by Nicole Pajer
As pet parents, we like to think that we are providing a healthy, happy life for our dogs. We feed them top quality food, give them lots of love, and toss the ball around the backyard whenever we have the time. But there is a lot more that goes into raising a healthy pup. And sometimes, our busy lifestyles cause us to overlook some simple measures that could help to extend the lifespan of our canines.
The good news, however, is that all of this is repairable and it’s never too late to bump up the level of care that we put into raising our pets. Pets360 tapped the minds of several experienced veterinarians across the nation to get their input on ways we may inadvertently be shortening our dog’s lives.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 53 percent of dogs were overweight last year. In addition to that, the association found that 95 percent of the owners of these obese dogs incorrectly identified their pets as being at a normal weight. As Dr. Shari Brown, a veterinarian in Chesapeake, Virginia, notes, letting your dog get too heavy can not only reduce his life span but also his quality of life. “People do not realize that dogs do not process or break down food like we do,” she explains.
For example, when a dog eats 1 ounce of cheddar cheese, it is equivalent in calories to a human eating 1.5 hamburgers or 3 chocolate bars. And it’s not just people food that presents the issue—some dogs are simply being fed too much dog food or treats. “I tell owners to treat each treat like a candy bar. Would you give your child 8 candy bars a day? I’m guessing not,” Dr. Brown adds.
Solution: Dr. Brown advises limiting the amount of people food you give to your pup and making sure that you are correctly monitoring his intake of kibble. She also recommends that pet parents increase their obese pets' exercise routines, even if that means getting creative. “If it is cold outside or the owner is unable to exercise much, put a leash on your dog and take them for a few laps around your backyard or house. Or put a leash on them and take them for a tour around the inside of your house,” says Dr. Brown. “Anything to get him moving.”
If the weight still isn't coming off, consult your veterinarian, as they may want to put your pet on a dietary program. Your vet may also be able to help identify an underlying disorder, like hyperadrenocorticism or hypothyroidism, that may be contributing to weight gain.
Periodontal disease (gum disease), is a common problem in dogs. As the American Humane Society reports, veterinarians estimate that 85 percent of dogs over five years of age suffer from the condition, which develops after food and bacteria collect along the gum line and form plaque in a dog’s mouth. A build-up of oral bacteria can ultimately lead to all sorts of health problems for your pet, including heart valve problems and infections within the kidneys.
Solution: Dr. Jeff Werber, owner of Century Veterinary Group in Los Angeles, CA, recommends grabbing a toothbrush and scrubbing your dog’s teeth as often as you can.
“It's not that difficult to brush your dog's teeth (the finger brush works great) and there are chew toys and bones that assist in reducing plaque, as well as water additives that help maintain oral health,” he explains. It’s also a good idea to schedule a visit with your veterinarian for a professional cleaning session at least once each year, says Dr. Werber.
While it may be a pain to cart your dog into the veterinarian on an annual basis, doing so may save his life. “Simply getting your dog seen once or twice a year by a veterinarian can help improve life span,” says Dr. Brown, who stresses the importance of annual physicals even for seemingly healthy dogs. “Even if your dog is acting normally, something could be brewing inside,” she explains. And in the case of a dog’s heath, time is of the essence. “In some cases, by the time symptoms appear, there isn’t much we can do. But if we get treatment started early, that can help to improve a dog’s quality and quantity of life,” Dr. Brown adds.
Solution: Experts, including Brown, recommend taking your pup in for an annual or bi-annual physical (especially for dogs over the age of 7). If there have been underlying conditions in the past, pet parents should ask for yearly blood work to follow up on such ailments. Dr. Werber also urges dog owners to keep their pets up to date on vaccinations to protect them from rabies, canine distemper, parvovirus, adenovirus, parainfluenza, and bordatella.
Just because your pet played hard at the dog park on Monday doesn’t mean that you can forgo giving him any exercise until Thursday. According to Dr. Kim Smyth, Petplan staff veterinarian, exercise not only helps to keep the weight off, it also provides mental stimulation for your pup. She also explains that keeping up your pet’s fitness routine gives him a healthy way to expel energy.
Solution: “Find an activity you and your dog both enjoy and work it into your daily routine,” says Dr. Symth. “As an added bonus, people who exercise with their pets tend to lose more weight themselves; it’s a win-win!” And if you don’t have time to drive to the dog park five days a week, mix up your routine. Take your dog on walks around the block, toss the ball in the backyard, or play a game of hide-and-seek in your house.
