Dog lovers know there’s nothing quite like the joy a four-legged companion brings to your life, especially during times of stress. Our pets may be our best friends — but do we know how to make sure their lives are as long, healthy and happy as can be?
Not always, says Karen Shaw Becker, a veterinarian in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Dogs are dying prematurely of more chronic disease than ever before,” she writes in her new book The Forever Dog: Surprising New Science to Help Your Canine Companion Live Younger, Healthier and Longer, coauthored with animal activist Rodney Habib. Becker, who also coauthored a popular cookbook, Dr. Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs & Cats, is a proponent of a proactive approach to veterinary care — helping people create the kind of healthy lifestyles for their animals that can prevent disease, rather than simply treating problems as they arise.
While practices like irresponsible breeding can lead to genetic problems we can’t avoid, Becker explains, our everyday choices as pet owners play a huge role in shaping our dog’s health and happiness. Her “biggest goal in life,” she says, “is for my clients to say to me [when their pets pass away], ‘Yes, my heart is broken, but I did the best I could.’ We want to be able to do everything we can, so we can look back on our time with our dogs without dealing with regret.”
The Forever Dog provides a road map for people to do just that. It dives deep into the science of canine health, exploring the latest research and expert-backed advice when it comes to diet, exercise, stress and more. (Hint: What’s good for dogs — eating homemade rather than processed food, for instance — is often good for dogs’ people as well.)
AARP asked Becker about the human–dog connection and the keys to canine longevity.
Your focus is on how we can improve our dogs’ health. But the book also mentions that dogs boost human well-being. How so?
Health travels up the leash. Humans don’t necessarily like to exercise, we don’t like to move our bodies — there are a lot of things we don’t want to do for ourselves that we’ll do for our dogs. The healthy strategies that we choose for our dogs can ultimately better impact and influence our own bodies because we’re moving more, we’re outside more. Owning a dog can also help us mentally and emotionally. We’re getting fresh air, we’re getting some sun, we’re interacting with people. And pretty amazing research shows that petting dogs helps reduce human cortisol levels. Just being around dogs can lower our heart rate and our blood pressure. So there are positive physical changes that occur when we look at dogs and when we pet dogs and when we play with dogs. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
As with humans, diet is an important part of dog health. What’s lacking in the conventional approach to canine nutrition, and what are some ways people can improve their dog’s diet?
Every doctor on the planet has said we should reduce our intake of highly refined, ultra-processed foods and eat more fresh, real foods. Except veterinarians. Veterinarians remain the last group of health care professionals that still offer out-of-date information and say to only feed your dog ultra-processed food his whole life.
Let’s say that right now you’re feeding kibble. You can switch to a less processed food category. If you’re feeding extruded food, you could move to a dehydrated food or a freeze-dried food. That’s going to provide better quality nutrients. If you decide that you’re not going to change food categories to a minimally processed food, then you can add in fresher foods. You can share bananas, blueberries, broccoli, asparagus and okra from your fridge, along with carrots, apples and celery. You can slice up one mini-carrot into six little training treats! Tiny slivers of fresh, whole, living foods are fantastic at helping to decrease the amount of processed treats you’re giving your dog. The only foods you can’t and shouldn’t share with your dog are onions, grapes, raisins, chocolate and macadamia nuts.
You write that “all dogs are natural-born athletes.” How much exercise should they be getting each day?
Generally speaking, healthy dogs need a minimum of 20 minutes of rigorous, heart-thumping daily exercise. But 40 minutes is better than 20 minutes, and an hour is optimal in my opinion. If you can spend an hour divided between sprinting, walking, running and sniffing, that is a very good, well-rounded protocol to incorporate all of your dog’s senses but also all of his biological needs to move his muscles, tendons, ligaments and cardiovascular system in a way that allows for perpetual and continued health.
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So often we focus on our dogs’ physical health, but you also underscore the importance of mental well-being.
Most of us don’t think about how much emotional and mental stress our dogs are under. Yet the rate of anxiety diagnosed in dogs is about equal to that of humans, and up to 80 percent of dogs worldwide have some aspect of an anxiety-based behavior. The oldest dogs [that we wrote about] had lower-stress lifestyles. They were able to spend a lot of time outside and they had more easygoing personalities. Their owners cultivated an environment of learning and discovery and play. How often do we think about letting dogs get in the mud or dig a hole or roll around in the dirt? That plays into their mental and emotional well-being.
Besides hole-digging and mud-bathing, what are some ways people can help enrich their dogs’ lives?
It’s a little bit like raising kids: We want to find activities that our dogs are interested in, [whether that’s] frisbee or agility training or swimming or hiking. One of the other ways we can decrease stress is to offer our dogs more choices. Just taking them outside and allowing them to sniff and choose where they want to go is a really great way to decrease your dog’s stress. Keeping our dogs mentally stimulated is another big part. Just as humans need to keep their brains active, we want to help engage and stimulate our dogs’ cognitive well-being. So brain games are a great suggestion. There’s all sorts of interactive games that we can play with our dogs that allow them to use their brains. And creating opportunities for your dog to be social, interact with other dogs, spend time outside is a really important way to cultivate environmental enrichment.
Do you have any tips for older adults who can’t be physically active alongside their dogs?
You could take advantage of great doggy day cares. You drop your dog off, and your dog gets to be socialized with other dogs. They get to smell and move their bodies and lick and play and tug and do all the things that dogs need to do. Dog walkers can also pick up your dog at your home, do the rigorous exercise for you and then drop your dog back off. Last but not least, you may have friends, family, nieces, nephews or grandkids who might be able to help. You could create a schedule where once or twice a week, your dog is going to doggy day care, and once or twice a week, you have friends or family walk your dog.
What is the bottom-line message you’d like to get across to all the dog lovers out there?
A dog’s physical and emotional well-being is based on the choices that we make for them, and we as guardians and owners are making decisions every day that positively and potentially negatively — dramatically — impact their health. If you have the information that you need to make better choices, you can do so much to help your dog live a longer, more vibrant life.
Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.