Feeding Senior Dogs

By Canadian Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (CAVN), Sarah K. Abood, DVM, PhD; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

The population of senior dogs is increasing. Better nutrition, safer lifestyles, and improvements to preventive health care have contributed to this trend.

While old age is not a disease, the body changes associated with aging make older dogs more vulnerable to medical problems and disease. Cancer, kidney disease, and heart disease are the most common causes of non-accidental death in dogs, but proper nutrition may help mitigate the risk of developing certain diseases and chronic conditions.

When is a dog considered senior?

Dogs are mature when they reach half of their anticipated life expectancy and senior when they are in the last 25% of their expected lifespan. Small breed dogs tend to live longer than large and giant breeds, so large and giant breed dogs are considered senior between 5 and 8 years of age, while small breed dogs are considered senior at 10–11 years of age. The term geriatric is used when a dog has lived beyond the average lifespan for their breed and size.

At these approximate mid-life points, it is common for dogs to gain some weight and exhibit age-related physical and behavioral changes. But before you consider switching to a senior dog food formula, it is important to first consult with your dog's veterinarian for a thorough physical and metabolic evaluation. Typically, a “senior pet visit” includes performing a complete physical exam, collecting a thorough diet history, running two blood tests, and collecting a urine sample for urinalysis. Since many of the diseases commonly found in older dogs can be detected early on, your dog's veterinarian can perform a nutritional assessment during the physical examination to identify potential risk factors for a nutrient deficiency or excess.

Unfortunately, there is no single blood test that can be done to judge a dog’s nutritional status, but your veterinarian can combine information from the diet history and physical exam to get a good idea of your dog’s overall nutritional health. Based on their assessment, your veterinarian may recommend food with a specific nutrient profile to help support one or more of your dog’s age-related conditions.

What is a nutrient profile?

A nutrient profile is a specific combination of protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Nutrient profiles are designed by pet food manufacturers to market their products for the different stages of a dog’s life. For example, the nutrient profile of a senior dog will differ from that of a growing puppy. It will also differ based on your dog's size and health - the nutrient profile of a healthy senior dog will be different than that of a dog with advanced kidney disease.

What do I need to know about switching to a senior dog diet?

It’s important to understand that there are no established nutrient requirements for senior dogs. What this means is that pet food manufacturers don’t have a standardized list of minimum nutrients required for a senior dog food. Adult dogs vary broadly in when and how they begin to age, so it is difficult to organize nutrient needs into a single set of requirements.

"Adult dogs vary broadly in when and how they begin to age, so it is difficult to organize nutrient needs into a single set of requirements."

Most senior dog foods are formulated with appropriate nutrient limits and are less calorie-dense (fewer calories per cup or can) than rations for puppies and young adults; however, some of these products may have protein calorie levels similar to growth diets. Amounts of nutrients found in senior dog foods can vary widely. Your best resource when choosing a diet for your senior dog is your veterinarian.

How do I control calorie intake and avoid nutrient excesses?

It is important to regularly monitor your dog’s body condition and muscle condition and keep both in a good range, as discussed in the handout “Obesity in Dogs.”

For healthy mature and senior dogs, avoiding nutrient excesses means not feeding a product marketed as “all life stages”, since these diets are formulated to meet nutrient requirements for growing puppies. Controlling a dog’s daily calorie intake can reduce the risk for obesity and other diseases such as cancer, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, and immune-mediated disorders. Eating 20% to 25% fewer calories  has been shown in adult dogs to slow the progression of age-related changes and increase a dog's lifespan.

In very old dogs, it may be more important to increase their caloric and protein intake to sustain a normal physique as their body condition and weight naturally decline with advanced age. The key principles for feeding a senior dog are to:

  • control calorie intake and avoid nutrient excesses,
  • ensure proper hydration, and
  • provide a balanced diet that has appropriate levels of fat, protein, phosphorus, and sodium.

Portion feeding plays an important role in the feeding management of older pets. By shifting from food left out all the time to delivering your dog’s daily nutrients in two or more meals, you can quickly see if your dog is eating all their food. A decreased or absent appetite can signal an underlying medical problem, and it is one of the most common reasons why dogs are taken to their family veterinarian. Portion feeding also allows you to better control exactly how many calories your dog is getting each day.

Be sure to ask your veterinarian for a specific portion recommendation and divide the daily volume into two, three, or four small meals, depending upon your schedule. Try not to rely on the feeding chart on the product label for more than a couple of weeks, since it can overestimate how much should be fed. You need a portion recommendation tailored to your specific dog's needs.

Once you know the appropriate quantity to feed at each meal, you can schedule regular weigh-ins at your veterinarian's office to monitor any weight gain or loss. You should also ask your veterinarian to show you how to get a body condition score from your dog at home.

How do I ensure proper hydration?

Water is the single most important nutrient for dogs of any age. Senior dogs, however, may be more prone to dehydration because they may forget to drink. Make sure your dog has regular access to fresh, clean water and monitor the amount of water left in the bowl to see if there is any reduction in water intake. Clean and freshen water bowls regularly to eliminate built-up debris that may deter a dog from drinking.

You can offer canned food to increase the amount of water your dog gets, or you can try adding ice cubes to your dog’s water bowl. Some owners purchase a pet drinking fountain, especially if their pet likes running water.

What's the right mix of fat, protein, phosphorus, and sodium?

Many interrelated metabolic changes occur as dogs age, and their daily energy requirements may decrease by 12%–13%.

Protein is a critical nutrient for maintaining good physical health in the face of aging. While the optimal amount of protein that should be fed to senior dogs remains a topic of discussion, there is agreement that higher protein quality is important. Although high protein food has not been shown to cause kidney disease in healthy older dogs, it is valuable to re-evaluate the protein and phosphorus levels in a dog’s diet once kidney function is compromised.

Excessive sodium in the diet can contribute to kidney disease and hypertension, both of which can be present for a long time before clinical signs emerge. For this reason, twice-yearly assessments by the family veterinarian can help identify emerging medical conditions in senior dogs.

Do I need to be concerned about offering treats and snacks to a senior dog?

It is important to include treats and snacks in any discussion with your veterinarian about appropriate food choices for your senior dog. Unfortunately, many dog treats are loaded with excess calories, like “junk food” for people.

Your family vet may suggest purchasing commercial treats that reflect the nutrient balance of your dog’s chosen senior diet. Low-calorie treats are appropriate for dogs of any age, and typically contain fewer than 10 calories per piece. Snacks fed from the dinner table are not balanced and may contain high levels of fat and sodium. Water-based vegetables, like fresh or frozen green beans, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, and lettuce are very low in calories and make good, guilt-free snacks for senior dogs. Likewise, small servings of apples, bananas, oranges, or various berries served fresh or frozen make excellent treats.

With a bit of planning and monitoring, you can lay the nutritional foundation for your dog's healthy senior years.

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