How Can We Extend the Lives of Our Dogs?
A Dog's Lifespan Is Brutally Short Compared to Ours
Keeping our dogs happy and healthy is an important subject to those of us who have canine companions. If you're anything like me, it's one of your top priorities in life. My dogs eat before I do, they get their treats before I do, and if I'm going somewhere like a street fair or some other outing, I make sure I have everything they need, often at the expense of remembering what I need.
Dogs give us pleasure in so many ways, so it's up to us to make sure they're also enjoying their life to the fullest. Their basic needs are obvious—food, water, shelter, and bathroom visits—but what extra things do they need that we should be prioritizing?
It's unfair, and in my opinion cruel, that our dogs only live an average of 7–15 years, depending on the breed. If we're lucky, some will naturally live beyond that, but if we're vigilant, there are ways we can possibly up that ante and extend our companion's lives. Since my previous two dogs were robbed of a long life, I made it my mission to find out how some people's dogs were living to be 18, 20, and even 30 years of age! What I learned was surprising.
3 Ways to Ensure Your Dog Lives as Long as Possible
- Get them checked up by your vet frequently.
- Make sure they get plenty of exercise.
- Feed them a healthy diet.
1. The Importance of Vet Checkups
Taking our dogs to the doctor only once something is out-of-whack could mean we're too late to help them. Regular, yearly check-ups with blood work and other preventative tests could find something bothersome before it becomes a major problem.
Get Pet Insurance
With veterinarians being nearly as expensive as human doctors, it's wise and economically sensible to put our beloved canines on a health insurance plan. I have pugs which happen to be a breed that can come with a lot of health issues. It has given me such peace-of-mind to have them both covered for anything that may arise and for yearly check-ups and wellness exams.
Pet insurance is very reasonable these days, and the benefits are better than those many humans are afforded. I pay only $71 per month for both of my dogs, and that's for insurance with a $250 deductible. And they pay 80-90% of the vet bills. Navigating through the research of finding the best plan for you and your dog isn't as grueling as you'd think. For me, it's already been worth it. Otherwise, I recommend opening a savings account specifically for your dog, and stashing money away in it for medical emergencies, regular check-ups, and work.
Keep Their Teeth Clean
Dental cleanings (which aren't covered by most insurances) are one of the most important things a person can do preventatively for their dogs. Bad teeth can cause all kinds of diseases and illnesses later on, so getting your dogs teeth cleaned professional every few years, and keeping up on it with weekly or bi-weekly home teeth brushings can definitely be a factor in prolonging your dogs life.
Make Sure Vaccinations Are Necessary
Regular vaccinations are not something I espouse to. Since my pug Rainbow's puppy shots, she's never had another vaccination. Rabies is the only shot I would give her, but since she's a cancer survivor, she won't be getting one of those, either. It doesn't mean I won't ever give her vaccinations again (when we travel to Mexico next year, I will probably get her a small series of vaccinations for whatever deadly diseases there are over there), but I really don't believe they need to be vaccinated yearly, or even once every five years. I would simply research each vaccination you intend to give your dog to see how necessary it really is and how often it should be given. Make sure your research includes studies and personal experiences rather than articles or studies that may have a monetary benefit for them to promote vaccines.
Parvo is a disease I hear about more often than any other and it seems to be more common in puppies. It's can be lethal, so I believe every puppy should be vaccinated against it, but if you're against any vaccinations at all, just research it thoroughly before coming to any final decision.
2. Walks Are a Vital Component to Longevity
Being a professional dog walker, I figured out pretty early on how important exercise is for dogs. A simple half hour walk, once or twice per day (depending on the breed) will not only get your dog's blood moving and heart pumping, but it brings them great joy. It gives them more energy overall, the same as it does for us. My clients typically report that their dogs are much more active during the day than they used to be before they were regularly walked. Once they established a walking routine, they were more playful and slept better through the night.
Just like us, exercise releases endorphins and serotonin that brings us pleasure and an overall feeling of well-being. Dogs get even more benefits from walking than just that. It allows them to experience the world outside of their own home. Even if we take our dogs for regular outings, on walks, they get to take in the smells of other dogs and possibly wildlife that have passed the area before them. I give the dogs I walk about five minutes to explore every smell we pass, then make them get serious about their walk with no more long stops. They're still able to get the smells we pass, though they don't linger too long. I just make sure to never let them smell another dog's poop. Many diseases are transmitted through feces.
Another bonus the dogs I walk get is the socialization of being with other dogs in a "pack-like" setting. Most of the dogs I walk come from single-dog homes, and some have little to no interaction with other dogs. I recently boarded a very anti-social Chihuahua who was not only anti-social with other dogs, but with me as well. Within a day the little cutie-pie was hanging out with the other three dogs I had here. By the next day, he was my BFF (best friend forever). He still growled if I tried to put his harness on him (he didn't like me touching his paws), and he still growled if one of the other dogs got too close to him, but after our first walk, everything changed. He was not only walking side by side with the other dogs, but sleeping in the same bed with one of them. He had become friends with my male pug, Oliver. He also let me touch his paws after that, and pick him up. I think he had socialized and become comfortable so quickly because he found his niche in the pack during our walk. He was able to walk side by side with me on his own leash (making me the Alpha) and lead the other dogs who were all on a tri-leash (he became the Beta), making him feel in control. When he had his place in the pecking order, he was no longer super nervous about having the other dogs next to him. It's a different story inside the house where Rainbow is actually the Beta, but he didn't mind that.
