When it comes to the subject of the senior dog diet, the prevailing opinion, even among veterinarians, seems to be, “It depends.” There are no set-in-stone rules for what constitutes a “senior dog.” It usually depends on the breed, the dog’s size, even the dog’s lifestyle.
Every dog will have their own nutritional needs and dietary concerns as they age. No single senior dog diet covers all dogs. Even evaluating the age at which we consider a dog a senior varies according to breed, size, and lifestyle, but most veterinarians will consider dogs "senior" at the age of 7 or 8 years old, according to Deena Krestel-Rickert of the Missouri-based Pettec pet food consulting firm. She says of their diet:
"Generally, older dogs need a complete and balanced diet that is lower in calories but still has protein and fat and more fiber. Some can be fed a normal diet, but in smaller quantities."
What Is the Definition of an Older Dog?
Generally speaking, experts consider a dog as “older” when they are in the last third of their expected lifespan. With that in mind, remember that some dogs, just like some people, seem younger or older than their numerical age.
Dogs now live longer for several reasons. Factors such as treatment, healthcare, and nutrition can all have an impact on a dog’s physically perceived age. Also, animal nutritionists now have a much better understanding of a dog’s dietary needs throughout its life.
Besides the general age parameters, there are, more often than not, specific conditions commonly found in some older dogs. These usually will demand specific dietary changes and adaptations.
Thankfully, what may seem like a debilitating and life-long issue may be something treatable. Sometimes, they can be treated with medication. And sometimes, they can be alleviated or eliminated with a few reasonable modifications in diet.
Senior Dog Diet as a Treatment for Diseases and Maladies
Higher levels of antioxidants seem to be beneficial in combating issues such as senile dementia in most dogs. Other dietary changes might include increasing the fatty acids and glucosamine levels in dogs with arthritis or joint pain.
Dogs suffering from kidney, liver, or heart diseases can be helped by having their sodium, phosphorous, and protein levels reduced. As some dogs grow older, they can develop constipation, which is a condition that requires increased doses, or increased intake of fiber. However, be careful not to overcompensate if you do have to increase the fiber intake because Too much fiber can result in painful or even dangerous constipation in older dogs.
We can expect many of the physical changes that occur with age in almost all dogs. These include the loss of fur, loss of muscle mass, weight gain or obesity, dental issues, intestinal problems, and a lowered resistance to infection. We can't treat all of these issues by diet alone. However, in some cases, a simple change in food or the addition of some common supplements can help. Many go a long way in keeping your pet happy, healthy, and active for years to come.
Read the Label: First Things First
Just as with humans, when caring for an older dog, make yourself aware of just exactly what ingredients are going into their food. Generally, you want to look at the first ingredients first when examining the label. Just as in human food products, the first listed ingredient will be the one most prevalent in the can, bag, or box.
If the first listed ingredient is chicken, you can be sure that chicken is the primary ingredient. However, some veterinarians contend that the first five ingredients tell a complete story. For example, the first ingredient may be chicken, but if the next four are all things such as corn, grains, or meal, the food may have more grain than chicken.
Also, be on the lookout for listings of “byproducts” on the label. Susan Thixton, the author of the book "Buyer Beware: The Crimes, Lies, and Truth About Pet Food," states that byproducts are something that pet owners should be aware of. "
By-products are parts of a slaughtered animal that are not commonly consumed by humans," she says. "However, byproducts can include feathers, fur, intestines, and unhealthy or diseased internal organs."
This isn’t illegal, but these things may not be what you want your beloved dog to eat. Besides having little or no nutritional value, they may also be harmful to an animal with a delicate stomach or some other gastrointestinal condition.
Some Obvious Things to Consider
Some dietary changes are more obvious than others for your dog. Select lower calorie foods if your buddy is less active than they used to be to help them avoid gaining weight. Choose smaller kibble or softer foods for dogs with dental or mandible issues.
