We have a wonderful population of geriatric dogs, in part due to the work of so many wonderful people: owners, retailers, veterinarians and scientists who have gone above and beyond to provide the best care for our beloved pets. Our pets are living longer than ever seen before.

              With this aging population of pets, we are seeing an increase in the demand for geriatric care, as well as the development of diets and supplements to support vibrant aging. From cognitive support to joint health, there are so many ways to help older pets live a quality of life that matches the quantity of years.


Signs of aging

     First, let’s assess if your pet is reaching the age where he or she needs support. Aging can be seen in the dog’s or cat’s body as greyness to the eyes and muzzle; stiffness in movement; lack of endurance; and overall decreased plasticity of tissues.

     In addition, cognitive function begins to decline in their later years. This can be seen as forgetfulness; inappropriate vocalization; disruption of wake/sleep cycles or rhythms, especially difficulty sleeping; increased anxiety; phobias and fears; increased aggression; hearing loss; and disorientation to name a few.

     For example, does your older pet “get stuck in the corners” and can’t seem to figure his way out?

  This decline occurs at varying ages, so implementing changes to their environment and diet to support healthy aging depends on the size and lifespan of the pet.

     Large-breed dogs age quickly and have a shorter life span, so a 6-year-old Great Dane can be considered as entering his elder years.

     A small dog or cat can easily live into their late teens, or even into their early twenties in today’s environment, so small dogs and cats can be seen as entering their geriatric years in their mid-teens.


Understanding cognitive function

     The gradual decline of cognitive functions in the older dog is called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. CDS is described as a progressive neurodegenerative disorder of senior dogs characterized by a gradual decline in cognitive function (learning, memory, perception and awareness).

     The gradual decline in brain function can be attributed to a decrease in the normal antioxidant production within the body and changes in endogenous neurochemicals in the brain.

     Antioxidants are a critical component to health. As metabolism occurs within the body, free radicals are produced via oxidation. The free radicals are unstable, erosive particles that damage cells with which they come in contact.

     Antioxidants can either be produced within the body or consumed in healthy foods. They are chemicals in food that sweep the nasty free radicals out of the body, essentially neutralizing them. When there is a decrease in the normal production of antioxidants, the antioxidants attained through pet food is even more important.

     The brain, no matter the species, is highly susceptible to free, radical, oxidative stress. It is highly oxygenated and is an iron-lipid rich environment. Being called a “fat head” is not too far from truth, thank you.

     Fats or lipids are highly sensitive to oxidation, similar to the development of rancidity in fat-rich foods.

    CDS and Alzheimer’s disease in humans share some of the same parallels, including amyloid plagues and neurofibrillary tangles within the neurons and the gradual deterioration of nervous tissue.


Supplementing the Older Dog

    Fortunately, some fabulous research has shown the benefits of supplementing the aging pet with nutrients that help to support a healthy, aging brain.

    The most obvious is the need for dietary antioxidants such as vitamin E. Dietary antioxidants are found to be highly concentrated in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, such as broccoli, blueberries and pomegranates.

    In this day where “dog food” is commercially prepared, shelf-stable kibble, the levels of antioxidants are small. Adding fruits, vegetables or “super foods” to the aging carnivore’s diet can help boost brain health.

    Other nutrients that have also been shown to support brain health include mitochondrial cofactors such as L-carnitine and alpha lipoic acid. These substances function as both antioxidants and mitochondrial (powerhouse of the cell) function enhancers.

    Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), such as valine, leucine and isoleucine, also affect the brain neurotransmitters. The brain is similar to a large fat-filled vat of electrical connections and chemicals called neurotransmitters that make the connections happen.

    The most common neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin levels initially increase with age and affect movement and memory, whereas dopamine is the “feel good” chemical associated with rewards.

     BCAAs compete with a chemical called tryptophan. Tryptophan increases serotonin levels in the brain. Remember, in older animals, the brain’s serotonin levels are already too high, so when BCAAs competes with tryptophan for entry into the brain, the tryptophan and serotonin levels essentially go down and cognitive function increases.

    Two other orally administered components for brain health include the herb, ginkgo biloba and the omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

     Ginkgo inhibits an enzyme system that allows dopamine, the reward neurochemical, to increase. Yay! It also has antioxidant activity.

     DHA is one of the basic building blocks of the brain and is considered critical for optimal brain health and cognitive function in all ages. As an omega-3 source for carnivores, DHA needs to come from fish, krill or some seaweed.


Exercising the brain

     Last, but still important, is the old adage “use it or lose it.” This holds true for our physical body, as well as for cognitive health. Keeping old dogs engaged and involved with life will work the brain and preserve cognitive function. Can you teach old dogs new tricks? Absolutely! And you should.

     Caring for our older pets is a gift. Oral supplementation of antioxidants, L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, branched-chained amino acids, ginkgo biloba and DHA can provide the basic building blocks to support healthy aging. And don’t forget, teaching old dogs new tricks can exercise the well-fed mind.


Written by: Chris Bessent., D.V.M., CEO Herbsmith