In the last few years Ive read quite a bit about senior dogs and these are the ten things I think are the most important for insuring your dog enjoys their golden years (please remember I'm no expert, just mom to some great older dogs and cats.)
1) A quality diet: Of course this is important for every age but older dogs and cats in particular need quality nutrition. Many of the popular senior diets are actually not ideal for pets, for example they reduce the protein, when in actuality older dogs and cats need even more protein then their younger counterparts. I believe every dog owner should have a subscription: Whole Dog Journal if only to read their yearly dog food review. I personally will only feed foods they recommend to my dogs and casts. Among the kibbles they recommend are Natures Variety, Blue Buffalo, Merrick, Canidae, and Wellness. They also recommend several varieties of premade raw (Natures Variety, Stella and Chewys) and freeze dried foods such as the Honest Kitchen. I feed my little guys (Tubby, Ping, and Zira) Natures Variety Raw or Honest Kitchen. Unfortunately both of those foods are cost prohibitive for my big guys and so I feed them a rotation diet of quality grain free kibbles (Wellness, Canidae, Natures Variety, etc). The kitties also eat a rotation diet of quality kibbles.
2) Add some love to the food with fresh additions: I know this really connect with number 1, but since most pet parents feed kibble (as I do with my big guys) I think its important. You can cook up some doggie stews with fresh meats and veggies or if you are pressed for time you can add canned sardines in water, yogurt, or a lightly cooked egg. Or you can make a very simple stir fry.
The one pictured above is made with ground turkey, summer squash, and blueberries (blueberries are an excellent source of antioxidants.) By adding fresh foods to the kibble you make it healthier and more appetizing and you don't have to take as much care to balance the diet as you would with an entirely home made diet. Of course if you are not the cooking type you can also add some raw meat to your dogs diet, there are lots of good internet resources like this article from Dog aware about feeding your dog raw.
3) Supplements: I am a big believer in supplements to the point that I have to work really hard to stop myself from buying every doggie tonic on the market. However, I still give quite a few supplements and I also try to rotate the supplements, just as I rotate the kibbles. These days my seniors are taking Dr Harvey's Golden Years. All of the dogs get fish oil every day, I use salmon oil from Olive Green Dog because it comes in a large cost effective size. Everyone also get glucosamine, I buy Glycoflex 3 from amazon.com. Other supplements I give the dogs include milk thistle for the liver, curcumin for antioxidant properties, and hawthorne berry powder for the heart. I get these herbs from mountain rose herbs which is cheaper then many other sources. I also give Bob Barley Dog a green foods supplement since he is a grass eating addict and Dr. Zira gets Vetri Science renal essentials since she has early stage kidney disease.
4.) Regular vet visits-every 6 months. All my dogs and cats over 7 go to the vet every 6 months for complete blood work and a thorough physical exam. I think this helps catch anything early, caught early many life threatening disease are treatable.
5) Specialist vets. You wouldn't go to a general practitioner if you had a specific health problem, and neither should your dog. Veterinary medicine has exploded in recent years and there are specialists for everything. They may not be cheap but their expert knowledge is well worth it.
6) Exercise. I admit it I can be a bit of a sloth. When I picture the perfect dog human relationship I don't see myself jogging down the street with my canine companion, I see myself curled up on the couch with them reading a book or watching TV. That's not to say I don't love walking my dogs, I do. I really believe all dogs need some exercise even if its just a walk around the park, no matter what the age. Exercise is just as important for mental stimulation as it is for physical health. People who exercise regularly have a lower incidence of Alzheimer's and it stands to reason that active senior dogs will have a lower incidence of canine cognitive disorder. Even if a dog is too old to walk you can put them in a stroller--here is a picture of the late sweet Bingo out in his stroller in Hoboken.
Planet dog makes a line of toys just for older dogs called old souls with contrasting colors to help older dogs see them. I have not tried these toys out myself yet, thankfully all my older guys seem to see just fine, but I bet my older guys might be getting them soon.
8.) Read a good book about dogs getting older: Well this is for the pet parent not the dog, but you could try reading to your dog for some nice one on one time. My two favorite books about older dogs are the photography book Old Dogs are The Best Dogs
and the memoir Dog Years by the poet Mark Doty. The first book is wonderful for its beautiful photographs of greying canine faces and the little blurbs that accompany them telling you all about the dogs fascinating lives. The second book is my favorite and is a memoir not just about older dogs and loss, but about life and loss in general. In the book Mark Doty writes about losing his partner to aids, and how his dogs Beau and Arden help him deal with the enormity of that loss. He then writes about his life with the dogs and his new partner, Paul. Since he is a poet his writing is particularly beautiful. Much of the book deals with his dogs aging and passing and I found it particularly moving, but not overly sentimental. Reading the book really helped me understand my own older dogs and feel better about their aging.
9.) Inspiration: Check out these gorgeous photos by artist Nancy Levine from her photo project Senior Dogs Across America. Many of the dogs are in their late teens, one is 21! Or read this wonderful story from Bark magazine about Muttville a California based senior dog rescue group celebrating the adoption of their 1,000 dog.
10.) Appreciation: This is the most important tip of course. Don't forget to cherish every single day with your dog.