Healthy socialization is very important to a dog's happiness. They love us and may sometimes think they're one of us rather than one of them, but they need to feel like a dog, too. It doesn't mean you have to go out and get another dog, but going to a dog park or hiring a dog walker 3-5 walks per week, or more, with other dogs is a great way to give them that. I think pack walking is even preferable to a dog park because the socialization is more relaxed and easier to structure during walks. All they're thinking about is go, go, go, and what they can pee on next, and not as concerned that there's a strange dog they don't know walking beside them. Pet walkers are not usually expensive and most pet sitting businesses offer walking services or daycare.
One little dog I walk regularly was nervous as heck when I first started walking a large, black lab with him. He had plenty of space to get away from the lab when he got too close, and before that first walk was over, they were walking right next to each other and "Packing Out", as I like to call it. It's like a 'gang' stride dogs get when they're in a pack. Now the two dogs love each other very much.
A woman I know who's pugs typically live to be eighteen or nineteen years old, told me she believed it was all the exercise they get that keeps them alive and thriving well into their senior years. Pugs are not known for having longevity, so this revelation fascinated me. From my own experience, when I first incorporated dog walking into my own pet sitting business, one of my first clients was a 10 year old, very large (200 lbs.) English mastiff named Harley.
He was already very old for his breed and on a plethora of different kinds of medication for his arthritis and anxiety.
His humans hired me to give him walks five days per week, and at first it was hard for both of us. We were both pretty out-of-shape and Harley's neighborhood was very hilly.
We both lost weight after the first year, though he lost more than I did. He was down to 175 lbs. and we were both able to easily walk up the biggest hill that was probably a good 700 feet up; something we both suffered through the first few times we did it.
We spent three years exploring all the different suburban and rural areas around his house and he became a much loved fixture that everyone in the neighborhood knew by name. Yes, he lived to be thirteen years old before dying of bone cancer this past January.
For Harley's breed, the life-expectancy is around 7-11 years. His humans believe the walking was what kept him alive. I believe it, too. Even when Harley was just days away from dying, he never once wanted to skip his walks. He'd get right up on his feet when he'd see me enter the yard and I'd take him as far as he wanted to go before returning home. Though we couldn't do the hills anymore and it was heartbreaking to see him struggling, his walks remained an important part of his life.
I have tears in my eyes thinking about it.
I still walk two dogs in that neighborhood and I swear I hear an unexplained set of footsteps walking along with us sometimes. It wouldn't surprise me if Harley was continuing his daily walks; what would be a better idea of heaven for a dog besides eating themselves into a stupor?
Would Harley have lived as long as he did without his daily walks? I can't say for certain, but it isn't likely. It wasn't just the exercise for him, as it wasn't just for me. I loved that big, sweet, lug, and he loved his walks. They were something we could look forward to, and that's what brings happiness.
The black lab I walk (Riley), can't contain himself when he knows he's going for a walk. I can hear him whining before I even ring the bell and when he's handed to me, he can't stop barking until we're well on our way. If someone has to stop for a second to pee, he starts shaking and barking with impatience. It seems to be the joy of his life, as it is to all of them.
My pug Oliver is a foster I adopted last year. He was so over-weight, but cute as could be! I knew I'd be taking him on our walks regularly, but on our first walk, he collapsed after only a block. Certain breeds just aren't designed for heavy exercise and some breeds aren't designed for hardly any exercise, at all. The pug, and most other brachiocephalic (short nosed) dogs are the latter. They get overheated quickly because they can't get enough air through their snout to cool them off or to breath efficiently. I knew this so I watched him closely. He didn't give me any indication he was tiring, he just simply fell to the ground out of exhaustion.
Oliver was fine, but I had to very gradually work him up to where he could handle a decent walk, Not only because he was so chubby, but the short nose problem was an issue. Even after he got in shape he continued to struggle. It's been challenging finding the border between a healthy walk and one that could kill him, but I think we've finally figured it out. Where I was going with this story is that Oliver HATED walking in the beginning, of course. It was hard for him so he challenged me for months by refusing to put his harness on or by sitting and refusing to move. I encouraged him by taking very small walks so he could trust that I wasn't going to exhaust him again. This took some time, but now, if Oliver thinks he's going for a walk, he can't get into his harness fast enough! He still gets tired when we're reaching his exhaustion border, but now he pushes through instead of sitting down and refusing to move. It's added a great deal of joy to his life as it will to any dog who appears to not like walking at first. They just need to be guided gently into it. I don't think Oliver had ever been walked in his life.
