Nutrition for Inactive Adult Dogs

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

My dog is getting older and he is not as active as he once was. Can I prevent weight gain?

Over 60% of dogs in North America are either overweight or obese, so paying attention to the balance between activity and calorie intake is important. The first step in preventing weight gain is to talk to your veterinarian for guidance about two things:

  • What nutrient formulation is most appropriate for this dog at this time in his life?
  • What portion should be fed at each meal? Another way to think about this is to calculate a total daily portion and divide it by however many meals are desired.

If your dog has any specific health issues like kidney disease, he may need to eat a very precise therapeutic nutrient profile in order to remain healthy.

I notice that some dog foods are marked “light,” “lower calorie,” or “weight control.” Should I choose one of these foods?

Unfortunately, dog food marketing is filled with statements that sometimes over-promise in weight management. Your veterinarian can help you sort through the hype as you choose a formulation that best fits your dog’s needs. The dry matter analysis of dog food formulations provides data that allows for a head-to-head comparison. Dry matter data provides protein levels and fat content, as well as information like the sodium content. It is also important to find out the calorie density – how many calories per cup or per can.

Once I choose a food my dog likes, how do I prevent him from gaining weight?

Once you have chosen a formulation and calculated a reasonable daily portion (based on calorie density), the best way to stay on track and prevent unwanted weight gain is to combine portion control with regular, formal weigh-ins. Regular weigh-ins every 4 to 8 weeks, ideally at the veterinarian’s office, provide accountability and help prevent unplanned weight gain and weight loss.

You can also help your dog maintain a healthy weight is by using interactive toys to encourage exercise and mental stimulation. There are many great options in pet stores and on the internet for dogs of all abilities and talents.

Which snacks or treats can I can give to help keep my dog lean?  

Talk to your veterinarian about the most appropriate snacks for your dog. There are many prescription treats made specifically for weight loss. That said, it is reasonable to reach for snacks that are natural and low in calorie density. For instance, water-based vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, and cauliflower all are good options. Both fresh and frozen veggies will work. Most dogs like frozen vegetables right out of the freezer because they are crunchy and cold. Another “sin free” snack for dogs is air popped popcorn with no butter or salt.

Limit your use of carrots, because they are high in sugar and may be a bit too calorie-dense for weight management.

Be careful when choosing treats or snacks from the grocery or pet store shelves. It is important to determine the calorie content of any treat in order to better calculate how many can/should be offered in a day. Your veterinarian can provide input and guidance, based on the dry matter analysis of the treats you are considering.

Are there any other possible reasons for my dog’s inactivity?

Many inactive adult dogs are dealing with a medical issue that prevents them from doing all the things they would otherwise do. For instance, some dogs may have lower stamina due to an underlying metabolic illness like an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). This is a straightforward disease to diagnose with bloodwork and to treat with twice daily medication.

Another explanation for inactivity in an adult dog, and a much more common explanation than hypothyroidism, is pain from osteoarthritis (OA). Approximately 20% of all dogs, and 80-90% of aging dogs suffer from painful OA. It is easy for dog owners to mistakenly presume that the signs of OA are simply signs that the dog is “getting old.”

  • Dogs tend to be very stoic about their pain. They will mask their pain as they try to do everything they have always done. They do not tend to whine or cry out in pain as we may expect.
  • Additionally, OA is an insidious disease that progresses over time, so the signs develop gradually. Losing the ability to be active, losing stamina, losing interest in family activities – all are potential signs of pain but they can be difficult to see when they come on slowly. 

Other conditions that may be responsible for decreased activity in older dogs include:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Addison’s disease (hypoadrenocorticism)
  • Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism)
  • Laryngeal paralysis
  • Chronic respiratory disease

Inactive adult dogs should be evaluated for OA and other metabolic diseases that can contribute to decreased energy, decreased stamina, and decreased activity. Once diagnosed and treated appropriately, these dogs may not be inactive for long!

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