Geriatric Years Done Right: How I’ve Gotten Multiple Dogs to Live Healthy, Active Lives Past 16 Years

Key Points

  • Facing an incurable illness causes reflection on what to do better to increase our dog's life span.

  • Healthspan is not just the length of time that someone is alive but also healthy.

  • A fresh, minimally processed diet combined with controlled weight and more movement often leads to a longer healthspan for dogs.

  • This editorial provides additional pearls that are successful in providing healthy longevity to multiple dogs.

There has been a time in the recent past I have been desperate to keep a beloved dog that has been diagnosed with a terminal disease alive and healthy. You may relate to that horrible feeling of desperation and helplessness in the face of the impending doom of an incurable illness.

Sharing our lives with pets inevitably includes loss. What if there were a way, a formula even, to help our dogs live as long as possible while being healthy and active?

I'll share what is working and has previously worked for me in the pursuit of long-lived, mobile, and healthy dogs past 16 years of age.

As reported by the University of Adelaide Newsroom in May 2023, cancer is the leading cause of death among dogs. Obesity is a close second followed by organ malfunction, autoimmune system disease, and diabetes. What then is the magical panacea to providing dogs with long life?

Unfortunately, there is none. If there were, it would surely include a fresh, whole-food, minimally processed diet combined with controlled weight and more movement more often.

There are a few additional pearls to share that I offer my dogs regularly that I believe aid their ability to live full enjoyable lifetimes.

close up of a senior dog


We all want our dogs to live long, but also healthy, lives. The length of time someone is healthy — not just alive — is their "healthspan."

The first step in the formula to increase healthspan for our dogs is a fresh, minimally or non-processed diet. I feed my dogs a gently processed raw diet that includes ground raw bones and eggshells, reliably-sourced human food-grade meat, green tripe, and seafood including green-lipped mussels and organic kelp.

Their daily meals are topped with pumpkin for antioxidants and to aid digestion, a rotation of raw mushroom varieties known to decrease cancer risk and stimulate a healthy gut microbiome, fresh blueberries to fight the effects of oxidative stress, wild salmon oil to support eye and brain health and fight inflammation, and ground turmeric for decreasing joint pain and its anti-inflammatory properties.

With every meal I also provide a commercially prepared supplement that includes collagen, glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), omega 3 fatty acids, fructo- and mannan-oligosaccharides, yeast, chondroitin, yucca extract, devil's claw extract, pancrelipase, vitamins C and E, hyaluronic acid, resveratrol, biotin, and two different strains of probiotics.

A very wise veterinarian friend once told me the best thing to do for your old dog is to take great care of them while they're young. Starting joint supplementation early in life prevents and repairs nano-tears and tiny breakdowns that occur in active dogs, even when (maybe especially when) they are still young and rambunctious.

Staying Active

Staying active in the golden years is vital, and it begins while your dog is still young. One of the very best activities for your dog is regular and frequent "sniffaris."

A sniffari is a walk where you allow your dog to follow their nose wherever they choose, letting them sniff as much as possible in different environments. The sniffari allows your dog's nose to lead them where they want to go.

There are so many forms of exercising and playing together with dogs, the choices are almost limitless. If I had to choose just one best way to exercise my dog, the glorious sniffari is it.

Exercise is critical in maintaining brain function. As with humans, exercising helps dogs think, learn, problem-solve, and enjoy emotional balance. Adequate exercise reduces insulin resistance and inflammation.

When it is safe to do so, allowing regular freedom to explore off-leash without constraints is, I believe, a minimum requirement for a happy and well-lived life for my dog. I don't mean a dog park or backyard, but true freedom where your dog expresses their natural behavior.

I realize this requires a mountain of preparation and education for the dog and their person. Allowing my geriatric dogs a choice about how they use their own mind and muscles out in the greater world has been life-changing.

Controlled Weight

Low body weight is a definite predictor of healthspan. Veterinarian researchers led by Dr. Johanna Christina Penell. found that "even rather late-life control efforts on body weight influence survival in dogs." They discovered that controlling weight, even later in a dog's life, promotes an increased healthspan.

Ideal body condition for my dogs is when their ribs are easily palpable with minimal fat covering, their waist is easily seen when viewed from above, and their abdominal tuck is visible from the side. Low levels of exercise are associated with increased obesity, and obesity leads to cancer and instantaneous risk of death in dogs.

It's that simple. Controlling our dog's weight reduces their risk for morbidity and disease, leading to greater healthspan.


