Considerations for Feeding your Senior Dog
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
People often ask -when is my dog considered a senior? Chronological age can vary from biological age due to many factors -giant breed vs small breed as an example, but as a general guide:
a small breed can be considered a senior at ~8-10 years,
a medium sized dog ~7-8 years,
large plus breed ~5-7 years.
I would suggest using these guidelines as an indicator of when to start going for semi annual vet visits for lab work vs annual lab work. Health status can change quickly as a dog ages and catching things early via bloodwork/urinalysis can make a big difference.
Commercial Senior Dog Food
There are no specified nutrient requirements outlined by AAFCO (or FEDIAF) for seniors, so when you see a commercial food marketed as senior, know that any differences in that food should be compared to the adult food in the same brand. Perhaps there’s added glucosamine/chondroitin, or more glucosamine/chondroitin per mg/kg than the adult food, there may be fewer calories per cup- you will have to compare them to know. Well trained staff at your dog store should be able to help.
There are only specific nutrient requirements for the growth/reproduction stage and for adult maintenance. Any other labeling or marketing of lifestage is by the food manufacturer.
Foods that are “All Lifestage” (ALS) formulas are not AAFCO or FEDIAF separate requirements but must meet early growth requirements because they must support puppies. Puppy/growth requirements have the highest nutrient requirements and for that reason they are not my first choice for seniors.
Because mineral requirements for adult maintenance are lower, they are in my opinion, preferable for seniors because the various organ systems- liver, kidney, heart and endocrine systems may be slightly compromised. That said, completely changing formulas really depends on your individual dog and their ability to handle digestive changes. If they’ve been eating the same food their entire life any changes may cause digestive upset. Changes should be taken very slowly.
The Aging Process
As dogs age, their ability to counter internal and external stressors decreases- we can see changes in energy metabolism due to changes in organ systems, reduced physical activity and lean body mass. Changes in digestion, absorption of nutrients and microbiota shifts may be seen- providing smaller meals more often – 3x per day if you feed twice, can help with digestion.
As their sense of smell and taste changes we may need to look at more palatable foods to keep sufficient interest and thus adequate intake of food. Ensuring adequate nutrient intake, while maintaining an optimal body condition is very important to help support the aging process. There is no need to lower protein intake simply because a dog is a senior - in fact high quality protein is important to maintain muscle mass.
Cognitive changes also need to be considered and that includes nutrients to support brain health such as DHA and a good Omega 6:3 ratio, Vitamin D, medium chain triglycerides, and B vitamins. Don’t let your senior dog become a couch potato- continue daily walks, shortened in length if necessary but perhaps more frequently while ensuring plenty of opportunity to sniff. Daily walks are not only great for maintaining muscle but for mental stimulation which is so important for brain health. Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks! Use food puzzles for a part of their meals, hide treats in your house or yard and let them sniff them out.
Supporting the immune system and thyroid health by ensuring your dog’s balanced diet has optimal zinc, selenium, and iodine is important. As dogs age their reserves of nutrients can become depleted if their diet hasn’t been providing optimal amounts or if they aren’t eating enough of their food to get these needed nutrients.
Fresh Food Additions
I like to focus on fresh additions that provide joint support, Vitamin C to help with collagen synthesis, gut health and plenty of antioxidants for anti cancer benefits. Dog friendly bone broth, leafy greens, cruciferous veggies and berries can be wonderful additions if tolerated – just small amounts can provide benefits so there’s no need to overdo it. People tend to really focus on bottled supplements as their dog’s age but they should be added with a plan focused on the individual dog, their diet and history.
I hope you find these tips valuable and serve as a way to continue being your dog’s advocate and give our sweet seniors the great quality of life they deserve. If you're interested in guidance for your senior dog I offer a consult just for them :)