“I know you know this, but…..” If a loved one has ever said those words to you, what comes after the “but” is often exactly what you need to hear. However, in the busyness of life, it’s easy to overlook the things you know you should be doing…even when it comes to caring for your beloved senior dog. Dr. Julie Buzby, integrative veterinarian and founder of Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips®, gently but firmly reminds us of six health habits you can’t overlook if you want your senior dog to have the happiest and healthiest life possible.
Prior to these crazy times of social distancing, my husband and I enjoyed going to the gym together even though we did our own separate things. He usually headed to the weights, and I jumped on an elliptical machine and sweated to reruns of Rizzoli & Isles.
During one of our weekly workouts, I bumped into Mr. Singh at the gym. He’s a kind older gentleman who’s lived a very interesting life and always regales me with a story. I always appreciated our catch-up conversations.
After spotting me on the elliptical, Mr. Singh sauntered over to say hello. I was expecting, “Hi Julie! Where have you been?” or “How are the kids?” or any of the normal things one might say by way of a greeting.
But instead, the first words out of his mouth were: “It looks like you’re putting on some weight.”
“Yes…yes, I have,” I sheepishly said.
“What happened?” he asked (as if there had been some sort of accident).
“Well, first our family was hit with a stomach bug, so I haven’t been exercising like normal. And second, the holidays were really way too good to me,” I replied tongue-in-cheek trying to wrap my mind around the fact that we were having this conversation.
Mr. Singh continued undaunted, “Yeah, your cheeks are a little pudgy. Actually, it’s all around.”
I now understood why Mr. Singh was a bachelor, but I also knew his comments were not mean-spirited. He was speaking the truth. And sometimes the truth hurts.
He proved his motive when he went on to say, “I’m worried about you, and I care. Let me help you out.”
Right then and there, he asked me to step up my game. Instead of sixty somewhat leisurely minutes on the elliptical, he challenged me to do interval training. He motivated me to push myself in a way I never had before. As I desperately tried to catch my breath afterwards, he started into my diet.
“You can’t have bread. And you can’t have cookies and cakes.” To which I replied, “I don’t eat a lot of bread, cookies, and cakes.” Truly, except for the occasional holiday splurge, I make good eating choices. So I said with some level of frustration, “I know this stuff.”
“Of course you know it,” he said. “You just need to be reminded.”
And that, my friend, is what this is all about. I want to remind you of six health habits you know you should be doing for your dog but sometimes let slide when life gets busy. So here it is—a list compiled from real-life experiences with my own clients and patients and one that all senior dog owners should take to heart.
6 health habits for senior dogs you cannot ignore
1. You must have your dog on year-round heartworm prevention.
Your dog’s monthly heartworm prevention really matters. I am genuinely saddened when a dog tests positive for heartworm disease. There really is no reason why that should happen. Prevention is simple and affordable. Treatment, on the other hand, is complicated, expensive, and painful for the dog.
In the practice where I work, we had seven dogs test heartworm positive last year. These weren’t bereft dogs taken off the streets or rescued from hurricane disaster relief. These were dogs owned by conscientious clients who forgot to give or chose to seasonally skip their heartworm prevention (ie. stopped prevention in the winter).
In some cases, the pet parent said, “I was using a natural home remedy so I didn’t give the preventative.” As a certified veterinary acupuncturist, I do have a lot of clients using herbs, supplements, and alternative veterinary treatments, but heartworm prevention is not a place to get creative.
I encourage clients to weigh the benefits and risks in healthcare decisions. But with heartworm prevention, the decision is clear. The risks of not being on a heartworm preventative every month considerably outweigh the benefits of not taking that medication. And because most of the products on the market also contain dewormer to protect against internal parasites, you have another reason heartworm prevention is simply the right thing to do.
Heartgard Plus is my favorite heartworm prevention medication. It has been around a long time, works, and is safe. However, there are a lot of great options available today so talk to your vet about what product is right for your dog.
Health habit #1: Your dog must be on monthly heartworm prevention year-round. No excuses.
2. You need to brush your dog’s teeth daily.
Do you know the best defense against dental disease in dogs? It’s as simple as picking up a doggy toothbrush. By brushing your dog’s teeth daily, you can impact change for the better. And don’t worry. It’s easier than you think!
In fact, clients often tell me that once they’ve established a positive brushing habit, their dogs actually come to them and “ask” to have their teeth brushed. Yes, I’m 100% serious. It’s a win-win for everyone. You have the satisfaction of knowing you’re accomplishing something significant for your dog’s health while simultaneously sharing a bonding experience.
There is a little learning curve that you’ll have to work through, but you don’t have to figure it out alone. Check out our article, Should I Brush My Dog’s Teeth? Featuring by a good friend of mine who brushes his dog’s teeth daily, this short tutorial goes into detail about home dental care and how to teach your dog to cooperate for teeth brushing.
One more benefit for added motivation: I guarantee taking care of your dog’s teeth is going to save you money. It will likely prevent or delay development of periodontal disease, thereby decreasing the frequency and/or magnitude of professional dental care your dog will need.
Health habit #2: You need to brush your dog’s teeth daily.
3. You are responsible for keeping your dog at a healthy weight.
It’s up to you to keep your dog a lean, mean canine machine. And while I can’t send over Mr. Singh for doggy interval training (though I’m sure he’d be up for it!), I can encourage you to be your dog’s “personal trainer.”
Seriously, you must step up to the plate and assume responsibility for your dog’s weight.
