Dog Health with Dr Lauren Needham

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We all know that taking care of what we eat and making sure we’re getting the right amount of nutrients is crucial for keeping our human bodies healthy. But what about our doggie friends? We had a chat to one of our RSPCA veterinarians, Dr Lauren Needham, about all things dog, and how feeding and exercising your dog correctly can help them live to a happy and healthy life.


How important is diet to my dog’s overall health and wellbeing?

Diet is very important to your dog’s health and wellbeing, much the same as it is for ourselves. A poor diet can lead to problems like obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal or pancreatic illness, urinary tract problems, poor kidney health, and skin allergies, just to name a few.


How can I choose the best food for my dog?

A good place to start is by thinking about the life stage your dog is in. Puppies need an appropriate good-quality puppy food until they are fully grown, which is usually around 12 to 18 months of age. Older pets are often less active and can benefit from a senior diet, which is lower in protein and energy and higher in fibre. Working dogs or particularly fit and active dogs may need an appropriate active-dog food, and there are many ongoing medical conditions that can benefit from prescription diets. These must be chosen and maintained under the guidance of your veterinarian. Even if you pet is well, your veterinarian can help answer any questions about choosing a good quality diet.


What about treats? How bad are they for my dog and how often should I give them? Are there any ‘healthier’ treat options?

Treats can be given sparingly and in small quantities. In general, human foods should not be used as treats, although some vegetables such as carrots or green beans make good treats. The best dog treats are very small, low-calorie but high-reward options, such as training treats. Large jerky-like treats such as Schmacko’s should be avoided as they are very high in calories. Also, treats that are too hard like hard bones, antlers, and some rawhide treats can cause tooth fractures – particularly to small teeth, or dogs that are enthusiastic chewers.


How important is regular exercise for dogs? Why? How can I help my dog become more active?

Regular exercise is extremely important for keeping dogs both physically fit and also mentally stimulated. Regular exercise can help prevent health problems like obesity, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and breathing problems.

The best way to make a dog more active is by making exercise part of your regular routine. Talking walks daily, even just for 10 to 15 minutes, can make a big difference. If your pet is fit and athletic, it may enjoy going for runs, although location, temperature, and surface should all be considered. Playing fetch is great exercise for dogs (and requires minimal effort on your part!).

Swimming is another great activity for most dogs, and is a great option for most older or injured dogs.


What about mental stimulation? Why is it important for dogs and how can I ensure my pet gets enough of it? How important is attention from their owner for a dog’s mental wellbeing? Why?

Mental stimulation is extremely important for all pets, and its importance is often overlooked. In our busy lives, we don’t often stop to think that all of the time that we spend outside the home is time that our dogs spend home alone and unstimulated. Of course, the amount of mental stimulation required varies greatly depending on the age, condition and personality of the pet, but all dogs crave attention from their owners, and young, active dogs in particular need a great deal of mental stimulation, as well as exercise to avoid devastating behavioural problems, and sometimes physical illness as well.

Providing mental stimulation, or ‘enrichment’ as you may hear it called reduces stress and gives a dog a way to occupy their time while its owner is away. Most dogs are particularly interested in food-based enrichment, so providing toys in which food can be hidden, such as a ‘Kong’ toy filled with peanut butter or treats, is popular. Other tips include playing music or leaving the TV on for indoor pets, or providing a window seat or bed where they can keep watch on their environment. Providing an appropriate companion for your dog can help, such as another dog or cat. Taking a daily walk provides a great deal of stimulation for dogs, as well as physical exercise for you both. Smelling the scents of their neighbourhood helps a dog stay stimulated and informed on their surroundings, and walks are also a great way to satisfy their craving for attention from their owners. Get out and walk if possible – it’s great stress relief for dogs and people, too!


Finally, do you have any other simple things I can do to improve my dog’s health?

Any activity which safely reduces stress and promotes happiness also improves health for our pets, just as it does for ourselves. Socialising dogs with other pets and pet owners, such as at a dog park or dog beach, can be enjoyable. Training basic commands like sit, stay and come enriches a dog’s vocabulary and gives them a sense of purpose and ability to please. Playing games like fetch or Frisbee and taking regular walks is so important. As discussed, a good diet is also of paramount importance, and finally, keeping up-to-date with vaccinations, regular worming, heartworm, flea, and tick prevention is a simple way to prevent complicated problems. Preventative health measures like these discussed – including diet, exercise and mental stimulation – prevent devastating and expensive problems from happening in the first place, and they greatly improve our bond and the quality of our pets’ lives.