptibility to chronic diseases. This is caused primarily by three factors: Genetic inheritance, declining hormone levels and oxidative stress.
Though the aging process is different for every animal, it generally begins at maturity, somewhere between one and three years of age, depending on breed.
As with humans, actual chronological age, in other words, the year in which the pet was born, is often less important than biological age, which is determined by how a pet eats, moves and feels. Age related changes in body composition, organ function, mental alertness and endurance vary with each individual. Advances in veterinary science over the past ten years have made it possible to retard and reverse many of the common phenomena which collectively comprise aging. Reducing oxidative stress along with proper nutrition are paramount to proper health.
AGE AND SIZE
Six-month old puppies are similar to ten-year old children. A two-year old dog and 24-year old human are comparable. After two years, one dog year is equivalent to approximately four human years, so a ten-year old dog is really about 56 human years. In general, large and giant breeds tend to age faster than smaller breeds.
The natural metabolic processes of our bodies as well as the toxins in our environment subject us to the damaging effects of harmful compounds called free radicals, which increase as a dog ages. These highly toxic molecules damage your dog’s DNA (genetic material) and proteins and make them more susceptible to cancer, corrode their arteries and increase their risk of heart disease. In effect, they cause your dog’s body to “rust” just like oxygen does to iron.
Antioxidants are the body’s natural defense against free radicals. In addition to fending off free radicals, they also help protect cell membranes and DNA. Antioxidants, include Vitamins A, C and E; minerals like Selenium; and other agents such as Co-Enzyme Q10. They decrease the level of oxidative stress and can be prescribed in specific formulas for pets as needed.
Essential fatty acids including Omega-3, Omega-6 and gamma linoleic acid help dogs maintain a proper fatty balance as the body’s fatty acid synthesis naturally decreases with age. These compounds found in natural vegetable and fish oils promote a healthy skin and hair coat and add a great shine. They also help to “prepare” some dogs to better tolerate skin sensitivities.
When and how your dog responds has a lot to do with genetics and environment. What a dog eats also alters hormone levels and oxidative stress. Although proper feeding is vital as a dog ages, it’s just as essential throughout a lifetime. The longer and more consistently you provide an optimally balanced diet, the greater your dog’s chances of living a long healthy life.
TIPS FOR YOUR PET’S GOLDEN YEARS
As your dog reaches his senior years for his age and size, remember these tips:
- Minimize stress and change. Avoid big moves or changes in your dog’s schedule. If you must disturb his routine, give your dog some added attention to ease the stress.
- Regular exercise – Two twenty-minute walks each day help maintain muscle tone, enhance circulation, promote digestion and prevent weight gain.
- Smaller, more frequent meals – As a dog ages, it may become more difficult for his body to digest food. Minimize digestive stress by giving your dog less to eat at mealtimes. Instead of one large portion a day, try two to three smaller meals which also will help increase your dog’s metabolism, burn calories and provide all of the needed nourishment.
- Routine veterinary checkups and immunizations – Regular dental care and thorough physicals will help you identify subtle changes in your dog’s health. At home, take a few minutes each month to closely examine your dog for any irregularities such as odd-shaped bumps or lumps. If you do discover something abnormal on the body call your veterinarian. Early detection and preventative treatment can go a long way toward extending life expectancy.
- There is still a lot to learn about canine longevity. But for now, we realize that every animal ages at a different rate and in different ways. Monitor your dog and especially watch for changes at about 5 to 7 years of age and if necessary, make adjustments accordingly.