Diet And Nutrition For Older Dogs

An older dog sits among the tall green grasses.

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 to keep your older dog healthy she may need a special diet to help her enjoy a reasonable quality of life as she ages. As her on-leash walks grow shorter, what she eats becomes more important as one of the many challenges of owning an older dog. 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:

  • Deterioration of her skin and coat
  • A loss of muscle density
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Arthritis
  • A slowing metabolism
  • Obesity
  • Dental problems
  • A weakened immune system

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:

  • By age 10, if she’s a small breed or weighs less than 20 pounds
  • By age 7, if she’s a medium breed or weighs between 21 and 50 pounds
  • By age 6, if she’s a large breed or weighs between 51 and 90 pounds
  • By age 5, if she’s a giant breed or weighs 91 or more pounds

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:

  • Fewer Calories – to help avert dog obesity, a potentially big problem in an aging pooch
  • Highly Digestible Protein and Fat – to help her maintain muscle mass into her twilight years; current nutritional theory suggests a dog’s protein requirements do not diminish with age as previously thought.
  • More Fiber – to help maintain gastrointestinal health, because older dogs are prone to constipation.

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:

  • Diabetic Dogs – The goal of a diabetic diet is to delay absorption of food to keep blood sugar from rising too quickly; a low-fat, high-fiber diet is best for a dog with diabetes.
  • Dogs with Kidney Disease – A diet for a dog with kidney disease should contain highly digestible proteins, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, potassium citrate, reduced sodium, and drastically reduced phosphorous. Adding water to her commercially prepared food will help flush toxic wastes from her body, but she may benefit most from a homemade diet.
  • Dogs with Liver Disease – Dogs with mild liver disease do not benefit from a special diet, but if the disease in your dog is so advanced her liver can no longer filter toxins from her body nor control her metabolism, she’ll require special food. The type of protein she eats matters: the best ones are plant-, egg-, and dairy-based. Prescription diets with proteins that are gentler on a failing liver are available from your vet; these are usually egg- and soy-based dog food preparations. If your dog’s liver disease results from copper toxicity, she may need additional protein; your vet will advise you.
  • Dogs with Heart Disease – A dog with heart disease needs a low-calorie food that’s also low in sodium.

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:

  • Immune Support – Maintaining a healthy immune system in your older dog should be a priority. Antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids have shown they can boost the immune system and the body’s capacity to heal.
  • Canine Arthritis – If she suffers from arthritis and joint pain, giving a glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate preparation as a supplement may help your dog, but use a veterinary supplement, not one formulated for humans. A better long-term strategy for arthritis in a senior dog is keeping her lean.
  • Brain Dysfunction – Giving antioxidant supplements can help.
  • Gastrointestinal Problems – If your dog stays on a conventional adult diet, adding wheat bran to her food will help keep her regular.

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:

  • Wet dog food
  • A small amount of milk
  • A little egg
  • Warm chicken broth
  • A minuscule amount of cat food
  • A commercial flavor enhancer

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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