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6 Tips To Help Your Pets Live Longer, From A Vet

Karen Shaw Becker, DVM
Veterinarian By Karen Shaw Becker, DVM
Veterinarian
Karen Shaw Becker, DVM is a veterinarian. She is certified in animal acupuncture, homeopathy and rehabilitation (physical therapy for pets).
I'm A Veterinarian: These 6 Tips Can Help Your Pets Live Longer

The number of pet parents has exploded in the past couple of years, as people turned to furry four-legged friends to help with stress, anxiousness, and uncertainty. For many dog owners, pets provide companionship on long walks, plus unwavering comfort and cuddles—a distraction from the bad news, and a beacon of hope for tomorrow.

It's also true that owning a dog has been shown to support the longevity of humans. A growing body of evidence links dogs to good health, and not just for the obvious reasons (i.e., lowering our general stress levels and feelings of loneliness). Studies suggest dogs can keep their owners active, encourage social engagement, and force human companions to be outdoors in nature. One meta-analysis published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality & Outcomes, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Heart Association, revealed that dog ownership is associated with longevity.

In 2014, Scottish scientists calculated that owning a dog, particularly later in your life, can make you act and feel younger. We've also learned that dogs may help support children's immune systems and soothe the stressors of adolescence.

So the question becomes: How do we parent our pets to live as long as possible in a healthy state? How do we support a "forever dog" that ultimately helps us come through recent events more easily? Here are my six tips, which will travel up the leash to support your health and sanity, too:

1. Get their cardio in.

Your dog needs to bust a move daily—just like you! Dogs are athletes, yet we trap them in our homes for the majority of their lives. Being cooped up and bored fosters anxiousness in animals (and the No. 1 reason dogs go back to the shelter is behavior problems!). Put simply, the more dogs move, the calmer they'll be. When taking them out, try to avoid concrete, as exposure to nature's soil and grasses is ideal for pets.

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2. Provide daily sensory experiences.

Outdoor emotional excursions that feed the brain (aka "sniffaris") nourish a dog's cognitive well-being. Yes, cardio is super important for muscle tone, immune support, and easing stress, but at least once a day concede to a walk solely for mental benefits.

Everyone deserves to relax and take in their environment for sheer enjoyment—even your pets! That means no leash yanking for at least 10 minutes a day.

3. Feed them nutritious food.

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We can't expect our dogs to have sharp cognition without nourishing their brains. Yet, what do we feed our dogs? Pellets, cooked multiple times at high temperatures, which eliminates important nutrients in the food. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, dogs don't have a carbohydrate requirement, yet the average bag of pet food is often more than 50% carbs (that qualifies as being on par with fast food).

Sure, a lifetime of fast food is convenient, but it's probably not the recipe for long-term mental or physical well-being. Can you imagine eating the same processed fare every single day? Instead, swap out commercially made grocery store treats for fresh blueberries or raw carrot slices, and you'll replace empty calories with whole food nutrients.

Feeding your dog a nutritious diet will incrementally boost their gut health and, per the gut-brain connection, may also support better mood and behavior.

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4. Socialize & train them.

Dogs are social creatures, so one of the best things you can do for their emotional well-being is to cultivate a rich social life for them. Identify a handful of dogs your pooch really likes, and then make it a point to have play dates throughout their life.

Dogs need lots of regular opportunities to be dogs—to sprint at full speed, dig in dirt, roll around on the ground, play, tug, gnaw, bark, chase, etc., and you get to provide them these opportunities.

Warning: If dogs don't gain key life experiences between approximately four and 14 weeks of age in a safe and positive manner, they can be challenged for the rest of their lives, socially and emotionally. If your puppy missed this key step, or you're seeing unwanted behaviors, address them ASAP with the help of a vet behaviorist or fear-free trainer.

5. Make sure they're getting sleep.

In studies on canine sleep, researchers found that dogs, like humans, experience short bursts of electrical activity (sleep spindles) during non-REM sleep. The frequency of sleep spindles has also been linked to how well dogs retain information they learned immediately before the naps. This mirrors studies in humans, where quality sleep is linked to how well we remember newly learned information.

Sleep spindles help shield the brain from outside, distracting information. They're how we, and our dogs, consolidate our memories. Dogs with more frequent sleep spindles during a snooze session are shown to be better learners than dogs with less frequent sleep spindles. To facilitate better sleep, help create a dark, quiet environment for your tired pup.

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6. Observe and listen to them.

Most importantly: Observe and listen to your dog. Pay close attention to everything, including their body, body language, and behavior. Get to know your dog as well as you know your other kids, your spouse, or your best friend. Learn to know when your dog is uneasy, their favorite time and way to play, where and how they like being pet, what they enjoy doing, what foods they really like, etc.

When you make it a point to make your dog your best friend, or at least a valued member of your family, you'll become a better guardian (and dramatically improve the quality of your dog's life and your relationship). These tips can help both you and your dog live as long and robustly as possible.

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