There was a landmark study done years ago with Labrador littermates. The research demonstrated that dogs who were kept lean lived about two years longer than their chubby counterparts. The leaner dogs also enjoyed a much longer period of good health before experiencing chronic diseases in their senior years. Overall, they were just healthier dogs. And the ONLY notable difference in the two groups was their weight.
Just playing the odds, keeping your dog lean and fit could grant you two extra years of life to share and a healthier dog during those two years.
If you’re unsure if your dog is at a healthy weight, I can help you sort it out, but it’s not as simple as looking at the scale. You need to know your dog’s current canine body condition score as compared to what’s optimum.
You also need to talk to your veterinarian. Your vet can provide you with some excellent resources including a printout of your dog’s weight over time (as recorded at prior vet visits.) Hanging this on the refrigerator can be motivating! Plus, your vet can calculate how many calories your dog should be eating each day to make sure you’re not accidentally overfeeding.
Health habit #3: It’s up to you to keep your dog at a healthy weight.
4. You need to restrain your dog in the car.
I’ve heard a slew of stories recently about dogs receiving injuries in car accidents. One colleague told me about a dog catapulted from the back seat into the dashboard resulting in significant damage to the poor dog’s neck.
In another case, I saw the horrifying X-rays of a dog who had been in a serious car accident and had broken his back in the crash. He had to be euthanized—all because the dog wasn’t safely secured in the vehicle.
My next habit is this: If your dog is riding in the car with you, he or she needs to be properly restrained.
Concern for your dog’s safety isn’t the only reason to heed this advice. I’m worried about your safety too! Dogs left to move freely inside the car can distract drivers and cause accidents. In an AAA survey, 65 percent of respondents admitted to participating in at least one distracting behavior while driving with their dog in the car:
- 52 percent petted their dog while driving.
- 17 percent allowed their dog to sit in their lap in the car.
- 13 percent admitted to giving food or treats while operating a vehicle.
- 4 percent acknowledged playing with their dog while driving.
So while it’s easy to be critical of the lady driving down the highway applying mascara, these behaviors are just as serious — so serious in fact that several states have passed laws requiring dogs to be secured in a moving vehicle. Violators can face fines of up to $1000.
One of my clients recently sent me this story about her 6-pound companion, Eleanor.
“This is Eleanor in our RV. Her car seat and the tether that hooks onto her travel harness lock securely into the RV’s seat belt and shoulder strap. This seat design sits her up so she can see out while also providing “walls” that surround and protect her. Fortunately, the combined weight of Eleanor and her car seat do not activate the airbag. That means she can safely ride shotgun in our RV.”
Health habit #4: Whenever you hit the road with your dog, make sure he or she is safely restrained.
5. You need to learn the subtle signs that your dog is in pain.
Over the years, countless well-meaning dog owners have told me their dog can’t possibly be in pain because they haven’t whimpered or cried out. It always takes me aback, since nothing could be further from the truth.
Remember: Just because your dog is not crying or whining, it doesn’t mean he or she is not in pain.
While some dogs give full vent to their discomfort with moaning, whining, and crying, the vast majority of dogs won’t. The term I use is “stoic.” I call them my Spartan dogs.
I have seen many dogs that made me think, “Wow, I know you are in so much pain, you have every right to bite me. And yet you show no obvious signs. You are stoically accepting this pain as your lot in life.”
Situations like these melt my heart. I feel deeply for these dogs who are suffering silently, but I also rejoice in knowing I can treat the dog’s pain and improve his quality of life.
And as a dog parent, you have an important role to play here. You share life with your dog and know him or her better than anyone. You have the gift of time together to observe and note changes in your dog’s behavior that could indicate pain. Keep an eye out for changes in:
- Facial expression
- Daily routine/habits
For more telltale signs, please read my article, 7 Signs Your Dog is in Pain.
Should you have a concern that something isn’t right with your dog, even if it seems minor, I’d encourage you to contact your veterinarian. Always err on the side of caution in the care of these gentle souls who can’t speak for themselves.
Health habit #5: Your dog needs you to be observant and proactive as his healthcare advocate, especially when it comes to pain.
6. You need to regularly trim your dog’s toenails.
Most domestic dogs (aka our pets) live on hard-surface floors and rarely get sufficient exercise. This lifestyle can lead to obesity, behavioral problems, and long toenails.
Long nails are not just a cosmetic issue. They change the way a dog’s paws interact with the ground, negatively affecting both posture and gait. When a dog walks with long toenails, it’s like a human walking in oversized clown shoes.
A dog with long toenails can’t stand with legs perpendicular to the ground. Instead, he will stand and move in a way that compensates for the long nails. This also makes him predisposed to injury.
When I meet a new patient with long toenails, after taking a “history,” I often start with a simple and pain-free nail trim. This instantly improves the dog’s posture so that when I do my gaiting and musculoskeletal exams, I can focus on deeper, root issues, not secondary problems from long toenails.
Although some of my clients ask me to continue to trim their dog’s nails after our initial visit, others are willing to learn to do it themselves (which makes me happy and proud!). If you’d like to learn how to trim your dog’s nails at home, please check out my ebook: How to Trim Your Dog’s Nails Without Blood, Sweat, or Tears.
Health habit #6: Trimming your dog’s nails consistently and frequently is underrated but extremely important to your dog’s everyday wellbeing.
A gentle nudge to remember and act
Inspired by the honest feedback I received from Mr. Singh that night in the gym, I want to encourage you to receive and remember these six crucial health habits. My intention is not to “lecture” or give you more “to-dos,” but to help you help your dog live his best life now (and for as long as possible!) You can do this—and I’m here to cheer you on and help every step of the way.
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