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Nutrition for Your Senior Dog

The Proper Food and Nutrients for Senior Dogs

By Dr. Joe Wakshlag. November 09, 2012 | See Comments

Nutrition for Your Senior Dog

Senior dogs have different dietary needs as they age. Learn the principles of nutrition for older dogs.

Senior dogs go through natural changes, and will need a different diet to meet their new needs.

When is a Dog a Senior?

Is your pup getting grey around the muzzle or losing a step or two on that jog? Then maybe your dog should be considered a senior canine citizen.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when your dog is hitting his or her golden years, and depending on your dog’s size the timing for this change may be different. Typically large and giant breed dogs are considered senior at around 7 or 8 years of age, while medium breeds don’t usually classify as senior until 9-10 years. The small and toy breeds hit the mark at around 12 years of age.

Regardless of these milestones, geriatric changes are often reflected by a series of variations in your dog’s body and can include changes in mobility, cognition, muscle mass and eye function; as well as possible changes in gastrointestinal function.

Read on for tips on modifying your pet's diet to meet these changes.

Mobility:

As dogs age, particularly the large and giant breeds, much like you and I, their joints can start to feel the repercussions of aging. Typically cartilage regeneration is not as robust in the older dog, so the cartilage will start to deteriorate. Thin cartilage where two bones meet can lead to inflammation and pain. Many veterinarians will prescribe anti-inflammatories that act similarly to regular aspirin, but there are some nutritional tips that can help as well.

Fish Oil:

Incorporation of fish oil into the diet can help quench the inflammation that occurs in joints. Some foods already have these oils incorporated but the amounts are often not significant enough to be effective. So additional fish oil may be needed, and a safe recommendation is approximately a 1/4 teaspoon per 10 lbs in body weight each day to get your pooch moving a little better.

Glucosamine and Chondroitin:

Other supplements that may be effective are glucosamine and/or chondroitin sulfate. As dogs age, the ability for them to make chondroitin sulfate in their body decreases, so an addition of glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate may help supply the building blocks for this important substance in the cartilage. Additional chondroitin sulfate synthesis in the joint cartilage may mean a slower degeneration rate, which may help keep your senior dog moving for a longer time.

Cognition:

If your senior friend seems to be losing his marbles at times with new behaviors like not recognizing people or pets they know well, staring or barking at things that are not there, unwarranted new aggression towards other pets, new circling or pacing behaviors, or new house soiling, then your pet may have cognitive dysfunction. This is a syndrome similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans and should be treated by your veterinarian.

Antioxidants:

This disease may benefit from antioxidant therapy and there are many products out there that may fit the bill. Although there is no one magic bullet, these supplements may help diminish the progression of this cognitive dysfunction. A cocktail of moderate doses of vitamin E, L-carnitine, lipoic acid, increased omega three fatty acids and extracts of vegetable like spinach and carrot have been shown to be useful, and other studies using s-adenosyl methionine or medium chain triglycerides suggest these may also be effective. Talk to your veterinarian about effective dosing before beginning this type of supplementation.

Eye Health:

One of the major things that you may see as your pet ages is a cloudy film that seems to form in the lens of the eye. Many owners believe this is the start of cataracts, which can form in the older dog, but is far less common in dogs than in older people.

The change you may be seeing is just an old-age lens change that does not affect vision much at all. Dogs with this mild lens change can actually see perfectly fine and in many cases this cloudy haze will never develop into anything detrimental. There are some nutraceuticals that have been utilized for eye problems in humans such as L-carnosine and lutein; however there is no real evidence yet that these types of supplements will help your hazy-eyed companion.

Protien and Fat Intake:

All senior dogs will lose some muscle mass over time, which is called Sarcopenia. This is a commonly observed change in aging dogs and cats. There is little that one can do to curb this phenomenon, however there is some evidence that higher protein diets can help diminish the effect over time. Sarcopenia may be more evident in the lean senior dog, but it is also occurring in your overweight senior dog as well.

This brings up an important difference in the senior pet; is your pet getting leaner or getting heavier? The lean and obese senior dog will both benefit from adequate protein content, while the lean dog will benefit form a higher fat diet as well.

If you senior dog is not overweight, look for these amounts of protein and fat in your senior's food.

Protein in Dry Food Fat in Dry Food Protein in Wet Food Fat in Wet Food
24% or more 18% or more 8% or more 4% or more

Gastrointestinal Health:

The effects of aging on the gastrointestinal tract results in a less efficient machine. Many senior pet foods you can buy use lower amounts of certain nutrients, like protein and fat. These manufacturers are assuming that there are health problems like obesity and kidney disease waiting in the wings, but the one thing that does occur in all dogs is a decrease in intestinal absorptive capacity, or how much nutrients your pet’s intestines can absorb. This can translate into an increase in what comes out the back end of your dog.

Overall, each dog is different and may need different diets based on their obesity status, but one universal concept is that all senior diets should include highly digestible ingredients to allow your senior pet to get the most from their food.

As you can see, feeding your senior pet can be complex and knowing the health status of your canine companion is important. Although you may not be able to prevent these aging changes, you can influence their progression with good diet and supplement choices. All of these steps will improve quality of life and keep your companion by your side living a longer and healthier life.

More on Dog Food and Nutrition

What to Feed a Puppy
Feeding Your Active or Working Dog
6 Pet Food Ingredients That Burn Fat

This article was written by PetCareRx Consulting Nutritionist Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine. The information contained, however, is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian.

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