Golden Years: Supplements for Senior Pets

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Our best friends grow old too quickly. By age seven, dogs and cats are considered “senior” pets, and just like their human companions, they begin to experence symptoms of aging–joint pain, reduced stamina and range of motion, physical weakness, digestive problems, and confusion or cognitive decline.

A Sensible Diet for Senior Pets

How can we make their lives more comfortable? A sensible starting place is the diet. Aging dogs require higher quality protein than younger dogs, and older cats as well as dogs may have trouble digesting and absorbing nutrients from food.  

Digestive enzymes release micronutrients in food, improving their assimilation. Protease breaks down proteins, lipase digests fat, and amylase processes carbohydrates. Because heat processing destroys the enzymes that occur naturally in food, enzyme supplements can improve digestion in dogs and cats, especially those who eat a commercially prepared diet.

Older Pets & Joint Support

Most dogs and cats slow down physically as they age, and the symptoms of osteoarthritis include limping, having difficulty sitting or standing, sleeping more, hesitating to jump or run or climb stairs, weight gain, decreased interest in play or other activity, and behavioral changes, including increased irritability. 

Some of the most widely prescribed supplements for older pets include glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which help relieve arthritis symptoms. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E may also make a difference.

Because over-the-counter and prescription drugs can have significant side effects for pets, many holistic veterinarians prefer herbal supplements such as boswellia, devil’s claw, ginger, licorice root, or turmeric, all of which have been shown to address the underlying causes of pain and discomfort with few complications. Most pet supply stores and natural food markets carry a variety of products labeled for pet use that contain these and other ingredients for joint pain.   

Prebiotics & Probiotics for Your Pet

During the past decade, much research involving dogs, cats, and humans has focused on the microbiome, an umbrella term used to describe communities of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes in the body. Because a healthy microbiome destroys harmful pathogens, including disease-causing viruses, fungi, bacteria, and parasites, it is the immune system’s first line 
of defense. A healthy microbiome improves digestion, creates some nutrients including vitamins and short-chain fatty acids, and helps regulate the body’s endocrine system. 

Simple ways to improve pets’ microbiomes include feeding them fresh, whole foods, avoiding antibiotics and prescription drugs as much as possible, and supplementing their diets with probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help keep the digestive tract healthy by controlling the growth of harmful bacteria, while prebiotics feed beneficial bacteria. Products labeled for pet use containing one or both are sold as digestive aids, skin and coat conditioners, immune system support, and senior-care supplements. 

Helping Your Elderly Pets to Stay Sharp

Senility in elderly dogs and cats has been a growing concern since laboratory tests developed in the 1990s detected brain changes in dogs similar to those seen in humans with Alzheimer’s disease. Subsequent laboratory tests examined learning and memory deficits in older and younger dogs. Studies of older and younger cats are now under way.  

Several products designed to treat Canine Cognitive Dysfunction—and its feline equivalent—are now available, containing calcium-binding proteins derived from jellyfish, combinations of medicinal herbs and vitamins, and other nutraceuticals. Do they work? The evidence supporting individual products is limited and often weak because few are placebo-controlled, double-blind studies, most studies are sponsored by manufacturers, and the results are not always statistically significant. Anecdotal reports from veterinarians and pet owners suggest that these supplements do help many pets. With help from supplements, an improved diet, and a comfortable exercise routine, your elderly dog or cat can enjoy a long and comfortable old age. 

Sources: 

“Arthritis in senior dogs—signs and treatment” by S. Gibeault, 6/14/18;

“Nutrition and supplement tips for senior dogs” by S. Gibeault, 3/15/17, American Kennel Club, www.akc.com

“Herbs offer safe, effective pain management” by I. Basko,Journal of Innovative Veterinary Care, 6/16/15 

“Nutritional needs of older cats,” www.PetMD.com l

“Senior pet care (FAQ),” American Veterinary Medical Association, AVMA.org, 2018 

“Senior supplements: These neutraceuticals may offer hope for treating Canine Cognitive Dysfunction” by M. Straus, Whole Dog Journal, 11/12

Contributor: 

CJ Puotinen

CJ Puotinen is the author of Natural Relief from Aches and Pains (Keats/McGraw-Hill) and books about holistic pet care, such as The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care (Keats/McGraw-Hill) and Natural Remedies for Dogs and Cats (Gramercy/Random House).