Bulldogs are another breed that struggle with intense exercise. They're a conundrum of a breed because they love being active. Short walks are good for them, but a sport other than long walks is best.
Walking isn't the only way to give your dog exercise, but for all the other benefits I listed above, walking, even short distances, can help keep your dog happy and healthy.
3. A Dog's Diet: Raw, Vegan, Commercial—What?
It makes sense that a healthy diet would make a healthy dog, but what exactly is a healthy diet for a dog?
Many commercial dog foods sold in grocery stores have a lot of things in them most people would not want to feed their dogs. When I first started investigating dog foods, I didn't like the words, "by-product," at all. When I researched it, I found a lot more information than I needed to know, and never bought anything that had those words in them again.
I wanted to feed my dogs the most natural diet for them that I could. It made sense to me that a raw diet would be optimal since that would be their diet if they were in the wild. In the mid-nineties there wasn't a lot of information on the subject that was readily available, so I didn't even attempt it out of concern I'd do more harm than good.
When Rainbow was two years old in 2009, I started her on a raw diet that I made myself. It included whole pieces of chicken including the bone (dog bones are not dangerous to dogs if they're raw), and a veggie concoction that included apple cider vinegar, flaxseed oil, Spirulina, and a host of other superfood powders. There was plenty of information about it on the Internet by then, so I learned how to make it myself until I discovered companies that made pre-packaged raw meats and/or vegetable concoctions. After I eliminated the whole bone from her diet, her teeth started getting bad. Also, her skin allergies never went away. She seemed to do okay otherwise for many years and I believe it's the reason her cancer grew so slowly we couldn't tell it was getting bigger (it was a mole on her body). Even though it was an old mast cell tumor that had been growing for years, it hadn't metastasized. I can't be certain the raw diet kept the cancer at bay, but I took her off the diet because I became convinced that she might do better with her terrible allergies on a vegan diet. Being the research queen that I am, I discovered that many dogs on a vegan diet had extended lives...greatly extended lives.
It's easy to find opposition against a vegan diet for dogs, but the proof for me is hearing the stories of others. There have been studies that support it, too. The reason the diet is healthy for dogs is that over the thousands of years that dogs have lived with humans, they biologically changed from being carnivorous to omnivorous. This makes it very easy for them to live long, healthy lives as pure vegetarian/vegans.
I included a very good video on how to make homemade vegan dog food below. I opt for a pre-packaged kibble through a company called v-dog simply because they're an ethical company, but Natural Balance also makes one. Since the first publication of this article, both of my dogs started getting struvite crystals in their urine, and one of them developed a severe bladder infection. I had always heard that a diet high in minerals; particularly magnesium, was the cause of this. After doing some research on it, I discovered that it's possible the crystals are caused by low-quality supplements in the dog food. I can't link any of the articles I found because they're all selling supplements, but regardless of that, what the articles are promoting rings true to me. They claim that the supplements used in dog food should come from an organic source. Most come from a chemical source which is metabolized differently in the dog's body, and not healthily. I'm now back to making my own, raw dog food, and adding a very small amount of animal protein for one of them. My other dog won't eat the meat, so he'll remain a vegetarian. I'm going to add a wildcrafted micro-algae to the mix when I'm able to find a good source. Right now I'm putting organic Nori in it (seaweed).
I've read studies that say a limited calorie diet can also extend a dog's life. This is controversial for me since I have pugs who love to eat. Will restricting their food consumption take away from their happiness and therefore reflect negatively on their health? I made a compromise and feed them less, but not to the point where they're constantly acting hungry. I make sure they get fruit and veggie treats in between or after their two meals so their calories are still low. My male pug doesn't usually eat breakfast, so it isn't a problem with him, though he's still a little overweight.
My pugs love their vegan kibble mixed with a little water, and one of my clients feeds it to her shitzpoo, and he loves it, too.
It isn't unheard of that a dog on regular, store-bought kibble has a long life; Harley ate less-than-preferred dog food his whole life and still lived to be thirteen. Plus he was on medications, so maybe we were just lucky he lived so long, or maybe it was his daily walks. Maybe if he were on a vegan or raw diet he would've lived even longer...we just can't know.
On the flip side of the vegan coin, the longest living dog ever recorded lived to be almost 30 and he ate nothing but raw, fresh meat. Since dogs are omnivorous, they seem to be able to thrive on both sides of the coin with the only thing both diets having in common is that they're comprised of fresh, non-commercial food.
Though there's never any guarantee that doing the above things, or anything, will extend the lives of our beloved companion dogs, it's definitely worth it to do everything we can to try and make it so. Whatever it is we do, keeping them happy should be number one. Giving them lots of love and one-on-one attention, taking them for drives where they can hang their heads out the window and experience the world in its many different smells, socializing them with both other people and especially other dogs, are sure to give them a high quality of life, if not a high-quantity of life as well.
Would you feed your dog a vegan diet? Take the poll to show your support or opposition.
A Word on Vegan Diets for Dogs
A Vegan Diet for Dogs
Do you agree with dogs eating a pure vegan diet?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.