Feeding your senior dog

There’s a school of thought that older dogs require a different diet compared to younger dogs.

And while it is true that as your dog ages, their body and in turn their dietary requirements, can change, there’s no hard and fast rule for if or when this should happen.

When does a dog become ‘old’?

Unlike in humans where there’s pretty clear definitions of when some is young, middle aged and elderly or senior, the lines are much more blurred when it comes to dogs.

Unsurprisingly, a small dog like a Chihuahua is going to age in a very different way and at a different rate to a bigger dog like a Great Dane. And certain breeds are also prone to underlying genetic issues which will impact on how they age.

So, with no clear definition of when a dog becomes ‘senior’, how do you know when – or if – you should change their diet to one more appropriate for an older dog.

The short answer is, monitor your dog, their overall health, and their individual needs, tailoring their diet as required, irrespective of their age.

Let’s talk about the elements of your dog’s diet that you should be more mindful of as they grow older.

1. Water

Mature dogs are more prone to dehydration due to physiological changes in the ageing process, medications and diseases.

To reduce the risk of your dog becoming dehydrated, they must have easy access to fresh water. Place water bowls in several locations in the house and garden and carry a water bowl when out and about.

You can monitor their water intake to ensure they’re getting the amount that’s just right (not too much and not too little).

While water intake is influenced by several factors, an aging healthy dog should consume around the equivalent of their daily energy intake (calculated in kcal) expressed in mls. So a dog requiring 500 kcal a day will need to consume 500 mls (0.5L) water daily.

2. Protein – the amount and the quality 

There’s a common misconception that as a dog gets older, their requirement for protein decreases. The rationale behind this thinking is that maintaining high levels of protein in an older dog’s diet can lead to chronic kidney disease.

This is not true. In fact, the opposite may be true – senior dogs can often require more protein than their younger counterparts.

Protein supports the immune system, the central nervous system, helps prevent muscle weakening, wasting and degradation and contributes to wound healing.

Continuing to include protein in your older dog’s diet also helps minimize age-associated losses in the body’s protein reserves, which are needed to carry out these essential bodily functions.

Consider the quality of the protein you’re feeding your dog. Different sources vary in digestibility and content of valuable amino acids. Animal source proteins generally provide superior amino acid balance when compared with the amino acid balance supplied by plant source proteins.

You can find more information about good sources of protein in this blog post.

3. Fiber 

Much like humans, as dogs age their bodies and the processes that function in them slow down.

This includes slowing down of their digestive tract. This means your dog can have difficulty digesting food and so in turn, may become constipated.

If your dog starts to suffer from constipation in their twilight years, it may be useful to increase their fiber intake. As with protein, it’s important to consider the type of fiber you’re giving your senior dog.

Try and avoid commercial products that bulk-up foods with fiber that has no calorific or nutritional content. Instead, opt to provide fiber in other forms, like through fresh fruit and veg.

There’s more information on good sources of fiber in this blog post.

Just be mindful that it doesn’t take a lot of fiber to make a difference to your dog’s digestive system, so don’t go over board and make sure you keep an eye on your dog’s bowel movements if you’ve increased their fiber intake. If they start having diarrhoea, you may need to cut back again.

4. Inflammation fighting foods 

Fluctuations in the immune system and how it works are among the many changes that happen to you dog’s body as they age.

When these changes happen, it can lead to auto-immune disorders like arthritis and can also cause maldigestion.

For this reason, it’s best to limit a senior dog’s intake of foods that have been known to cause inflammation. This includes red meats and refined carbohydrates.

Instead, try and include foods that have the potential to act as anti-inflammatories – for example, fatty fish like mackerel, wild salmon and sardines. Green leafy vegetables and fruits.

5. Fill your dog’s bowl with fruits and vegetables

As well as being a good source of fiber and having anti-inflammatory properties, fruit and veg are a great source of a variety of minerals, vitamins and other nutrients that help to maintain your dog’s overall health.

Look for fruits and vegetables that are rich in color and feed a rainbow of them to insure your dog get a mix of the different nutrients they offer.

Good options are: sweet potato, pumpkin, carrot, kale, broccoli, spinach, raspberry, blueberry, apples and banana.

Plain frozen fruits and vegetables are okay and a great alternative if you can’t get your hands on fresh. Overripe fruits might not taste great to you but they’re just fine for your dog.

6. Fewer calories, not fewer nutrients 

Broadly speaking, older, less active dogs have a 12-13% lower daily energy intake requirement than their younger counterparts, meaning they require fewer calories per day.

On top of this, as dogs age, their thyroid function can become impaired and their metabolic rate (how fast they can breakdown food) slows down. This means your dog won’t be burning calories as quickly as they would have when they were younger and are prone to gaining weight easily.

It’s important to ensure your dog doesn’t gain too much weight as they age because if they do, it can have serous negative ramifications on their health.

The obvious way to give your dog fewer calories is by feeding them less food. What may not be as obvious is that while doing this, you will inadvertently end up reducing their nutrient intake.

But there is a way around this. By carefully selecting foods that are denser in nutrients (i.e. higher density foods) you can reduce your dog’s calorie intake while ensuring they still get all the nutrients they require.

So, monitoring and controlling your dog’s calorie intake as they age can help prevent weight gain and ensure they remain healthy, but make sure you’re doing this in a mindful way that doesn’t alter their nutrient intake.

7. To supplement or not to supplement 

I’ve previously written that when it comes to supplements, there’s no right or wrong answer as to whether or not to include them in your dog’s diet.

But it’s fair to say that as your dog gets older, it’s a good idea to give the inclusion of supplements some serious thought.

There are a wide variety of supplements to choose from, which can have a variety of benefits including preventing and reducing the symptoms of certain diseases, reducing inflammation and just generally maintaining overall health.

Below is a list of some to consider including in your dog’s diet:

  • Joint support: fish body oil, MSM, glucosamine, chondroitin
  • Digestive health: digestive enzymes, acidophilus
  • Heart health: taurine, vitamin B, vitamin E, fish body oil, CoQ10
  • Skin & coat health: vitamin B, vitamin E, fish oil, zinc, primrose oil

When it comes to supplements, as with everything be careful not to over do it. Supplements should be used in moderation and as part of balanced diet.

Unconditional love

It can be hard to watch your dog getting older, but just because they will age, it doesn’t mean they’ll stop being your beloved pet.

Like Bonnie Wilcox once said: “Old dogs, like old shoes, are comfortable. They might be a bit out of shape and a little worn around the edges, but they fit well”.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also enjoy these blogs:

How much protein should you feed your dog?

Carbohydrates – do dogs need them?

What are antioxidants, and are they good for dogs too?

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