When it comes to spoiling our furry friends, there's no shortage of affection. We cuddle with them, we take them with us when we travel—some of us even throw birthday parties for our dogs and cats. But perhaps the best way to love your animals is to use preventive measures to ensure a healthy aging process.
"While our cherished companions can't live forever, holistic approaches are allowing dogs and cats to live much longer, healthier lives," says Christina Chambreau, DVM, CVH, of Sparks, Maryland, co-founder of the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy and author of Healthy Animal's Journal (TRO Productions, 2003). Here, holistic vets offer ways to address the most common aging problems naturally—before they become burdensome for your pet.
Problem: Extra pounds
Solutions: Start with exercise. Maintaining a trim figure will help your dog or cat stave off weight-related health conditions, such as diabetes and osteoarthritis. "Exercise is critical, both preventively and therapeutically," says Allen Schoen, DVM, of Sherman, Connecticut, author of Kindred Spirits (Broadway, 2001). Provide lots of running room in a fenced back yard, and walk your dogs daily. (Various breeds require different amounts of activity; ask your vet about your particular animal.) If you work all day, consider doggie day care, or hire a dog walker. Keep cats active as well; even a good romp with a dangled string can help prevent unwanted pounds.
Next, catch weight gain early. "The best thing pet owners can do is to learn how to obtain a body condition score, or BCS, on their pets—their veterinarian can teach them how," says Susan G. Wynn, DVM, of Acworth, Georgia, president of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and author of Veterinary Herbal Medicine (Elsevier, 2006). "If one monitors BCS regularly, it's easier to catch the problem early on." Get a baseline BCS by asking your vet to assess your pet's "fleshiness"—for example, by feeling the rib cage for definition—and then assign the animal a number between one and nine, from too thin to obese. This becomes an additional quantitative measure of weight, along with the number on the scale.
Problem: Creaky joints
Solution: Supplement. Adding joint and connective-tissue supplements, such as glu-cosamine, to your young pet's daily routine can help protect it from developing painful arthritis down the road. This is an especially good idea for larger dogs, which run a higher risk of developing joint pain as they age. Chambreau recommends stopping the supplement for a week or so every few months so you can monitor your animal's health.
"If stiffness develops while not on the supplement, seek further holistic care," she says.
If your older pet is already feeling achy, ask your vet to help you find an effective dose of glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, or MSM. "Try one or a combination of these ingredients for a month," Chambreau says. "Keep a journal and quantify how stiff your dog or cat seems to be. Evaluate his energy levels and emotional state and see what changes. If not much, then try one or more different supplements, or begin more curative holistic treatments, such as acupuncture." Always choose supplements formulated specifically for pets, and follow all dose recommendations.
Problem: Unhealthy teeth and gums
Solutions: Every so often, toss your pet a bone. "Feed [both dogs and cats] large chunks of raw meat with the bone," suggests Chambreau. "This keeps plaque at bay, plus teeth will automatically get flossed with the connective tissue." Not all animals tolerate raw meaty bones, however, so don't attempt this until you've researched the pros and cons of raw diets, says Wynn.
Keep store-bought food natural. "Stay away from [artificial] preservatives," says Schoen. Finally, once or twice a week, brush your pet's teeth with a paste made of baking soda and a drop of hydrogen peroxide. Twice a year, consider a professional cleaning by a veterinarian.
Freelance writer Kelli Rosen throws birthday parties for her two bulldogs, complete with free-range turkey-burger cakes.