Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Health and the Senior Dog – Tips from veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward

We recently had the opportunity to interview veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, a pioneer in senior animal health, about the special nutritional and health needs of older pets.  Dr. Ward and Iams teamed up to educate pet parents how best to keep four legged companions healthy, active and playful throughout their lifetime.  Iams recently introduced Senior Plus diets to specifically address the unique needs of pets age 11 and older.
Dr. Ernie Ward
If you’re wondering if you need to take any special steps to care for your senior pet, you’re not alone. Just like humans, the pet population is living longer. In fact, 11 percent of pets in the U.S., approximately 33 million, are 11 years or older.

Veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, a regular contributor on the Rachael Ray show and author of the book Chow Houndssays that antioxidants and nutrients like L-Carnitine, Glucosamine and Chondroitin are important for maintaining health in senior pets.

“L-Carnitine helps maintain lean muscle mass and that’s critical because as we age and as our pets age we lose muscle mass each year,” said Dr. Ward. “I’ve personally been taking L-Carnitine since I turned 35 because humans lose about a percent of muscle mass a year. “

Ward also explained that antioxidants are important as pets age to help combat oxidative stress or free radical damage to cells.  “This is one of the big causes of aging and organ failure or other diseases,” said Dr. Ward.

“For older dogs, Omega-3s are really important for combating aging changes, and they are going to help fight inflammation and oxidative stress. Glucosamine and Chondroitin will help with maintaining healthy joints.”

What about supplements for senior pets?

Dr. Ward, who partnered with Iams on the announcement of its new Senior Plus formula, says that with the new formulation, Iams boosted all the essential nutrients to levels that would help with the vast majority of senior pets.

“But if a dog has arthritis or a cat has inflammatory bowel disease or other conditions, then you may want to talk to your vet about adding other nutritional supplements."

High protein diets vs. kidney disease

As dogs and cats age their ability to digest proteins decreases, so it’s very important to have a good protein source, explained Dr. Ward.

So what about high protein diets? Can they contribute to kidney disease?

“There’s no correlation between high protein diets and kidney disease,” said Dr. Ward. “That’s a myth that was perpetrated about 40 years ago. Delmar Finco did the first research on the topic and then he completely reversed his opinion about 10 years later. The reality is, as pets age they need higher protein levels. There’s absolutely no corollary or relationship with kidney disease.

“Now having said that, if your dog or cat already has kidney failure it depends on what degree. We have a system where we actually grade or assess kidney disease stages called the IRIS staging system. Depending on the stage, we might restrict phosphorous or sodium.”

Immunizations for older dogs

Dr. Ward says he’s been an advocate for extended duration vaccines for more than a decade.  “The general consensus is that all dogs and cats should be vaccinated as infrequently as possible with as few antigens as permissible. So for most of us that’s going to be on about an every three-year schedule.  There’s not as much debate about is as there was about 10 years ago when people like me were first speaking out.”

Is there any age when you shouldn’t immunize them?

“It’s all based on individual risk assessment, and that’s a conversation to have with each individual veterinarian. I think where people stray is that they try to make broad blanket recommendations for all dogs or all cats,” said Dr. Ward. “It’s based on lifestyle, geography, if you travel…  all those sort of things. “

Keeping chompers healthy

Periodontal disease is a very serious condition affecting about 80 percent of all dogs and cats. Good food, brushing, oral rinses and chews can all help maintain healthy teeth and gums.

“The cool thing about the Iams formulation is they got it right many years ago when they developed a unique coating on their food that reduces tartar by about 50 percent, so it’s pretty remarkable stuff.  In short though, these diets can help, but you still need to make sure you are brushing if you can, “said Dr. Ward.  Talk to your veterinarian and especially make sure you have senior pets examined.  You vet should tell you if your pet needs a professional cleaning. “

The bottom line on senior pet health

Eat right, get plenty of exercise, take care of your oral health and get regular checkups. If it sounds familiar it should. Good healthy practices for pets and their humans aren’t vastly different.

One final tip from Dr. Ward… In April, Iams is hosting some fun contests with fabulous prizes on its Iams Facebook page.

So go grab a healthy snack, go for a walk or play some games with your pets! Then check out the Iams Facebook page for  more fun and games next month!


  1. I agree with the bottomline on senior pet health. It's all about ensuring that regular checkups is maintained vis a vis a healthy diet. I am going to share this information as well with the other patients here in my dentist las vegas clinic.