If your pet is having digestive issues, feed proteins that your pet can more easily absorb. It some cases, it may even be necessary to put your dog on a diet leaning more toward cuts of fresh meat. These will provide the protein they require in a more digestible form.
All dry and even some semi-moist dog foods are dehydrated, and this will cause your dog to have to drink much more water. These foods place more stress on your dog's internal organs than a diet of fresh meats.
Some pet owners check that their dog's food has some supplements added for a specific condition. However, you should be aware that the label can be deceptive. For example, the Omega-3 listed on the label to combat disorders such as inflammation is also very sensitive to heat and light.
While it may have been added to your dog's food, the manufacturing process renders it virtually useless as a supplement. Sometimes, your best bet is to add your supplements.
When added to your pet’s food, fish oil containing unprocessed Omega-3 will help in several meaningful ways. Besides being good for the skin and coat, it will also help with joint issues, inflammatory and autoimmune disease, cardiovascular health, and neurological problems.
Sardines packed in water are ideal for this purpose. However, for larger dogs, canned jack mackerel and pink salmon provide ample amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids to your senior dog diet at a low cost.
'People Food' in the Senior Dog Diet
Once, many dog food companies once promoted adherence to the rule of "dog food only" for your pet's health. However, some "people food" is perfectly suitable for your senior dog's consumption. After all, people and dogs both share similar nutritional needs and enjoy the benefits of the same food options.
In fact, as people begin to relate more closely to their family dogs, pet food manufacturers have responded by boasting about many new ingredients that once were the sole purview of human consumption. Foods like pumpkins, blueberries, and other anti-oxidant rich fruits and vegetables now feature significantly in many commercially prepared dog food formulas.
Eggs provide adequate protein and several vitamins and minerals to a senior dog diet. And they're relatively inexpensive and very easy to add. Offer them to your dog raw, soft-boiled, or scrambled, and your dog will gladly consume them.
Yogurt is another natural source of probiotics you'll find easy to feed to your dog. Use plain, low-fat or non-fat yogurt to avoid the sugars of flavored types. Especially beneficial to older dogs with digestive issues, low-fat yogurt has less than 20 calories per ounce. Even smaller dogs can benefit from a tablespoon or two.
Blueberries come loaded with antioxidants. Most dogs also like bananas, melon, and some even like citrus. Be sure not to feed your dog any fruit with pits, though. And avoid raisins and grapes as they can cause kidney problems.
Green leafy vegetables are better for your furry friend than grains and starches. Some dogs consider raw veggies, such as peas, zucchini, and carrots, a treat. However, avoid the veggies that can cause gas, like broccoli or other cruciferous vegetables.
Cooked chicken can be a simple and exciting source of protein for your pet. Almost all dogs consider cooked chicken a special treat, and they'll consume it with their tail wagging. It's not difficult to prepare, and most pooches will appreciate it even if all you do is boil it. And it's also not very expensive, especially considering that it’s for your best friend.
Leftovers can also be an acceptable addition to a senior dog diet, but be sure that you give your dog something that he needs and not just whatever is on your plate. Make sure you offer healthy leftovers like meat, fish, or green veggies. Avoid fatty scraps as they can cause your dog to gain excess weight.
Not Every Older Dog Needs a Special Senior Dog Diet
If you're satisfied with your pet's senior dog diet, and he continues happy and healthy, there may be no need to change anything at this time. If it isn’t broken; don’t fix it. However, pay attention to any changes in your pal’s mood or behavior. Just because your dog has reached, “a certain age,” doesn’t mean he will automatically have physical issues or special dietary needs.
However, it does mean that it may be time to pay closer attention to his activities so that you'll notice if he has any issues causing him discomfort or inconvenience. If you use common sense and make the proper adjustment to his diet, you can still have many wonderful and active years together.
What are your senior dog's favorite treats? Have you seen improvement in your older dog's health by changing his food or adding a nutritional supplement? Let us know in the comments below. By sharing your experience, more of our readers will be able to keep their senior dog in peak health.