HarperCollins Canada / Rodney Habib
Dog lovers know that there is nothing like the joy that a four-legged companion brings into your life, especially during stressful times. Our pets may be our best friends – but do we know how to make sure their lives are as long, healthy and happy as possible?
Not always, says Karen Shaw Becker, a veterinarian in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Dogs die prematurely from more chronic diseases 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, co-authored with animal activist Rodney Habib. Becker, who is also the co-author of the popular cookbook Dr. Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs & Cats is a proponent of a proactive approach to veterinary care that helps people create healthy lifestyles for their animals that can prevent disease rather than simply treating problems when they arise.
While practices like irresponsible breeding can lead to genetic problems that we cannot avoid, Becker explains, our daily choices as pet owners play a huge role in shaping the health and happiness of our dog. Her “biggest goal in life,” she says, “is for my customers to tell me [when their pets pass away], ‘Yes, my heart is broken, but I did my best.’ We want to be able to do everything so that we can look back on the time with our dogs without regrets. “
The Forever Dog provides a street map for people to do just that. It delves deep into the science of dog health, exploring the latest research and expert-backed advice on diet, exercise, stress, and more. (Tip: What is good for dogs – for example, eating homemade instead of processed food – is often also good for dog people.)
AARP asked Becker about the human-dog connection and the keys to dog longevity.
Her focus is on how we can improve the health of our dogs. But the book also mentions that dogs increase human well-being. How come?
Health goes high on a leash. Humans don’t necessarily like to exercise, we don’t like to move our bodies – there are many things we don’t want to do for ourselves that we do for our dogs. The healthy strategies we choose for our dogs can ultimately better influence and influence our own bodies because we move more, we are more outside. Owning a dog can also help us mentally and emotionally. We get fresh air, we get some sun, we interact with people. And pretty amazing research shows that petting dogs helps lower human cortisol levels. Just being around dogs can lower our heart rate and blood pressure. So there are positive physical changes that occur when we look at dogs and when we pet dogs and play with dogs. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
As with humans, diet is an important part of dog health. What is missing from the traditional approach to dog nutrition and how can people improve their dog’s diet?
Every doctor in the world has said we should reduce our intake of highly refined, highly processed foods and eat more fresh, real foods. Except for vets. Veterinarians remain the last group of health professionals to still offer outdated information, saying that you should only feed your dog highly processed foods for its entire life.
Let’s say you are feeding croquettes. You can switch to a less processed food category. If you are feeding extruded food, you can switch to a dehydrated or freeze-dried food. That will provide better quality nutrients. If you decide not to change the food categories to minimally processed foods, you can add fresher foods. You can share bananas, blueberries, broccoli, asparagus, and okra from your fridge along with carrots, apples, and celery. You can cut a mini carrot into six small workout snacks! Tiny slivers of fresh, whole, live food are fantastic for reducing the amount of processed treats you give your dog. The only foods that you can’t and shouldn’t share with your dog are onions, grapes, raisins, chocolate, and macadamia nuts.
You write that “all dogs are naturally athletes”. How much exercise should you get every day?
In general, healthy dogs require at least 20 minutes of rigorous, heartbreaking training every day. But 40 minutes is better than 20 minutes and an hour is optimal in my opinion. If you can spend an hour between sprinting, walking, running and sniffing, this is a very good, well-rounded protocol to take into account all of your dog’s senses, but also all of his or her biological needs, about his muscles, tendons, ligaments and cardiovascular system to move system in a way that allows permanent and continuous health.