Is your dog getting a little gray around the muzzle? Is their body shape starting to look a little different?
If yes, these are signs that your dog is beginning to age. “Senior,” however, is a different age number for each breed because larger dogs mature before their smaller counterparts. As a general rule, small and toy breed dogs tend to become seniors at around 10-12 years of age, while medium size dogs (20-50 lbs.) become seniors around 8-10 years of age, and large and giant breed dogs hit their golden years around 6-8 years.
“Although we tend to put a timeline on these breeds, there is nothing special about the years, it’s more about seeing changes in your dog,” says Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, Clinical Nutritionist from the Cornell University Hospital for Animals. “There are physiological changes such as the eyes starting to look a little cloudy, decreased activity which can represent mild osteoarthritis, and body condition changes." Some older dogs lose muscle mass and gain fat, while others just loose muscle mass and start to become thin. All dogs start to loose muscle mass to some degree; this is a condition known as sarcopenia and is a universal indicator of aging.
The Key to Good Senior Nutrition
Nutritionally, there are a few guidelines to use in keeping your senior happy and healthy. The most important factor is weight change: is your dog gaining or losing weight? Many pet owners will instinctively reach for the senior food when their older dog starts to gain weight. But did you know that most senior foods cut protein down from the 22-32% average to a meager 18-22% of protein? Unless your senior dog has kidney or liver disease, their body will crave the missing protein.
The Pooch that gets a Pooch
Dr. Wakshlag recommends a different approach for pooches with a pooch: “There is no need to protein restrict the healthy older dog. Maintaining lean mass is an important concept. I would rather see the pet owner reach for a lower fat food.” A gram of fat has over twice the caloric content of a gram of carbohydrates or proteins. This means that lower fat foods will help keep your senior’s tummy full without the added pudge. Dry food with less than 12% fat, or wet food with less than 3% are ideal markers to keep the calorie count down.
The Skinny Seniors
Or maybe your senior has been losing weight? Maybe your dog just seems more picky with age, or maybe they just won’t eat as much of the same food. In this case, Dr. Wakshlag recommends feeding them the way you did when they were a puppy. “There are some dogs that have always been picky eaters and tend to lose muscle mass as they age. These dogs actually need higher protein and fat foods like the type of food you feed puppies or performance dogs.” As a general rule, dry foods with 24-32% protein and 16-20% fat or wet foods with a minimum of 8% protein and 4% fat will boost your skinny senior’s energy.
The Importance of Antioxidants
No matter your senior’s size, you may want to consider an antioxidant fortified food, too. Did you know that antioxidants can help combat canine cognitive dysfunction? This disease, similar to Alzheimer’s for dogs, is fairly common among senior dogs. Dr. Wakshlag explains, "A number of studies in the early 2000’s showed that a specific blend of antioxidants actually helped dogs with cognitive dysfunction as they aged. This was fairly revolutionary, and we don’t know if the antioxidants in the food the owner is choosing are the important ones, but the traditional ones like vitamin E, carotenoids, omega-3 fatty acids and vegetable-based antioxidants in small amounts supplemented to food surely will not be harmful, and have the potential to help.”
There is no “one size fits all” nutrition plan to keep your senior dog healthy but with the right tips and some direction from your vet, the right food can help keep that tail wagging just like it has been since your senior dog was a pup.
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.