by Gregory Tilford
The sun has barely risen over the eastern horizon on a cold Montana morning, when a warm lick on the face awakens me from a dead sleep. I sit up slowly, my back aching from the yard work I did nearly a week ago. A whispered curse leaves my lips as a new shot of pain – from an old ankle injury – tells me that the skies are threatening to rain; it’s time to get busy stacking firewood before the first snow flies.
Another lick, this one a reminder, moistens my forearm. Willow, my 12-year-old Shepherd/Husky, wants to take an early morning walk on the mountain behind our house, which will be followed by her customary morning cookie.
In years past, Willow and I would hike far and wide. I’m always looking for herbs to photograph and study, and Willow always enjoyed our far-flung rambles.
Of course, at 12, Willow is a senior dog. Her joints are stiff and sore after an overlong walk. Her right leg wobbles after exercise, due to an old ligament injury. Petting her soft, graying snout, I tell Willow how aging really sucks.
At least for humans.
For humans, old age is as much a mindset as it is a physical circumstance. But to a dog, the thought of “yielding to the wheels of time” never occurs. Willow isn’t concerned about growing old. She doesn’t worry about her wobbly leg. She doesn’t even care about the egg-sized fatty tumor on her flank; she just wants to enjoy every waking moment with me – regardless of my moaning and groaning!
As a loving caregiver with a responsibility to provide Willow with the longest, happiest “dog’s life” possible, I must be careful not to let my worries of losing her interfere with her fun. That just wouldn’t be fair.
So instead of focusing all of my efforts on sheltering her from all possible harm, I try to provide her mind and body with everything they need to remain healthy, efficient, and fulfilled.
Although we cannot turn back the hands of time and may not be able to prevent the inevitable, a great deal can be done to assure optimum health and well-being during a dog’s later years of life.
Old age should not be viewed as a downhill slide to inevitable suffering and death. Nor should chronic disease be perceived as part of growing old. Each year hundreds of elderly dogs are put to sleep prematurely – not because they are deathly ill, but because their guardians can’t get past their own fears of watching their companions grow old and die a natural death. Granted, it’s difficult to live in anticipation of a companion’s death, but with all things considered, this is really our problem, not theirs.
The fact that an animal is growing old and becoming more susceptible to illness does not automatically predispose him to chronic disease – it just means that he needs some added care and attention. With your loving support, your old best friend can enjoy life right up to his last day.
The senior diet
Each month of nutritional deficiency can trim healthy years from the latter end of your dog’s life.
Please think about that last sentence for a few more seconds, and then get to work at improving her diet, because many chronic problems seen in elderly dogs are very often related to nutritional deficiencies.
Regardless of how good the food is you are feeding, the fact remains that as your dog’s body ages, its functional abilities to utilize food and properly eliminate waste will begin to decline. Liver problems, chronic renal failure, diabetes, arthritis, and hip dysplasia, as well as neurological problems (such as canine cognitive dysfunction) are just a few of the problems that may be prevented by not only improving the quality of her diet, but also the efficiency by which your dog’s body can utilize it.
Diet should be frequently reevaluated and adjusted as needed to accommodate any reduction in digestive efficiency. The food must be highly digestible and rich with vitamins, chelated minerals, meat proteins, and fats that are easy for her aging body to assimilate.
Depending on your senior companion’s condition and lifestyle, a vitamin/mineral supplement may be needed. Digestive enzymes and probiotic (beneficial bacteria) supplements should be added to each meal to optimize nutrient absorption and assist with the breakdown and elimination of waste.
A good essential fatty acid supplement should be added to the diet as well. This will help support and protect the liver and immune system, while aiding in the production and maintenance of healthy skin, coat, bones, muscles, and nervous system.
To find out exactly which foods and supplements are best for your “chronologically challenged” companion, talk to your holistic veterinarian.
In older animals, herbs are especially useful for providing added support to body systems that have become less efficient over time.
Digestion and waste elimination can be improved with the use of mild liver stimulants, such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) or burdock root (Arctium lappa). This will help with the removal of solid wastes from the body, while increasing the production of bile and digestive enzymes.
Marshmallow root (Althea off.), fed fresh, dried, or in any form of low-alcohol liquid, can be used to aid in the passage of stool by providing a protective, anti-inflammatory, and lubricating barrier to the intestinal mucosa. Flaxseed or psyllium husks will work in a similar manner as well.
Spirulina, dried nettle leaf (Urtica spp.), wheatgrass, or other “green foods” can be mixed with your dog’s food to provide added measures of trace minerals and antioxidant protection, while astragalus root or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosis) may be useful for strengthening the immune system and your companion’s resistance to physical or emotional stress.
The kidneys have a difficult life, too, and over time they may become scarred and dysfunctional from repetitive infections, stones, and other damaging influences that may or may not have been detectable earlier.
To increase urinary efficiency and help strengthen mucous membranes in the urinary tract, dandelion leaf, nettle, cleavers (Gallium aparine), or parsley leaf tea can be added to your dog’s drinking water. Add just enough to noticeably tint the water; this will also provide alterative qualities that the animal’s body can selectively utilize for the purpose of eliminating waste and maintaining clean, well-nourished blood. This can be done every day, for the remainder of your companion’s life.
If your dog displays early symptoms of renal failure, twice daily doses of ginkgo and hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha) will help improve blood circulation and may help reduce blood pressure in the kidneys, while cornsilk (Zea mays), marshmallow, or plantain leaf (Plantago spp.) will help reduce inflammation.
Oat tops (Avena sativum) serve as an excellent nervous system tonic that can be fed on a daily basis to help improve and regulate nerve transmission. In dogs who display diminished mental clarity or odd behavior that is attributable to brain dysfunction (e.g., cognitive dysfunction in canines), blood circulation and neurological functions of the brain can be assisted and sometimes improved with the use of ginkgo, gotu kola, or peppermint. In certain cases, St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.) may be useful as well, but this determination should be left to a holistic veterinarian who is familiar with your animal.
Aches, pains, and loss of mobility as a result of joint and connective tissue degeneration may be relieved with supplements of glucosamine and/or chondroitin sulfate, horsetail, or yucca root. In cases of arthritis flare-ups, licorice (Glycyrrhizza glabra), or Boswellia may bring symptomatic relief.
Cardiovascular efficiency can be supported with daily supplementation of hawthorn berry extract. If circulatory impairment is evident in the legs, ears, or tail, then tincture of ginkgo or encapsulated preparations of yarrow (Achillea milli-folium) or cayenne may be of assistance.
All of the herbs and supplements in this article are readily available at health food stores, and many can be accessed in products that are specifically formulated for use in dogs. To determine which herbs are appropriate for your companion, consult a holistic practitioner who specializes in veterinary botanical medicine.
Most important of all, don’t give up on your old friend. With a little loving help, your companion’s senior years can be as rich with fun and adventure as puppyhood was. The pace will just be slower. In my dog’s case, especially for her caregiver!
-Greg Tilford serves as a consultant and formulator to hundreds of holistic veterinarians throughout the world, and is CEO of Animal’s Apawthecary, a company that develops herbal products specifically for use in animals. Tilford is also author of four books on herbal medicine, including All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets, (Bowtie, 1999).