Question: My eight-year-old dog Watson, a Labrador Cross, is starting to show his age. He is grey around his muzzle and not as nimble on his toes. Watson has been a wonderful companion since we acquired him from a local dog rescue when he was four months old, and we want to give him the best in his golden years.
Can you recommend any effective drug-free ways to help his ageing body?
T.M., via email
Answer: Ageing itself is inevitable, but it is possible to prevent some of the problems associated with it.
Pets live a lot longer these days due to advances in veterinary medicine. But compared with us, dogs have much shorter life spans and tend to age faster, which means they need help a lot earlier.
Small breeds generally have a longer life expectancy than large breeds. While certain breeds can survive beyond 15 years, most large-breed dogs don't make it to 12. As a rule, once a large-breed dog like Watson reaches the age of seven, he is considered senior or geriatric.
Old age is not a disease per se, but it does weaken most of the organ systems of the body, the immune system, and the joints and muscles too. Older pets tend to fall sick more easily and also find it harder to recover afterwards.
In the past, veterinarians have tended to focus on treating age-related conditions as and when they arose. Today, holistic integrative vets aim to strengthen the body and prevent age-related problems before they happen.
Here are my top tips for keeping your dog healthy and happy even when he's old and grey.
Maintain a healthy weight
Overweight pets tend to have a shorter life span because their systems are being overworked. These animals also tend to exercise less and so are more likely to develop arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. While the drugs used to treat these conditions can give them a reasonable quality of life, they may compromise their longevity.
Make sure you know your dog's ideal weight, and aim to keep it in the healthy range through diet and exercise.
Feed a healthy diet
Dietary requirements change with age. According to traditional Chinese medicine, organs like the stomach, liver, kidneys, pancreas and spleen become partially impaired with age. Older dogs may struggle to digest whole grains, so it may be necessary to cook grains and other foods to facilitate their digestion. Also, feeding older animals twice a day is better than once a day to prevent the digestive system from becoming overburdened.
Red meat could also be a problem. Feeding red meat to arthritic animals has been found to worsen joint pain by stimulating an inflammatory response. This means that it's best to avoid feeding lamb and beef to senior dogs.
As for commercial pet foods, they might actually accelerate the ageing process, as they're usually packed with unhealthy additives and have a low protein-to-carbohydrate ratio, which can cause the body to produce more waste products. This, in turn, puts additional strain on organs of elimination, such as the kidneys and liver.
Feeding senior dogs natural foods comprising one-third meat, one-third raw vegetables and one-third cooked carbs like rice or potatoes can help. See box (page 55) for some simple homemade recipes.
Good-quality natural commercial diets, such as Natures Menu, are also now available if cooking is not an option.
Regular light exercise—ideally at the same time every day and for the same amount of time—is especially beneficial for older dogs. It's good for the joints, boosts the immune system and can even have pain-relieving effects. Most vets recommend at least 20 minutes a day in any form—be it walking, running, swimming or just playing actively.
Have regular check-ups
Vet practices often have annual geriatric clinics for pets that have passed their seventh or eighth birthdays. I strongly recommend attending these clinics. Your vet will check Watson's urine and blood pressure, perform blood tests like the General Senior Profile and, if necessary, take X-rays after performing a thorough clinical exam to rule out certain conditions. By using these tests to screen for organ-related problems, it's possible to take action earlier and prevent further decline.
The following herbs can help to ensure adequate functioning of ageing organs:
• Ginger (boosts the digestive system) • Echinacea (supports the immune system)
• Milk thistle (supports the liver)
• Nettle (a gentle whole-body tonic
• Dandelion (a natural diuretic; supports the liver).
Other herbs can improve longevity and the quality of life in ageing dogs:
• Ginkgo biloba (anti-ageing; may help prevent cognitive dysfunction/senility and vestibular geriatric disease)
• Turmeric (a natural anti-inflammatory and antiseptic)
• Rosemary (antioxidant and antimicrobial; can delay brain ageing by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain)
• Boswellia (potent natural anti-inflammatory; great for arthritic dogs).
Joint supplements like Cosequin and Synoquin contain glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate, and are available online. They can help to heal damaged cartilage and prevent the progression of arthritis in elderly dogs.
Aktivait capsules—nutritional supplements containing antioxidants (vitamins C and E, selenium, coenzyme Q10, alpha-lipoic acid and N-acetylcysteine) and compounds that affect metabolism and brain cell function (carnitine, phosphatidylserine and omega-3 fatty acids)—may help to slow brain ageing.
Make time for massage
As well as being relaxing, a good massage stimulates blood flow and improves circulation. Acupressure-based massage is especially helpful, as it can relieve many painful conditions, and help prevent illness and speed recovery if Watson does get sick. You can learn how to give simple acupressure massage to your pet in Chapter Six of my book, You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015).
Cook your own pet food
The following recipes, from You Can Heal Your Pet (Whiter E, Sathish R. Hay House UK, 2015), are suitable for both dogs and cats.
Simple Chicken Broth
1) Place a cooked chicken carcass in a large lidded saucepan and add 600 mL (1 pint) of water.
2) Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and leave to cool, preferably overnight, with the lid on.
3) Remove the carcass and strain the liquid into a glass container with a lid.
4) Keep refrigerated and use within three days.
Extras: Add vegetables, such as carrots, green beans, courgettes (zucchini), potatoes and/or broccoli (florets and stalks) to the broth. When cooked, they will soften nicely and add fibre to your pet's diet. You can also feed this with well-cooked basmati rice.
Nature's Own Hotpot
230 g (8 oz) free-range turkey or chicken mince, or chicken breast meat
1 large carrot, grated
1 handful French green beans (cut small)
1 handful basmati rice
1 medium potato, diced
1 handful frozen peas*
2 cabbage leaves, shredded
1) Place all ingredients in a large pan and add enough water to cover.
2) Bring to a boil, then gently simmer for 30 minutes until most of the liquid has been absorbed (add more water if it starts to dry out).
3) Allow mixture to cool. Keep in fridge for up to three days, or freeze for up to one month.
Frozen peas are also a great addition to home-cooked recipes: they're a source of protein, vitamins B, C and K, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, carotenes and folic acid.