Being guardian of a "giant" dog who was obtained from The Pound at Darwin, as an adult dog, has given me much food for thought. Probably half of her life is an unknown quantity. The part I do know about was spent in remote Northern Territory communities. Dory is more than half way through her probable lifespan.
A combination of poor breeding leading to conformation faults and her physical size, have left her with a number of health issues. She is a lean 43 kg and this weight applies pressure to locations such as her elbows, tail and butt. Despite my best efforts she still has callouses on her elbows and hair thinning on her tail and butt. Arthritis is her largest issue. Her hind end is the most affected, particularly her stifle joints.
Of course, we are doing our best to manage her arthritis, but we are also mindful of monitoring her quality of life. Dory has monthly injections and her diet is supplemented with the wonderful anti-inflammatory - green lipped mussel powder. I make bone broth frozen cubes to add to her food and she has some golden past (turmeric and water cooked with freshly ground pepper and coconut oil). During winter she has 3 coats. One is her dry weather day rug (water-proof but unfilled). One is her wet weather day rug (waterproof and filled). The other is her filled night rug, which I pop under her unfilled rug for cozy nights. Yes - she is double rugged! Whilst my Border Collies happily sleep outside, Dory sleeps in the granny flat on a large vet bed mat, with a doona folded on top & then another smaller vet bed. She also has the air conditioner on and set at 20 degrees Celsius.
The extra lengths we are going to in order to improve Dory's quality of life, have prompted lots of consideration as to what we should be doing with our other dogs, even in their youth.
Like humans, our dogs are generally now living longer lives. Of course, there is variations in life span. The smaller the breed, the longer the average life span. Small dogs usually live 10 to 15 years, medium 10 to 13, large 10 to 12 and giants 8 to 10. I think the hardest part of having dogs is that they don't live as long as we do.
On the positive side, there are lots of things you can do to improve the longevity of your dog's life ..... and keep them healthy and happy.
1. Give them the best DIET you can.
There are two major factors to consider here: quality and quantity.
Sometimes we loooove our dogs so much we simply give them too much food. There are numerous studies that show two major affects on feeding. Firstly, feeding 25% less calories than considered "normal" allowed dogs to live up to two years longer than those who ate a "normal" amount of food. Secondly, fasting once a week allowed improvements in overall health. These were controlled tests where no other factors were varied.
The only way to know exactly what your dog is eating is to prepare the food from scratch. Excess calories often take the form of "fillers" in commercially produced pet food.
Studies are starting to show the negative side effects of dry food (kibble). In one study, dogs who were fed raw diets aged slower and suffered from fewer health problems than dogs that were fed kibble. In another, dogs that were fed a homemade diet of quality foods lived nearly 3 years longer than dogs fed dry food!
The most important thing is to do the best you can! If a raw or home-cooked diet isn’t possible for your lifestyle, there are things you can do. Feed some raw or home cooked food when you can. Check the ingredients of the commercial dog food that you feed. Usually, the cheaper the dog food, the more filler it contains. Dogs need a diet that consists primarily of real meat. Avoid by products and carbohydrates.
Feeding your dog the best-quality diet you can without overdoing treats can add healthy years to their life.
2. Keep them at a healthy WEIGHT
Australians like their horses and dogs to be overweight. Many don't even realise what "normal" should be. I guess a bit of extra weight can cover a multitude of conformation faults! We are also the land of plenty and we are generous folk. Quite a few are obese. It is obvious that extra weight adds pressure to your dog’s joints, which can cause or exacerbate problems such as arthritis and hip dysplasia.
The list of problems obese dogs face goes on and on. They struggle with high temperatures and exercise. There is always an increased risk of torn ligaments, back issues, heart disease, trouble breathing, increased surgical risks, skin trouble, and the potential increase in risk for some cancers. Of course, these things will all reduce your dog’s lifespan and quality of life.
Although treats are a way to show your dog love or facilitate training, don't forget they contain extra calories/kilojoules. It is necessary to reduce regular food intake to account for treats to ensure the extra food doesn't harm them. Trying to use low energy value treats is a good idea. It is ideal to be able to reward your dog without shortening their lifespan or negatively affecting their quality of life.
3. Care for their TEETH
You probably brush your own teeth at least once a day. Did it ever occur to you that your dog's teeth needs regular care too? Feeding chicken frames help to clean your dog’s teeth and stimulate his/her gums. Generally ripping, tearing and chewing aids dental hygiene. 80% of dogs have signs of oral disease by age 3! Be mindful that dental problems affect more than just your dog’s mouth.
Neglecting your dog’s teeth can lead to: gum disease, teeth removal, increased inflammation throughout the body, increased risk of heart disease and worsening symptoms of diabetes.
There are soft dog toothbrushes with toothpaste designed for dogs (apparently coconut oil works well too)!
4. Give them appropriate EXERCISE
Exercise is crucial for your dog’s physical and mental health. Regular exercise reduces: stress, boredom, and anxiety. A bored, stressed or anxious dog often suffers from behavioural problems.
Be careful to take into account your dog's age and physical requirements when exercising. Growth plates should be closed before jumping and endurance work is started. Age appropriate activities are best. We have a more detailed blog article on "Exercise".
Stress is also harmful to your dog’s physical health. Chronic stress accelerates the aging process, slows down wound healing, contributes to depression and anxiety, reduces cognitive function, and increases the risk of illness from bacteria or viruses. Dogs who suffer from chronic stress often suffer from immune problems like allergies or gastrointestinal upsets.
Giving your dog good daily exercise is critical for maintaining their health and happiness This can in turn affect how long they live.
5. Stimulate their MINDS
Boredom leads to unhappiness, depression, anxiety and has been linked to other illnesses. Enriching your dog's life through interaction, training, treat trails and puzzle toys, Agility Classes, trips to the beach and new places are all beneficial. Just like with humans, a busy mind helps prevent cognitive decline.
6. TRAIN them well
Not only is training beneficial for your dog's mind and relationship with you, it can save their life! It is absolutely essential for your dog to have good recall. If your dog will come every time you call them, it may mean the difference between being hit by a car or not.
A well trained dog is usually a happy dog. Training involves time spent together and mental stimulation that reduces boredom and stress.
7. Help your dog have a SOCIAL LIFE
Dogs are usually much happier meeting plenty of other people and dogs. They are social animals. If your dog is friendly; trips to the dog park to play with other dogs, the beach and even walks can increase their happiness. You may be able to arrange playdates with suitable dogs. If your dog prefers people, consider taking him to dog-friendly people places, so that he/she can interact with plenty of people.
8. Only desex if necessary
While there are some VERY sound reasons to desex your dog, it may not be in the best interest of your dog. More and more studies are becoming available that suggest that apart from population control and aggression control in some male dogs, there may be more health benefits in keeping your dog as nature intended.
If desexing is necessary, you may consider leaving it as late as possible, and leaving the gonads intact to continue producing the male and female hormones, but surgically preventing fertilisation from being able to take place (like a vasectomy or tubal ligation).
9. Seek veterinary advice
Should you notice any changes in your dog's appearance or behaviour, it is best to seek veterinary advice. Having annual check-ups is not a bad idea. Many of the health issues dogs may face are treatable if caught early.
10. Make sure they have a thick, soft bed
Problems such as arthritis and hip dysplasia can cause significant pain for dogs . Giving your dog a thick bed to sleep on rather than directly on the floor can cushion his/her joints and help minimize, painful joint problems as they age.
11. LOVE them - most importantly!
Dogs have a shorter lifespan than humans. They thrive on love. It is important to spend every minute you can loving them . This will give them a better quality life and give you wonderful memories.