This past week our Mal-n-Collie “Flint” turned 18, and several people asked me a question that we hear fairly often, so I thought I would address it here: what are we doing that is allowing our dogs to consistently exceed, or at least push the upper limits of, the expected lifespan for their breed?
Of course, the answer is that I do not know—we do many things, and without conducting a careful study it is impossible to know which of these things are significantly contributing to our pets’ longevity. But here, in roughly descending order of importance, are the things I believe are most important:
Low stress: this is perhaps the single most important ingredient in keeping your dog young. Nearly every time I spend time around other people and their dogs, I can feel my anxiety climbing—so many unclear rules, so much correcting, nagging, yelling. So many conflicting requirements, or vague paths to success that change depending on circumstance or mood. Be mindful of your dogs stress level. Use good management techniques to avoid stress.
Exercise: not walking on leash, or running for a minute around an agility course, but real exercise. Exercise that gets their heart rate to 80% or more of max for prolonged periods several times each week. Exercise that pushes their muscles nearly to the point of failure repeatedly. Sprinting up sand dunes, swimming hard, pulling weights, tugging for all they are worth, work their hearts and lungs and large muscles and small muscles and…
Weight: study after study has demonstrated that calorie restriction is one of the greatest prolongers of life, health, and comfort. Honestly, I get so frustrated when people say their dogs are fat because they love them too much to feed them less. Grow up and quit feeding your dog too much. Keep them lean and they will live years longer and be more comfortable.
Diet: we feed a very carefully planned natural diet with minimal grains.
Minimal vaccinations: not only are multiple vaccinations implicated in many ailments, but also the adjuvants contained in most vaccinations are detrimental to health. This is not to say that you should not vaccinate, but you should utilize the fewest number of vaccinations that is likely to provide adequate protection in your circumstances.
Minimal toxins: we are very mindful of toxins. We live way out in the woods away from urban poisons, our dogs drink well-water, we use almost no herbicides or other toxins on our property, we almost never put topical flea or tick treatments on our dogs, we feed from inert bowls, we use least-harmful cleaning products and do not let our pets near them.
Diverse Enrichment: have you ever noticed that some people as they age just get bored and lethargic and sit in their comfortable chair waiting to die, while other people are still active and engaged? And the lethargic people generally wither away, while the engaged people stay younger longer… A similar phenomenon seems to occur in animals. I often go over peoples’ homes and their dogs are lying in the same spot, going on the same walk, essentially experiencing the same day over and over and over. Sure, they are still eager to go for a walk or get dinner, but there is very little novelty or excitement. Give your dogs new experiences, new treats, fun games. Give them challenges to overcome and puzzles to solve. Maintaining neural plasticity protects youthfulness.
Joy: being happy is a powerful energizer. Play with your dogs, wrestle with them, have them chase you. Laugh and smile and be happy together.
Temperature/climate: in general it seems that dogs who spend most or all of their time outdoors age more quickly. So I would suggest keeping them inside, particularly when the temperature or weather deviates more than a little bit from ideal.
I genuinely believe that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to life. However, for the most part, pursuit of either results in an increase in both. So give your pets low-stress, healthy, rich, and happy lives, and they will live the longest they can…