Taking care of aging pets: Part 2

As pets age, focusing on their quality of life is most important.
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Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

Editor’s note: Click here for part 1 of “Taking care of aging pets.”

As pets age their needs increase. Dogs are considered “senior” at around 7 years old, and even earlier for large-breed dogs, while cats fall into that category around the ages of 9-12. Our furry friends hit the geriatric mark at approximately 10-years-old for dogs (again, earlier for larger breeds) and 14ish for cats.

Just like with humans, dogs and cats experience changes as they age, including with their metabolism and activity levels, which means they can start packing on the pounds quickly, which in turn can lead to chronic issues and deadly diseases if untreated.

But, also like humans, there are many things pet owners can do to help their pets age gracefully and enhance their chances for a longer life.


Don’t love your pet to death 

A balanced diet goes a long way in keeping your pet healthy.

You probably know feeding your pet table scraps isn’t the best way to ensure a long, healthy life for them. But when they are sitting at your feet begging, it can be hard to resist the instant gratification of giving them a taste of your dinner.

Fortunately, Samantha Henson, who owns and operates Next Generation Pet Wellness, said you don’t have to abandon sharing food with your pet altogether, you just have to make sure you are sharing the right types of foods with them.

Henson, a clinical pet nutritionist, works with clients on how to best feed their pets to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle. That includes selecting the right foods and treats — and even table scraps — to keep your pet healthy.

She said for senior pets, that means making sure your pet is getting a moisture-rich diet with lots of high-quality protein, limited calories, joint supporting supplements and that is low in sodium and sugar.

So, if you want to share your dinner with your cat or dog, Henson said, stick with foods that are natural to their diet, noting “the standard American diet is terrible for a dog or cat.”

“If you like the act of sharing food with your cat, find a people food that is fine for your pet,” she said. “You can do plain chicken breasts, cut them up tiny and keep them in a bag in your fridge. If you want to give them something, give them some of that … if you are making a hamburger, make a tiny one for your dog. That is fine.”

She said to remember that a small taste goes a long way with your pet, and that goes for dog- or cat-specific treats, too.

“A milk bone is like the equivalent of a whole hotdog for a 40-pound dog,” Henson said. “So, if they are getting one every time they go to the bathroom, that is a ton of calories.”
She added, “We tend to treat our pets to death in this country.”

When it comes to choosing a daily pet food, Henson said to stay away from the grocery store aisle. “There are plenty of foods you can buy, but not at the grocery store. Grocery store food is not the best food. A lot of pet stores, especially the locally owned stores, have some good foods, but mostly at the smaller ones. You also can usually return the foods at most of them if they don’t like it. There are even dry kibbles I’d recommend.

“What I focus on is finding something for any budget and level of busyness. I have three kids, two dogs and two cats, so ours is as good of a diet as we can get with the time that we have. I can’t make my dog food all the time.”

For senior pets, Henson said it’s especially important to provide moisture-rich foods. “When a cat and dog are on a dry kibble for their whole life, by the time they hit senior-hood their organs are tired. They’ve had to make up for a lack of moisture in the diet for so long and what happens is the body will pull moisture from the kidneys, bladder, spleen, liver, just to break down a food. When you do that for 10 years, you’re tired. So, make sure they are getting either a raw diet or a canned food, even in addition to their regular kibble.”

She said a few ways to accomplish this are by adding water or bone broth to your pet’s meals.

“If your dog or cat is at the water bowl all day that’s not a good sign,” she noted. “We don’t want that. … We want them getting a lot of their moisture content from food because that’s how they’d naturally get it. Cats were desert animals. They didn’t have access to a bowl of water as they were evolving.”

Aging cats and dogs also require more protein in their diets. Henson said you should look for ingredients like chicken meal or beef meal and avoid ingredients such as poultry meal or animal digest.

“You want to look for foods that aren’t loaded with grains, corn, rice, etc.,” she said. “There can be a little, but when the first ingredient is cornmeal, or some are even corn starch, those we want to avoid. Making a senior dog’s body work harder in their senior years is the opposite of what we want.”

Overall, Henson said the best way to help your senior dog (or cat) is to set them up with a healthy diet while they are young. “We want to raise our dogs as lean as possible because that is what is going to set them up for success later in life.”


Humane Society of West Michigan’s “10 reasons to adopt a senior pet”

  1. Despite the myth, you can teach an old dog new tricks. At almost 14 years old, Tiki, one of our senior dogs, was adopted and passed her canine good citizen test.
  2. With senior pets, you see what you get. There are very few surprises in store for you when you get them home and adjusted.
  3. Senior pets are so grateful and appreciative. Most just want a soft place to relax.
  4. Older pets tend to come trained and housebroken. Your carpet and furniture will thank you!
  5. Senior pets are ready to start living their life with you immediately.
  6. Senior pets would love to binge-watch your favorite TV show with you all day long.
  7. You would be an instant hero. Many senior pets are overlooked and spend a very long time in shelters.
  8. Senior pets are less demanding and more appreciative of your time.
  9. The training process is typically much easier when it comes to a senior pet.
  10. Unconditional love and fixing a broken heart. Most of these pets had a home and now need someone willing to be generous enough to show them love for the remainder of their life.

Dog days

An itinerary for spending the day treating your pet.

Start your day off at Shaggy Pines Dog Park, 3895 Cherry Lane in Ada. This 16-acre park is filled with lush pine trees, rolling hills and wide-open fields — all fenced in. Your dog can dig in the sandpile, swim in the doggy pond or just run wild with other pups. If you want to get in on the action, the park offers a 1-mile jogging/hiking trail. There also is a deck with music and lounge chairs and a coffee bar and lounge area.

After a morning of fun, head into the city and stop at Furniture City Creamery, 958 Cherry St. SE, and share a cone with your furry buddy. Furniture City Creamery churns out ice cream for dogs, as well as humans.

Next, visit Fido and Stitch, 820 Monroe Ave NW, Suite 140, to stock up on some new toys for your pet. You also can treat your pup to a spa day. Fido and Stitch offers grooming that includes baths, nail trimmings, teeth brushing and even nail painting.


4 dog parks where your pet can play

  • Hillcrest Dog Park, 1415 Lyon St. NE
  • Downtown Dog Park GR, 210 Market Ave. SW
  • The Pack Indoor Dog Park, 5205 West River Drive NE, Comstock Park
  • Grand Ravines Dog Park, 3991 Fillmore St., Jenison

This story can be found in the April 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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