Feeding Your Senior Dog

Senior dog nutrition needs.

Evo, 6 year-old Boxer mixEvo, a 6-year-old Boxer mix, had gained weight and lost his get up and go, according to owner Jan Hargis of Johnson City, Texas. She took him to the veterinarian for a geriatric checkup.

With the exception of arthritis and some weight gain, the veterinarian gave the Boxer a clean bill of health, recommending a lower-fat senior diet, which would help reduce Evos weight, and thus, his joint pain. Within a few weeks, Evo had lost 5 pounds and his activity level had climbed. As Hargis puts it, He was back to his young self again.

As pets age, their metabolisms slow down and activity levels drop. As with people, their diet must change to meet the needs of their changing lifestyles, says Linda P. Case, M.S., of the University of Illinois College Veterinary Medicine, author of Canine & Feline Nutrition: A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals (C.V. Mosby, 2000, $69.95).

But when should you change your dogs diet and what kind of senior diet should you look for?

No Magic Number
Most commercial diets label a 7-year-old dog as a senior, but the actual age varies depending on the size and breed of the dog, says Rebecca Remillard, DVM, Ph.D., senior staff nutritionist at Angell Animal Medical Centers in Boston. I’m not an advocate of changing to a senior diet just because a dog has reached a certain age, Remillard says. Each dog should be monitored individually.

Your veterinarian can help you determine whether your dog is ready for a senior diet, based on his breed, weight, activity level, and overall health.

What Seniors Need
Senior diets are often equated with chronic renal disease in which a reduction of protein is prescribed. Many people mistakenly think that senior dogs need a low protein diet, Case says. But protein requirements don’t necessarily decrease with age if the dog is healthy. Senior dogs still need protein to maintain good muscle mass.

Protein transforms food into energy, and the amount of energy needed depends on a dogs size, activity level, and health. A specially formulated senior diet with less protein might, for example, be appropriate for a small, sedentary dog, but not suitable for an older, active search-and-rescue dog.

Since older dogs tend to gain weight, senior diets usually contain less fat 10 to 12 percent, as opposed to a minimum of 15 percent for many adult formulas. More fiber is added to senior formulas to dilute calories, quell hunger, and reduce constipation, a common problem for older dogs.

You’ll find a variety of senior diets at pet-supply stores, in pet-supply catalogs, and online. Talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist about what diet might best suit your dog.

Some senior formulas add supplements, such as chondroitin and glucosamine, to help with aging joints. Remillard points out, however, that glucosamine levels in a particular food may not be sufficient for all dogs. Always consult your veterinarian about your dogs supplement needs.

Just Not Hungry
A lack of interest in food can be caused by an illness, such as liver or kidney disease, which may require a prescription diet. An underlying dental problem can also prevent dogs from eating properly. Small changes in the foods palatability can often help while you and your vet work to correct the dental condition. Some senior diets offer smaller kibble pieces to make chewing easier. You also can add water or broth to soften the food, or mix in canned food to make the meal more pungent.

Overall, senior diets fill the same nutritional needs as an adult food, but with less fat, fewer calories, and more fiber to accommodate the changing canine body.

We know enough about canine nutrition today to know that one size does not fit all, Case says.

Cathy M. Rosenthal is the pets columnist at the San Antonio Express-News and director of community relations and education for the Humane Society/SPCA of Bexar County in San Antonio.

What’s in a Label?
Nutritional adequacy statement. The most important information on a dog-food label is the nutritional adequacy statement, which says the food provides complete and balanced nutrition by meeting AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) nutrient profiles or conducting feeding trials. Most veterinarians recommend premium foods that have undergone AAFCO feeding trials.

Guaranteed analysis. This allows you to monitor the foods minimum amounts of crude fat and protein and the maximum amounts of moisture and crude fiber. This does not guarantee that the exact amounts are present, but that the amounts are not less than or greater than those listed.

Ingredient list. The ingredient list outlines ingredients in the order of their weight, starting with the heaviest ingredient and ending with the lightest ingredient.

Watch Your Dogs Weight
Your dog has gone from being fit and trim to overweight and sluggish in just a few months. You haven’t changed his food portions or reduced his exercise. So what’s up?

Just like people, dogs gain weight and have less energy as they age. Studies show that overweight dogs have shorter life spans. Reducing or keeping the weight off in those senior years may actually help your dog live longer, and it will improve his quality of life.

If a checkup determines your dog is otherwise healthy, serve smaller portions of his current food to prevent weight gain, starting with the minimum amount listed on the label for a dog of his size. If your dog isn’t satisfied with less food, switch to a senior diet, which has less calories and fat, but more fiber to fill him up. Consult your veterinarian before making any change in your senior dogs diet. When you do switch, mix his old food and his new in increasing proportions of the new food for a couple of weeks to transition him to the new food.

Older dogs may do fine on a senior diet, but very elderly dogs may actually lose too much weight, warns Rebecca Remillard, DVM, of Angell Animal Medical Centers in Boston. Keep an eye on your pets weight up or down so you won’t need to make any drastic changes.

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Dogs · Food and Treats · Health and Care