Surely there must be something else? While each dog is an individual, here are a few pearls I've discovered to improve the lives of my geriatric dogs.

Access to fresh water at all times. Water is vital for regulating a dog's body temperature, digestion, and hydration. The bowl they drink from and when the water was last changed matters, especially to our senior citizens.

American-made stainless steel dog bowls are the best dish for your dog because they resist bacterial growth. I water my dogs from non-porous ceramic bowls but I wash each bowl daily so there is never a buildup of bacteria.

Keeping their nails trimmed very short — almost back to the quick — is crucial for older dogs. Nails that are too long change a dog's gait which damages their musculoskeletal system. Clipped nails prevent excessive force on the foot and leg that leads to arthritis and pain.

I teach my dogs early in our relationship to consent to nail clipping for a lifetime of healthy posture and comfortable ambulation.

Groom well and often. Brushing your elderly dog is a wonderful activity to share. Regular grooming sessions are great opportunities to keep up with or discover any progressive changes in a geriatric dog's body.

Maintaining your dog's coat and cleanliness is a basic way to care for your dog. It is also a sweet way to spend time together as your older dog gradually retires from sports or other high-volume activities.

When It's Time to Say Goodbye

Even when luck is on our side and life has been good, eventually we have to say goodbye to our beloved friend. It is a final gift to give our dog a gentle and graceful end when the hard decision of euthanasia must be made.

This is a deeply personal moment, but a guideline I follow is better two weeks early than 10 minutes too late. We have the gift of choice for them to prevent suffering and end their pain.

There were incredibly special moments I shared with my treasured border collie Prissy, who lived into her 16th year, during her hospice care. There were instants in time so tender and intimate during the final days of her life that I cherish.

If you have the heartbreaking privilege of giving palliative care to your precious dog, I gently propose you stay present with them each moment. These are some of the dearest tempos, and when you look back on these memories with pain there is also joy in knowing the gift you shared with a very good dog.

author's border collie, Prissy

Carrie Chaffin for BarkSpot / Prissy, the author's border collie

The pain of losing a best friend feels unbearable. What comforted me is talking out my loss in a stream of consciousness with a trusted friend. It also helped to journal out my feelings, just letting flow all the memories and feelings as they came.

If you need the assistance of a caring, non-judgmental person, Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine has a pet loss support hotline at 508-839-7966.

The Gift of a Lucky Dog

My merry and beloved little red spaniel has been at my side for 15 years. I adopted Rosco as a fully grown adult dog from the wonderful folks at the Cocker Spaniel Rescue of East Texas. There is no denying an element of luck is on my side, but I believe in stacking the cards in my favor. I'm grateful to be able to offer Rosco the benefit of all I've learned from the dogs that have gone before him.

Rosco stays slim on a specially prepared diet with lots of raw, fresh food toppers. He has been on joint and health supplements for dogs for years.

Though he retired some years ago from assisting me all day at the horse farm, to the extent possible I give him the freedom to wander and sniff in as many different environments as we can find. I keep him well-groomed and his nails trimmed.

Other than monthly parasite control, he is not taking any medication. He sees his veterinarian on a regular, every-sixth-month schedule and I follow the veterinarian's advice about vaccines and other veterinary necessities.

Rosco is a strong swimmer and loves to retrieve his ball from the water. Rosco is thriving, active, and boisterous, and I aim to keep it that way for as long as I possibly can.

Rosco, the author's spaniel

Carrie Chaffin for BarkSpot / Rosco, the author's spaniel

Consider replacing some of your dog's kibble with fresh, whole food. Try going for a sniffari with your best buddy. Feel your dog's ribs to see if they're easy to find. Enjoy a regular grooming session together.

No matter what, know that your dog loves you.

Further Reading

There is a vast array of studies directly linking diet to preventing disease and providing a longer healthspan. One of the best resources that reveals the relationship between diet and disease is The China Study.

Based on collaborative research between Cornell University, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, Oxford University, and other scientists, this comprehensive resource is written by T. Colin Campbell and his son, Thomas M. Campbell II.

For a more dog-specific look into the effects of chronic disease due to diet, I highly recommend The Forever Dog written by Karen Shaw Becker and Rodney Habib. This book highlights medical breakthroughs that lead to longer healthspans for dogs.

The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University faculty produced the book Good Old Dog edited by Dr. Nicholas Dodman. Their empathetic and cutting-edge science approach to caring for aging dogs is this essential-advice book.

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