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Three Ways to Help Aging Cats and Dogs Live Healthier Lives

7 minute read

Only a decade ago, the life expectancy of our pets — dogs and cats, specifically — was several years shorter on average. Today, both are living longer lives. Just as in humans, diet and exercise play a significant role in the life expectancy and quality of life of our pets.

Imagine if you started your life eating only fast food that’s not well-balanced and is full of fat and carbohydrates. You’d essentially be setting yourself up for health challenges later in life like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and more.

That’s exactly what happens to your pet when you buy and feed them cheap pet food that’s not well fortified. Cheaper dog and cat foods tend to have more carbohydrates than protein, which is digested and metabolically handled differently. It may have the exact same calorie count as a higher-quality option, but the cheaper food can dispose your pet to developing a different body composition. And you’re likely setting the stage for that animal to be metabolically different, which may affect it for the rest of its life.

Learn more: Inflammation in Cats and Dogs

Below I’ve listed my top three ways to help you prevent these kinds of health challenges so your companion animals can live longer, healthier lives.

1. Feed According to Life Stages:

Most commercial pet foods, thanks in part to organizations like AAFCO, are properly balanced and designed to meet our pets’ changing nutritional needs at different stages in their lives. Getting the right amount of high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals provides benefits in better bone, joint and structural development, greater immune competence and fewer inflammatory challenges.

Puppies/Kittens: Many people are doing a better job of feeding the right puppy or kitten food when their pet is in that stage of the life cycle. When you buy food that matches the life stage of your pet, you’re essentially managing their consumption of trace minerals (zinc, manganese, copper, selenium, etc.) and vitamins to reduce health challenges and improve mental development. Setting the stage with proper nutrition helps program your pet’s immune and antioxidant system for challenges as they come in life. If you feed your puppy or kitten properly, you program them for a longer, healthier life. Failure to properly feed animals during this rapidly developing stage can predispose them to bone and/or joint abnormalities later in life (for dogs and cats).

Large Breed Dogs: Large breed dog food is fortified with calcium and other minerals at the right levels to help with bones and joints. This can slow the development of joint and skeletal issues and other challenges that often show up later in a dog’s life. At the same time, some brands include glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM as anti-inflammatories. They’re known to enhance the joint’s integrity, reduce joint pain and boost immunity.  However, for optimal efficacy these chondro-protective products must be partnered with an adequate supply of biologically available and effective sources of zinc and manganese.

Geriatric Animals: Many pet manufacturers are doing a better job of producing geriatric products for aging cats and dogs. They include products that enhance cognitive health, such as essential fatty acids and/or vitamins C and E. They also typically include zinc, manganese and selenium to improve dog joint health while enhancing cognitive health as animals age.

2. Feed to Maintain a Healthy Body Weight:

Today, more than ever before, pet parents are doing a better job feeding their family companions to maintain a healthy body weight. This reduces joint stress, as well as inflammatory and metabolic stress associated with obesity. Good weight management starts with feeding according to the directions on the bag — but it only starts there because these are general guidelines and may not be fully accurate for your dog or cat’s level of activity and/or metabolic demand.

Geriatric Animals: As our animals reach maturity, we as pet parents are required to help our pets maintain their ideal body weight as identified by our veterinarian. Most pets that live longer lives are ones that weren’t too overweight — they were well exercised and on a nutritional program with a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Cats: Unfortunately, cats tend to develop arthritis and joint or skeletal issues at a much higher incidence than dogs. The weight gain that often occurs in cats is twofold: First, cats are often fed free choice which can predispose them to overconsumption and poor weight management. With poor weight management comes potential diabetes, inflammation or arthritis, which then causes pain and slows them down.  With reduced movement comes less energy expenditure and the potential for more weight gain. You can see the vicious cycle that can develop.

If you neglect to maintain your pet’s weight, the animal can experience health and joint issues and potential diabetes or glucose intolerance, which is especially true if food intake isn’t monitored and the diet adjusted to match your pet’s level of exercise and/or a slowing metabolism. Note: As our pets mature, they may need as much as 25% fewer calories to maintain their ideal weight.

3. Keep Them Exercised:

Activity stimulates blood flow and metabolism, which not only helps manage weight, but helps with a dog or cat’s social interaction to maintain cognitive acuity too. Keeping your pet active, like teaching them new tricks, helps them stay more mentally alert.

Disorders we see in dogs occur just as often if not more often in cats, but they’re masked by the fact that cats tend to be less active in general. As a result, many people incorrectly assume a cat is just old, tired and lazy — but it might be that your cat’s lack of movement is because it hurts. Something as simple as beginning to soil around the house and not using the litter box upstairs anymore may actually be an indicator of pain.

The Importance of Nutrient Quality in Aging Cats and Dogs

The quality of nutrients in the food you purchase matters because zinc is not zinc, and protein is not protein. In other words, meat protein has a different digestibility than soybean meal. Both have protein and help manufacturers provide the same protein level in the bag, but they won’t perform the same metabolically. Similarly, Zinpro zinc amino acid complex is a form of zinc that is absorbed and metabolized differently than regular inorganic zinc sulfate or zinc oxide. This difference is shown in pet health and wellbeing.

Feeding your pet high-quality food may cost a bit more, but the difference in quality means you tend to get higher-quality proteins, a better amino acid balance, better vitamin fortification and better sources of all the nutrients that improve digestibility and reduce metabolic stress that an animal undergoes to process and handle nutrients on a daily basis.

These nutrients can help maintain your pet’s mobility to do their normal activities, improve their ability to digest food and help them absorb nutrients in a more efficient way. They also help with eyesight in older animals and maintain a healthy skin and coat as they age.

What’s Your Next Step?

It’s important to keep your pet active and feed it appropriately throughout its different life stages, but the biggest thing you can do for your pet is to help it maintain a healthy body weight through proper nutrition. If you do that, your dog or cat’s chances for a longer and healthier life are much greater.

To learn more about dog nutritional needs and to get helpful tips, visit the AAFCO, AAFCO pets and AKC websites. And for cats, be sure to look for sites that are either sponsored or managed by veterinarians.