Diet and Nutrition for Older Dogs
Improved veterinary care, better vaccines, and better nutrition are helping dogs live longer than they did only a few decades ago. That’s excellent news at first blush, but your dog may need a special diet to help her enjoy a reasonable quality of life as she ages. The right diet for your older dog helps her maintain a healthy body weight, slows the onset of chronic disease, and minimizes its effects. In short, what you feed her can make a marked difference in how she feels as she navigates age-related changes in her body.
Why and when should I feed my older dog a special diet?
Palpable signs of aging erupt in dogs from 7 to 12 years of age, depending on the dog. These common changes in your older dog’s body call for a different diet than you fed her when she was younger:
When is my dog officially “older?”
Large and giant breeds achieve “senior” status sooner than small breeds, and overweight dogs age faster than lean ones. There’s no precise science or formula to follow in assigning your pal the “old dog” moniker, but you can generally consider your dog older:
Or look at her age relative to her life expectancy. Most dogs’ senior years occur in the second half or final third of their anticipated lifespan. So for a dog who’s expected to live to 9 or 10, she’s a senior around age 5 or 6. If you expect her to live to 15, consider her a senior at age 10.
A healthy, active older dog should continue on an adult diet while she maintains that lifestyle—if your old gal still acts like she’s a three-year-old, then feed her like she’s still three. She’ll continue to thrive on smaller portions of her regular adult food. But think about gradually starting your dog on a senior diet when she achieves the age-related milestone that feels right for her. Most older dogs need these dietary tweaks:
Dietary changes can often curtail the more severe effects of a disease, or even stop the progression of a disease in its tracks. And more digestible sources of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are easier for an older dog’s body to absorb, which reduces stress on her digestive system and allows her to use energy reserves more efficiently.
What’s different about a senior dog food?
Many commercially prepared senior dog foods are low-calorie, but formulated to help a dog feel “full” when she eats. And because fewer calories often mean less fat, expect to find senior dog food preparations lower in fat than conventional adult dog food. Senior dog foods also typically contain higher-quality proteins than regular dog food, helping an older dog maintain a healthy body weight and musculature without over-straining her kidneys.
Less preferable commercial “multi-stage” foods can be fed to puppies, adults, and seniors; some dog owners like these because they simplify feeding in a multi-dog household. While they are acceptable, most vets recommend feeding an older dog a food prepared just for seniors, because it’s more likely to meet and not exceed her caloric needs.
You can also feed your older dog a homemade diet containing boiled rice, potatoes, vegetables, and chicken or hamburger, with this caveat: a doggie diet you prepare at home should come from a recipe formulated for the correct nutritional balance with the proper amounts of vitamins and minerals; don’t try to guess.
Can my old doggie have a snack?
By all means, toss the dog a treat. The best treats for senior dogs are low in fat and sodium. Carrots and apple slices are better for your dog than some commercially prepared treats. But avoid raisins and grapes, which are harmful to dogs.
My older dog has a chronic disease: does she need special food?
Possibly. Older dogs are more susceptible to serious health problems, including the onset of kidney and heart disease, diabetes, and various forms of cancer. The aged immune system is also less effective, leaving an older dog at higher risk of infection and slowed healing. Other senior dogs possess a breed-specific predilection for disease as they age. A veterinarian can advise you about specially-formulated prescription or commercial dog foods for each of these dog populations:
Dogs with cancer may benefit from a high-calorie/high-fat, low-carb diet with additional omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants. And urinary incontinence, irritability, and vision or hearing loss may be helped by adjusting your older dog’s diet; consult your vet to find out what’s best for her.
Should I give my older dog dietary supplements?
Many vets agree dietary supplements can help ameliorate specific problems in aging dogs:
If you’re concerned your older dog isn’t getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals, you can also give them as supplements. And Vitamin E and beta-carotene can help eliminate the free radical particles that damage your dog’s body tissues and hasten the signs of aging. Consult your vet about what’s best for your dog.
Obesity in Your Older Dog
You could call it a weighty problem: dog obesity shortens her life and exposes her to other health complications. During the aging process a dog’s body uses energy differently and therefore the amount of substance needed to produce energy changes—this process is called metabolism. As an older dog’s metabolism slows, her need for fat and calories diminishes.
Some dogs have difficulty staying lean as they age because they’re less active. But it’s harder to help an aging dog lose weight if she’s obese than it is to keep her lean to begin with. If you notice she’s growing round as she approaches her twilight years, help her take off the extra pounds by adjusting her diet: this will improve the quality of her life, and prolong it. Your vet can weigh in on the best nutritional strategy for your obese older dog.
What if my older dog won’t eat?
First enlist your dog’s veterinarian to rule out dental disease, diabetes, kidney disease, or cancer. But if she’s otherwise healthy, try a giving her smaller kibble that’s easier to chew, and experiment with these tempting add-ons:
Home-cooked meals can work, too: the smell of cooked chicken and barley or cooked lamb and rice is too much for some dogs to resist; find a healthy dog food recipe online. As a last resort your vet may prescribe an appetite stimulant to get a reluctant dog to eat, but only after she is deemed healthy.
Understand that your older dog is a creature of habit; it’s tougher on her to undergo stress and change. Stick to a daily food routine she knows, and if a part of her routine must change, introduce it gradually. Keep her as active as you can, help her maintain a healthy weight, and by all means have regular checkups at the vet—monitoring her organ function allows your vet to determine whether a special diet is right for her, and will also reveal the first symptoms of an underlying disease before there are visible signs of it. Together you and your vet can draft a nutrition strategy for your older dog that promises her the best chance for a long, healthy life.
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