As dog lovers, we all want our precious pooches to live a long and healthy life. Although they will never live long enough for us, the good news is that we can give them the best possible care well into their golden years. Read on for some tips on how to help increase your dog’s chances of living a long, happy and healthy life.
Vaccination is essential to prevent or reduce the severity of potentially fatal infectious diseases such as canine parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis. Unvaccinated puppies are particularly prone to these diseases and, tragically, they often cannot be saved. Vaccinations for these diseases are the ‘core vaccines’, which means they are essential for all dogs starting from 6 to 8 weeks of age. Your veterinarian can also advise you about ‘non-core’ vaccinations to prevent kennel cough and leptospirosis, based on your location and your dog’s risk of infection. Once your dog has reached one year of age, your veterinarian will set you up with a vaccination routine, which may be annual or triannual.
Having your dog desexed has a number of benefits. For example, for female dogs it can decrease their risk of mammary tumours and for male dogs their risk of prostate disease. Desexing also prevents dogs from roaming to find a mate, which can potentially result in fighting or an accident such as being hit by a car. Desexing is also the best way to prevent unplanned litters for female dogs which, depending on the situation, can put your female dog at risk of health issues or the need for a caesarean.
There are many parasites that can infest our dogs and reduce both their quality of life and, in some cases, their longevity. Common parasites include intestinal worms (which can lead to anaemia and intestinal blockage), fleas (which can cause intense itching and skin disease), heartworm (which can kill dogs through restricting their breathing) and paralysis ticks, which can quickly attack a dog’s nervous system, often resulting in death, even with intensive hospital treatment. The old days of flea rinses and horrible smelling products are long gone. Parasite prevention is quick and easy, usually involving a regular spot-on or chewable tablet, and in some cases such as heartworm, an annual injection. Your veterinarian is the best person to advise on the product you select for your dog and how often it should be given. It’s important to remember that no product is 100% effective, so it’s vital for dogs to be checked daily, particularly for the presence of ticks, which if found require veterinary treatment.
Regular vet checks
After setting up your dog’s routine preventative treatments, one of the best things you can do for their health is to have regular veterinary checks. This should be at least annually for young dogs and six-monthly for older dogs (from around seven years of age). Dogs’ lifespans are not equivalent to ours, so a lot can change in a year. Having health issues detected early gives them the best chance of successful treatment or management. An ongoing relationship with a particular veterinarian or veterinary practice is ideal, as your dog will become accustomed to the staff and all their records will be available. It is also less stressful for them when you need to make an appointment in between their regular checks, as they will be more familiar with the environment. One of the best ways to get the most out of veterinary visits is to be alert to and record any changes in your dog’s behaviour, such as eating, drinking or toileting, and to inspect your dog regularly during grooming sessions, which can alert you to any changes that you can then tell your veterinarian about. Another tip is to take a video of any unusual behaviour such as limping, because dogs often have an adrenaline rush at the veterinary clinic, which can mask their symptoms.
Maintain a healthy body weight
Obesity is widespread in the canine community and is a major welfare issue. It has been estimated that 41% of dogs in Australia are overweight or obese. This single factor is responsible for reducing the quality of life and lifespan of dogs who are at risk of diseases such as osteoarthritis, heart disease, diabetes, liver and pancreatic disease and some cancers. Falling above the ideal body weight also makes dogs more prone to heat stress, infection and higher anaesthetic risk if they need surgery. Your veterinarian can help you to recognise the signs of obesity and advise on a safe program of dietary management and exercise as needed. You can also keep track of your pet’s body condition by referring to a standard body condition scoring system – for an ideal body weight, look for a defined waistline, not too much fat covering the ribs!
All dogs need a healthy, nutritious diet and the best way to feed your adult dog is with a high quality balanced premium commercial dog food. Your veterinarian can advise you about which diet is appropriate to your dog’s life stage, body weight and health. Portion control is the key to avoiding obesity and commercial foods often come with a measuring cup. Supplementing your dog’s food with a small amount of cooked vegetables or plain cooked rice is fine, but unfortunately bones and raw meat are risky due to possible bacterial infection, fractured teeth or intestinal blockage. There are plenty of safe dental chews as an alternative. The list of foods that are toxic to dogs is quite long, and extends way beyond chocolate and raisins, so we must be aware of these to avoid illness. As for treats, the same applies to dogs and humans – treats should be low calorie and in moderation only!
