Finding Fido’s Fountain of Youth

By Dr. Heather Loenser

Who wouldn’t agree that your quality of life is more important than the number of candles on top of your birthday cake? Living to a ripe old age is only a blessing if you’re healthy enough to enjoy it.

New Yorkers wear their old age proudly; thanks, in part, to living in a city which forces us to be active. It is often easier to walk 10 blocks than to hail a cab in rush hour and almost anywhere you look, you see older folks exercising. My 94 year old client Ruthie scolds herself if she misses one day of speed walking with “The Girls.” She completes crossword puzzles faster than her daughter can buy them for her. Ruthie’s neighbor, Teddy who’s 89, regularly bikes three miles in Riverside Park to meet his buddies for a kale and quinoa salad at Pier I Cafe. Both of these seniors adhere to key tenets of good health: they eat well, exercise regularly, engage in stimulating activities, and, believe it or not, take proper care of their teeth. Though neither one ha found the Fountain of Youth, each is close enough to feel the spray.

The same tenets apply to our dogs. As a veterinarian, part of my job is to heal sick pets. The other part is to provide pet parents with a roadmap to the Fountain of Youth for Fido.

While certain breeds live longer than others, every dog requires the same health care. Here are sure-fire ways to add years to your pet’s life.

Eat Well...Be Well
The statistics are startling: More than 50% of all dogs and cats in the United States are overweight. Often it’s because owners equate food with love. Unfortunately, every time you offer your pet an extra treat or scrap of food, you’re encouraging him to waddle towards premature death.  Obesity causes a plethora of medical problems and decreases a pet’s life expectancy by up to 2.5 years.

If your pet is overweight, he is prone to develop:

  • Arthritis and ligament injuries
  • Diabetes (which often requires insulin injections twice a day for the rest of his life)
  • Heart and respiratory disease
  • Cancer
  • Most of my pet parents are surprised to hear that their pet is overweight. Some don’t even realize Fido’s fat because the pounds creep up gradually. Owners of furry dogs sometimes have trouble seeing the fat through the fluff. No matter the reason, a pet parent is embarrassed to hear the news, almost as if he’s been pegged as an irresponsible owner. The solution is simple: Put feelings aside and do something. Your pet’s life depends on it!

    Here’s an easy test to determine whether or not your pet needs to lose weight: Run your hand lightly along your dog’s side starting from her front leg and moving towards her tail. Can you feel your fingers sliding over her ribs like a car driving over speed bumps?

    If you answered “No,” your pet is likely overweight. Your veterinarian will work with you to develop an appropriate feeding plan using the Nutritional Assessment Guidelines by the American Animal Hospital Association. A little head’s up: Expect the plan to include cutting down on treats.  Give Fido just half of that doggy biscuit and he won’t even notice the difference. Or supplement his treats with carrots, green beans and apple slices; they will satisfy the crunch... without the calories.

    Mind Games are a Good Thing
    An active mind is as important as a well-tuned body. Unlike their ancestors, our pets don’t need to problem solve; they’re not hunting for their next meal or figuring out a safe place to sleep. So it’s up to us to keep their minds challenged. Pet puzzles and treat-dispensing toys boost a dog’s brain power. My two highly intelligent mixed breeds love to play with puzzle toys and I can almost “see” them thinking as they work for the reward. Here are a few ways to stimulate your dog’s brain:

    Brain Power DIY Activities:

  • Scatter kibble throughout the house and encourage your dog to hunt for it
  • Freeze canned dog food, pumpkin, or low-sodium chicken broth inside a sturdy rubber dog toy. This provides hours of licking and chewing delight
  • Turn a muffin tin upside down and sprinkle kibble in the recesses of the tin. Your dog is forced to strategically retrieve each piece of food
  • Keep on Truckin’
    Inactivity has adverse effects on your pet. Arthritis is one of the top diseases that afflicts aging dogs. While we can’t reverse the changes inside a pet’s joints easily, we can support the muscles to keep them strong.

    Controlled brisk exercise is the best way to safely strengthen muscles. My favorite activities for my pet patients are:

  • Climbing stairs
  • Walking up and down hills or ramps
  • Swimming in clean bodies of water
  • One of the top injuries I see in the ER is a torn knee ligament, similar to that sustained by athletes. No matter what treatment is done, arthritis will ultimately result in that knee. To decrease the chance of knee trauma, avoid activities that cause rapid jumping or twisting:

  • Jumping from deck stairs
  • Running for a frisbee
  • Chasing squirrels
  • Don’t Give Your Pet’s Teeth the Brush Off
    Imagine the condition of your teeth if you never brushed them or visited the dentist. That’s the sad reality for most of our pets. By the time a dog is three years of age, he’s likely to show signs of dental disease. Over time, tartar and bacteria accumulate around the teeth and gums causing:

  • Stinky breath
  • Painful toothaches
  • Potential heart and kidney infections
  • Regular at-home brushing and dental cleanings by the veterinarian can reverse many of these problems. Find a veterinarian who adheres to the recommendations in the American Animal Hospital Association’s Dental Care Guidelines. There are also foods and treats specifically designed to help keep your pet’s teeth clean. Look for products with the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) Seal of Approval as these are proven to decrease tartar and plaque accumulation.

    Our Pets...Ourselves
    Caring for our pets has added health benefits for us as well. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) compared pet owners to non-pet owners and found that pet owners:

  • Are more likely to exercise and be in better shape
  • Have lower blood pressure and a better cholesterol profile
  • Have a lower risk of dying from a heart attack
  • Experience less loneliness and depression
  • The Fountain of Youth may not be on the map, but it is certainly at the end of your leash. Take the walk together and both of you will feel the spray.

    To help insure you’re getting the best veterinary care, choose a practice accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). These hospitals are evaluated regularly on nearly 900 standards of veterinary care. Find one near you by going to and keying in your zipcode in the AAHA Hospital Locator.

    About Dr. Heather Loenser
    For almost a decade, Dr. Heather Loenser has comforted pets in their time of crisis as an emergency veterinarian. Outside the hospital, she supports her profession with the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) as the staff Veterinary Advisor in Professional and Public Affairs. A sought-after guest on TV and radio, she shares her expertise on the Today Show, Fox News, Dr. Oz and local television in the New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. area. She loves nothing more than hanging out with her rescued dog, Calvin.