VetVits August 10, 2016

A key pillar of health for your older dog is high-quality nutrition. Both the quality and quantity of life can be extended in our older pets as long as we tend to their nutrition, for they are what they eat. But what diet should you choose? The sheer volume of commercial diets available to pet owners today can be overwhelming. This article is intended to help you make the best nutritional choices for your senior pet.

Why does my older dog need a change in diet?

Generally speaking, dogs older than seven years of age have different nutritional needs to their younger counterparts.

While young, your dog may be able to digest a variety of different foods (and non-foods at times) and not show any adverse effects, but a senior dog typically does not have that same ability. The reason is that the normal wear and tear associated with ageing results in a decreased ability to metabolise and assimilate nutrients. Furthermore, if you feed your dog a low-quality dog food, chronic poor nutrition over time will manifest as health problems and weight gain. The best practice is to start with a high-quality diet while your dog is still young, but of course it’s never too late to make positive changes.

So what should you look for in a high quality senior diet?

First of all, the product should be marked as suitable for senior dogs and be labelled as ‘complete and balanced’ or a ‘complete feed’. This means that, in theory, your dog will get all the nutrients he or she needs by just eating that food. Senior diets are specifically made to be easy to digest, so that your dog can readily access and absorb all of the nutrients it contains. You may want to check the feed’s credentials with your vet to make sure, as packaging claims do not necessarily represent the whole story.

Senior dogs often require additional support, so feeds and supplements specially designed for senior dogs will usually have the greatest impact on your dog’s quality of life by benefiting ageing systems, including joints, muscles and the brain.

Secondly, a good senior diet should include guaranteed probiotics that will aid in digestion, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential fatty acids that will benefit brain, skin and joint health. Senior diets should also include glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health.

Thirdly, a senior diet should include a blend of antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, to help strengthen your dog’s immune system, overall wellness, counteract the effects of ageing and provide further benefits for skin and coat health.

Some senior diets are being marketed specifically for brain health. Just like senior humans, senior dogs can suffer from dementia. New advances and research have bought to light new tests and treatments for dogs with dementia and have in turn helped the production of senior diets which will benefit your dog’s brain health and promote neurological wellness.

If possible, you should feed your dog a combination of canned food and dry food. Dry kibble is typically complete and balanced, but is also calorie-dense. It is good to have the bulk of your dog’s diet come from dry kibble, as it promotes good digestion and is often fortified with essential nutrients. To supplement this, mix with a little canned food. Made from meat and water, canned food is a good source of protein and moisture, which will work to support your dog’s muscles and kidneys.

These are broad recommendations, however, senior dogs can have nutritional needs that are specific to his or her constitution. So how do you know if the diet you have chosen is benefiting your dog?

Finding the perfect diet for your senior dog

A simple way to discover whether you are giving your dog the right diet is by taking a good look at them. Have you noticed that their energy levels have changed? How is their skin or coat health? Is your dog moulting, or do they have a dull, dry coat? How is their appetite? Are their stools normal, runny, or hard? Does your dog have gas? Are they gaining or losing any weight on the diet? And finally, feel your dog’s ribs: they should feel like the back of your hand. If they feel like your palm, then your dog is too heavy.

All of these factors will indicate whether or not the diet is benefiting your pet. If you are noticing any irregularities, then you should consider switching diets or better yet, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss your dog’s nutritional needs. Your veterinarian will be able to examine your pet, run routine blood work and give you the best advice on what to feed your dog. If it turns out that your senior dog has a health condition that could benefit by eating a special diet, then your veterinarian will be able to give you that information and advice on feeding. Finding the perfect balance for your older dog needn’t be a difficult process. If you are in tune with your dog's needs and seek additional advice when necessary, you will soon find a diet which will benefit your older dog’s health and happiness.

1 Fields-Babineau. M (2001) The Ageing Dog T.F.H Publications 2 Edge-Hughe. L [Accessed: 25/08/2016] http://www.caninefitness.com/docs/Canine-Dementia.pdf

Author info: Sarah Wooten is a small animal veterinarian and certified veterinary journalist. She is a 2002 graduate of the prestigious School of Veterinary Medicine at University of California in Davis. She practices in Greeley, Colorado part time at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital and writes for multiple online and print publications.

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Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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