All dogs need daily exercise, and being cooped up all day without this is a significant welfare issue. Exercise is important for weight control, keeping joints mobile and providing mental stimulation, as going out walking provides opportunities to sniff, explore, socialise and generally enjoy the outdoors. Agility training, swimming and playing a game of fetch in the backyard are also great forms of exercise. Dogs all have their own individual energy levels and exercise needs, and your veterinarian can advise you how to adjust exercise for any health conditions they may have. Having a veterinary check before engaging in an exercise program is the safest way to begin. Caution is always needed in the hot weather, particularly for brachycephalic (flat-faced, short-nosed) dogs like British bulldogs, French bulldogs and pugs who are more prone to heat stress, so walking in the mornings or evenings is safer. Another caution is not to exercise your dog immediately before or after eating, as this can cause bloat, particularly in deep-chested dogs.
Regular grooming is important for the comfort and health of all dogs. It also provides owners a great opportunity to bond with their dogs, get them used to handling and to identify any changes that should be discussed with a veterinarian. Whilst some grooming tasks, such as nail trimming, coat clipping and fur trimming are often best outsourced to professionals for safety reasons, a regular brushing session and overall inspection is the way many health issues are identified early, whether these are parasites, skin lesions, lumps, eye or ear infections or grass seeds in the coat.
Like grooming, dental care is also essential for a dog’s health but is often neglected. Dental/periodontal disease, which affects the teeth and gums, is the most common condition affecting pets, with 80% of dogs having some level of disease by the age of three. This can lead to severe health outcomes including pain, tooth loss, problems eating and also serious infections to organs such as the heart, kidneys and liver. Luckily, this is often preventable through a combination of home teeth cleaning, dental chews and regular veterinary checks, which may lead to a professional scale and polish by a veterinarian as needed.
Keeping dogs safely contained and identified with a microchip and collar is the best way to prevent tragic accidents such as becoming lost, being hit by a car or attacked by another dog. The same applies to car travel, because dogs who are not safely restrained are at risk of injury if they jump out of the car window or are thrown from a vehicle during a collision.
Socialisation and training
Puppy socialisation, which involves exposing puppies to a range of different environments, dogs, other animals and people, sets them up to be well adjusted as adults. This critical period ends around the age of 17 weeks, so owners have the chance to safely expose their puppies to experiences they are likely to encounter in their lives. Attending puppy pre-school at a local veterinary practice is an excellent way to assist in this process. Training is also essential for a dog’s safety and provides mental stimulation and a great opportunity for bonding with their owners. The proviso here is that all training must be based on positive reinforcement methods, which are the most effective and humane. If you are seeking help with training your dog, your veterinarian can advise you about professionals who use reward only techniques rather than punishment, which ends up worsening any problem behaviours and can cause pain, injury, stress and even aggression.
To lead a good life, dogs need to express natural behaviours and be mentally stimulated, which is what we refer to as ‘enrichment’. Dogs who are left alone with nothing to do tend to develop behaviours owners find annoying, such as excessive barking or digging; these dogs are not ‘bad’, but they are frustrated and may also be anxious. We can provide enrichment for our dogs through regular walks, playing games with them, doggy day care, puzzle feeders, training sessions, snuffle matts and scent games – the possibilities are endless!
An often-overlooked area of helping dogs to lead a long and healthy life is adapting their care as they age. Some owners dismiss changes in their older dog’s mobility or appetite as ‘normal ageing’ but these signs can be indicators of treatable diseases such as arthritis or intestinal disease. For this reason, six-monthly veterinary checks are recommended for older dogs. Veterinarians can also advise on nutritional support and any supplements needed to keep senior dogs comfortable. And as owners, there are many ways to enhance the quality of an older dog’s life, such as by adapting the home as needed (for example, a warmer, more supportive bed and ramps for easy access), adjusting their exercise routine, being patient and loving with them and giving them what they want most, which is our company.
This leads onto emotional wellbeing, which is as important to dogs as it is to humans. We can support our dogs’ emotional wellbeing by providing all the above forms of care, along with keeping them in a calm, safe environment with routines they can predict, and reducing unnecessary sources of stress. Where there are unavoidable changes to the household, such as renovations, the introduction of a new pet or a new family member, the advice of a veterinarian can assist in helping our dogs to adapt. It’s also important to ensure dogs are handled gently, so supervision around children is essential for the safety of both. Dogs can be very good at showing the signs of stress, so any behavioural changes you notice are best referred to a veterinarian, who can assess for a medical cause and help address any other issues that are having a negative impact on your pet.
The care and support they need
Having a dog in our lives is a great blessing, and they deserve the very best care we can offer them in return. Learning how to give your dog a longer and healthier life can lead to some important changes in their routine that can help everyone’s wellbeing.
While preventative healthcare treatments and routine items may not be covered by pet insurance, you may wish to consider a policy in case your dog suffers an injury or illness, to cover eligible vet bills. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first year’s premiums will go towards supporting the RSPCA.
21 Dec 2022