The Forever Dog

She’s the world’s most followed veterinarian on social media. At last count, more than 2.2 million animal lovers around the world follow Dr. Karen Shaw Becker (’97) on Facebook.

Another 100,000 follow her on Instagram.

Social media isn’t her only outreach. Becker consults for a variety of health and wellness companies and has created the largest pet wellness website. In her spare time, she enjoys formulating fresh pet food recipes for transparent, ethical pet food companies, while developing pet health products to improve the wellbeing of companion animals.

Oh, and she’s also the co-author of The Forever Dog, a how-to book that vaulted to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It is the first dog health book ever it hit number one.

At the heart of it, Becker is a small animal veterinarian, and she continues to practice despite the multitude of other activities that pull her away from her love.

“Although I only work part-time, seeing clients now, to me, there is no better feeling than working with people and patients,” said Becker, who worked as a full-time veterinarian until five years ago.

After graduating from Iowa State, Becker completed exotic animal internships in California and at the Berlin Zoo in Germany before opening the first proactive animal hospital in the Midwest in 1999. She followed that up with an exotic animal clinic in 2006 and a rehabilitation and pain management clinic five years later.

But she could only reach so many pet owners through her clinics.

“I was looking for a platform to provide free resources and tips for people to provide better care for companion animals,” Becker said. “Pet lovers are desperate for information on how to make better choices and not have regrets.

“If social media was the place where I could reach more people than I could in a clinic, then I decided that is what I should be doing.”

Becker’s Facebook following soon transitioned into writing. Her first book, Real Food for Healthy Pets, received the Whole Dog Journal’s Best Homemade Diet Book of All Time award.

But it is The Forever Dog that has catapulted her into national prominence. Co-authored with Rodney Habib, founder of Planet Paws, the book gives practical, science-backed tools to protect companion animals.

The authors traveled the globe before the COVID pandemic, interviewing the owners of the oldest dogs in the world – people whose dogs have lived into their 20s and even their 30s. Then they met with top geneticists, microbiologists and longevity researchers to review these case studies, identifying what the owners did (and didn’t) do that can positively influence lifespan, according to the latest research.

Becker and Habib undertook thorough investigations into the dogs they document in The Forever Dog. They obtained the dog’s records before scheduling an interview.

“We would not get on a plane until the veterinarian sent us the papers to verify the dog’s age,” Becker said.

“Every scientist we contacted for an interview, thankfully had a soft spot for dogs,” Becker continued. “We were able to access the top longevity research labs around the globe because these scientists also want companion animals to live longer lives.”

Many of the tips in The Forever Dog are similar to what physicians tell their human patients – eat right, get plenty of exercise and do the things you love.

“Dogs are really victims of their owners’ health and wellness choices,” Becker said, “and we spend a lot of money buying things for our dogs.

“Shouldn’t we be doing things that will prolong their lives?”

One of those things Becker argues in The Forever Dog is to identify all forms of stress in your dog’s life. In her interviews with the experts and the owners whose dogs had exceedingly longer life expectancies, she came up with a common dominator - reduce the dog’s stress levels, including mental, emotional, physical, and environmental chemical stress.

“These extra long-lived dogs all have an exceptional quality of life,” Becker said. “Every single one of the owners also suggested that it was important to identify things their dogs wanted to do.”

One way to help reduce one form of stress, mental stress, plaguing pets today is giving them more opportunities to do things they want to do, which corroborates what canine cognition expert Dr. Alexandra Horowitz relayed in the book – happy, engaged dogs have less stress and less stress hormones, which plays into health span and life span.

One of the examples Beiber documents is Tigger, a 22-year-old rescue Pit Bull.

“The owner regularly scheduled playdates for Tigger, especially as she aged, so she could have social interactions with her dog friends,” Becker said. “This may sound trivial, but dogs are social species and many need ongoing opportunities for positive, social engagement throughout their lives.”

Augie, a 19-year-old Golden Retriever loved the water. She began swimming as a puppy and her owners continued to help her swim every day until her death.

Almost 21-year-old Darcy loved fresh blueberries and trying new foods. His parents created nutritionally diverse recipes and meal plans for him throughout his life.

It could also be as simple as making one of your daily walks a “sniffari,” and allowing your dog to decide which direction to go and how often to stop along the adventure.

“How happy your dog is can affect their longevity,” Becker said. “One of our goals as owners should be to find what activities makes our dog happy and stay with the plan.”

Becker is taking her own advice. She has recently adopted a 14-year-old terrier named Homer. Homer spent time in a rescue after living most of his life with his owner in an assisted living facility. This narrow and limited perspective led to poor social skills.

Becker first met Homer at a Christmas Eve dinner hosted by her aunt who was fostering the dog. Soon Homer was living with Becker, and she applied stress-reducing tips she wrote about in The Forever Dog.

She started exercising Homer and soon found his happy place.

“I created a safe environment for him to walk outside,” Becker said. “He found out birds aren’t scary. Other dogs aren’t scary.

“I also found that Homer loves to investigate his environment. I like to say smelling is his hobby. He is happiest when he is outside. Being able to spend lots of time in nature opened up a brand-new world for my senior dog and he’s living his best life.”

So is Becker.

“I’m looking forward to what’s next,” Becker said. “I’m enjoying every day.”

September 2022