Just like humans, canine lungs are not equipped to handle smoke being blown at them all day. According to Dr. Werber, second-hand smoke can be extremely detrimental to pets, causing all sorts of ailments, such as an increased cancer risk and harmful respiratory issues.
Solution: Obviously the ideal way to tackle this situation is to abstain from smoking yourself. But if the habit is important to your lifestyle, then it’s a good idea to make sure that you do it away from your dog. Keep your dog in the house while you go outside on the patio to have a puff.
These measures are just as important as remembering to keep up with your dog’s vaccinations. “Flea, heartworm, and tick control is critical,” says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, of California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. These tiny critters spread diseases, some of which are life threatening. Fortunately there are many prevention options available from your veterinarian—from collars and topical spot-ons to oral medications.
Solution: Dr. Mahaney urges pet parents to purchase only veterinary approved products and to follow the recommended dosage guidelines. Dr. Werber also suggests that dog owners set reminders in their calendars for when their dogs are due for their next dose of preventive treatment.
Small and toy dog breeds, as well as brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds, have very different exercise requirements than other types of dogs. For instance, English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Pekingese, and Boxer types should not be exercised in extreme heat, says Dr. Mahaney, as it can be life threatening to them.
Solution: Make sure to speak to your veterinarian about how much and what type of exercise is best for your breed. And if you feel like your dog is trying to tell you that you are overdoing his workout, listen to him. Symptoms such as excessive panting, dropping to the ground in the middle of a workout, or lethargic (weak and tired) tendencies mean that you should stop and let your dog rest immediately.
“In addition to adding extra (and unnecessary!) calories to your dog’s diet, pet parents risk inducing pancreatitis by feeding their dog fatty table scraps,” says Dr. Smyth. Many foods that humans consume are extremely high in fats and sugars compared to what our pets should be exposed to. In addition, certain human foods—including garlic and chocolate—can be toxic to pets if consumed.
Solution: If you have a hard time saying no to those pleading eyes, offer your dog a healthy treat like baby carrots or apple slices. If your dog begs at the table, feed him his meal in another room while the family eats dinner to cut down on under-the-table handouts. Pet parents should also take a moment to familiarize themselves with what foods are considered dangerous for dogs.
Letting your dog roam free without you watching opens the door for a whole world of possible tragedies. “Cars, coyotes or other predators, unscrupulous people—they're all out there,” says Dr. Werber. “Don't let your dogs roam the streets unattended, even if they are tagged and microchipped.”
Solution: Keep your dog on a leash at all times when walking him outside. If you take your dog to the park, be a responsible pet parent and make sure to monitor his play sessions, says Dr. Werber. And if you notice a coyote or a potential predator, remove your dog from the situation immediately.
Dogs who fail to get socialized don’t get the same “bite” out of life as their happy, socialized counterparts, says Dr. Werber. “They often develop anxiety and fear-related issues, even dermatologic issues, and they don't enjoy walks in the same way,” he explains. “Similarly a dog that has no human interaction, no fun, no playtime, can get depressed.”
Solution: Take your puppy at a young age (once he is fully vaccinated and cleared by your veterinarian) to training classes and puppy meet-ups where he can get to know other dogs. Let your dog stop and greet other dogs while out on a walk or host other dogs in your yard for puppy play dates.
Experts like Dr. Mahaney agree that forgoing spaying and neutering can be dangerous to your dog’s health. “Spaying and neutering is still the best way to guarantee reducing the risk of several cancers, let alone the behavioral issues you can see with intact dogs,” he explains.
Additionally, each heat cycle that a female dog goes through makes her more prone to the development of mammary cancer, says Dr. Werber. Intact males are also more likely to develop prostatic diseases and testicular cancer than their neutered counterparts.
Solution: You can arrange to have a spay or neuter procedure done at your local veterinary office. If cost is an issue, there are many clinics that offer low cost procedures; call your local pet clinics and shelters to find out when they are having a special on the procedure. And as far as when to have the procedure done, there are different guidelines for different breeds. “There have been many modifications made with regards to large breed dogs [and] when is the best time is,” says Dr. Mahaney. “For this reason, you should discuss and plan the procedure out with your vet.”