8 Age-Related Facts About Senior Dogs Dietary Needs

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As your dog ages, his nutritional needs change. Sabine Contreras, Canine Care and Nutrition Consultant, outlines what you need to consider when evaluating your pooch’s dietary needs.

Older dogs have nutritional needs that differ from those of younger ones, but the challenge with this reality is how to determine just when a dog becomes a senior? Many dog food companies and veterinarians will tell you that a dog enters its senior years once he or she turns seven or eight years old, but it’s not that simple.

Many factors need to be considered when determining if your dog has entered his senior years. For example, dogs of different breeds and sizes have different life expectancies. A small or medium-sized dog may well live 15 years or longer and will not show any signs of aging at seven or even 10 years old. By contrast, some larger-breed dogs are often well into the last third of their life span by the time they reach seven or eight. As well, dogs that have been bred for certain characteristics, like flat-faced breeds such as pugs, create health problems that can shorten their lifespan. Finally, some pedigree breeds can have shortened lifespans as well, reaching their senior years earlier than a mix.

Related: Supplements and Diet For Senior Dogs

Even dogs of the same (or similar) breeds and sizes can age at different rates, depending one how they have been cared for, their environment and how soon and how quickly the body’s systems deteriorate.

Regardless of when your dog reaches its senior years, it’s important to become familiar with a number of conditions that can cause senior dogs to develop special dietary needs:

Decreased activity levels, mostly due to mobility and joint problems

This is usually one of the first signs that your dog is getting older, when they start “slowing down”. The reasons, and what can be done to address them, are a topic for a different article, although a dog slowing down is often  related to joint pain and muscle weakness associated with age. Right now, let’s focus on the fact that decreased activity means the body burns fewer calories. If we you don’t pay attention to what your dog is eating, how much they are eating and if you need to decrease their overall caloric intake, your dog might gain weight, which can impair their mobility even more. Many dogs are already overweight before they reach their senior years, so slimming down a little can have a very beneficial impact.

Related: How To Extend Your Senior Dog’s Lifespan

Weight loss can be accomplished in two ways: by reducing the portion size of the food your dog has been eating, by not feeding them food from the table (if this is something that you do, since the food we prepare for ourselves can have more calories and fat than food prepared for a dog), and switching to a less calorie-dense product that you can continue to feed to your dog at the same daily amount.

Decreased digestive efficiency

As dogs age, many of their vital body processes slow down or become less efficient. Food isn’t digested as well anymore, which means your dog is absorbing fewer nutrients to maintain and rebuild its body. This is where simply reducing the amount you feed your dog per day to facilitate weight loss can seriously backfire. Your dog needs sufficient amounts of nutrients to remain healthy and have energy, and if that becomes difficult due to reduced nutrient absorption because of impaired digestive function, feeding your dog less food could lead to malnutrition.

A prime example of this is protein. I often see that veterinarians and food companies still promote the outdated idea of feeding senior dogs food that is drastically decreased in protein and fat, even though this is generally not a good idea. In fact, research has shown that especially for senior dogs, as long as no other health issues require the reduction of protein for specific reasons, older dogs need about 50 percent more protein to maintain muscle mass compared to younger ones. They will actually remain healthier with a higher protein level in their diet than on low-protein “Senior”, “Less Active” or “Weight Management” foods.

Not only may senior dogs require more protein because they simply cannot digest and metabolize it as efficiently as younger dogs and need to make up for that by increased intake, but a study also found a higher mortality rate after three years in senior dogs fed a diet lower in protein than the average adult food compared to those fed a diet higher in protein.*

The solution here is to add a high-quality digestive enzyme product, which helps the dog’s digestive tract to “unlock” nutrients, so they can be absorbed and utilized. In some cases, giving a daily multivitamin with meals is also a good idea. Most mainstream pet products aren’t specifically geared to fill this niche, so take a close look at the ingredient list and nutrition panel before you buy.

Increased occurrence of intestinal problems

Some dogs get a sensitive stomach as they age, or suffer either from constipation or loose stools. The pet food industry pushes higher-fiber “senior” products as a solution, but more fiber isn’t always better, especially if you are dealing with an irritable stomach. It can help with stool issues, but increasing the fiber content of the diet will also interfere with digestibility, leading us back to the possibility of contributing to malnutrition.

Rather than relying on industrially processed fiber in commercial pet food that add little to no nutritional value, adding a small amount of healthy, fiber-rich foods, such as plain canned pumpkin or other cooked squash, sweet potato, oatmeal, or banana will help. Pureed greens (spinach, kale, chard, etc.) also soften hard stools.

Digestive enzymes and a good probiotic supplement provide gentle support. Deglycyrrhizinated (DGL) licorice root, in capsule or tincture form, is also an excellent addition.

Decreased organ function

Sometimes, a dog may have specific health problems that are caused by declining organ function, such as chronic renal failure or liver disease. This requires that specific steps are taken to decrease problematic components in the diet, and beneficial ones maintained or even increased. Often veterinarians will suggest “prescription” diets for this purpose, but they are generally made from poor quality ingredients. It’s never a good idea to downgrade the quality of the food you feed to your dog for medical “functionality”.

Instead, educate yourself on what you can do, but be sure to consult a reputable source. With all due respect to the highly trained professionals in the veterinary field – when it comes to nutrition, only a few of them are actually capable of doing anything but recommending highly advertised products made by certain well known national pet food companies.

Declining dental health 

Unhealthy teeth and gums can cause severe health problems, and especially with the “oldies” it’s important to keep up a good oral care regime. But even if you brush your dog’s teeth daily and they look wonderfully clean, there’s no guarantee that all is well.

Over the years I’ve seen many cases of dogs with abscessed teeth going unnoticed for a long time despite a conscientious care regimen, until things got so bad that major surgery to the tune of several thousand dollars was required – not to mention the tremendous pain caused to the poor dogs. Infected teeth carry bacteria and toxins to all vital organs via the blood stream, causing additional stress for the aging body. So if you have any suspicion at all that your dog isn’t eating well due to painful teeth, even if nothing is outwardly visible, please consider having radiographs taken so that hidden problems can be ruled out.

Loss of appetite

It’s common for older dogs to have a reduced appetite. The causes for this vary but for example, some dogs have gastrointestinal problems that bring on nausea, while others lose their appetite because of cancer or another illness.

Once any underlying health issue is ruled out, such as dental disease, diabetes, kidney disease or cancer, if your dog loses interest in dry food, try adding warm water, chicken broth or a small amount of canned food to make it more appealing.

Making your own dog food from a combination of cooked beef, chicken or lamb mixed with some cooked vegetables like carrots, pumpkin or peas and a bit of fruit like banana or apple can be appetizing for your senior dog and encourage him to eat.

Dietary supplements

Regardless of what they are eating, as a dog ages, they may experience arthritis and joint pain. To address this problem, some commercial dog foods for seniors contain glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate, which may help the joints. However, if you want to give your dog glucosamine and chondroitin supplements separate from dog food, it’s best to consult with your pet’s veterinarian to access veterinary formulations, not human ones. Although supplements may be useful, older dogs with joint problems will also benefit from gentle activity, which will also keep their weight down, since excess pounds puts increased pressure on the joints.

Water intake

Drinking water is always important for your dog, but as they age, they need more water, since the body’s ability to maintain water balance decreases as they get older. It’s important to make sure your senior dog gets plenty of water, even more so in the summer on hot days.

*Kealy Richard D., Phd; Factors influencing lean body mass in aging dogs. Proceedings of the 1998 Purina Nutrition Forum