It is natural for a dog owner to worry about the health of their aging dog. Worrying about your senior dog will not stop them from growing old, but caring about their nutrition will help to slow down the aging process.
So, what to feed senior dogs if we want them to have a long and healthy life? Even the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) hasn’t shared any guidelines on a diet for older dogs, but we did some research, and here is what we found.
Nutritional Needs of Senior Dogs
Just like any other dog, a senior dog diet comprises a combination of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fats. The difference is that senior dogs need these nutrients in a different percentage combination than younger ones. This is because they have different needs because of their age.
The point is that no special dietary requirements are mentioned anywhere to ensure your furry friend is on their best diet. However, there are specific points to remember when feeding older dogs:
- Make sure that the dog remains hydrated
- Control the calorie daily intake
- Don’t reduce protein intake. Replace it with high-quality protein instead
- Avoid excess salt (sodium) and phosphorus in their food to improve organ health
- Add supplements that help reduce the risk of arthritis
You can also consider purchasing special prescription diets for your dogs. But keep an eye on the ingredient mix and ensure it is appropriate. We discuss the best diet for old dogs in the next sections.
Keep the Protein
Many dog parents or owners believe an ideal senior dog’s nutrition shouldn’t include protein. We now know this is not true, and senior dogs need a high protein intake to curb the loss of muscle mass.
Seniors require at least 50 percent additional high-quality protein compared to young dogs. Raw and muscle meat are the best foods to include protein in a senior dog’s diet.
Dogs find it difficult to absorb an excess of protein in their diet. Therefore, what is also important is the quality of protein. High-quality proteins are easily absorbed in the body and do not contribute to obesity.
While you should not reduce protein from a senior dog’s diet, too much of anything can also be bad. For example, too much protein can impact renal function if your older dog already has kidney problems. Therefore, as a rule of thumb, restrict high-quality protein intake to 28-32% (of dry matter).
Low in Sodium
If you are wondering what to feed older dogs, make sure to avoid high sodium content from their diet. High sodium intake can lead to kidney, heart disease, and blood pressure problems in older dogs.
AAFCO recommends 0.6% of sodium in the overall diet for growing dogs and 0.03% of the diet for adult dogs (this is on a per kg of food basis, not per kg of dog weight basis). For senior dogs struggling with kidney or blood pressure-related issues, even this much amount of sodium might be too high.
A 2011 study showed that even adult dog-specific prescription dog foods contain too much sodium (33 to 412mg/kCal). So make sure to go through the ingredient list when buying them carefully.
One way to learn if your dog is consuming high levels of sodium is to notice if he is thirstier than usual and is drinking a high amount of water. Excess thirst is an indication of hypernatremia (high sodium in the blood).
Give Some Calories
As your dog ages, you must control its calorie intake to avoid obesity. Since dogs grow more lethargic as they grow older, it is natural that you should reduce their calories. A 20 to 30% cut in calories is a good idea for most dogs. However, there is also a catch – you should increase calorie intake in very old dogs.
The reason is that while senior dogs start gaining weight, age also causes very old dogs to lose weight. They start to lose muscle mass as the body grows older. So if you want to know how many calories should a senior dog eat, the answer is that it depends on how old they are.
On average, however, you need to reduce calories for most dogs. Higher calories put your dog at risk of many other problems: osteoarthritis, kidney disease, heart disease, and cancer.
Portion control is the best way to bring down calorie intake gradually. Portioning diets also help you determine if your dog is avoiding food very quickly, which is another problem associated with aging.
Low in Phosphorus
Phosphorus is a healthy nutrient and works with calcium to make bones stronger. During their growing years, dogs require at least 0.8% of phosphorus in their diet. However, the need for phosphorous and calcium decreases as your dog ages. It is all right to include 0.5% phosphorous content in your older dog’s diet.
If an elder dog’s diet includes high phosphorous content, it might lead to several physical problems, including kidney diseases, hyperthyroidism, and cancer. Suppose you are wondering which foods have the right phosphorus levels. We recommend you consult your veterinarian for the same.
However, we would like you to know that some popular dog food brands, such as Natural Balance and Blue Buffalo, have a low percentage of phosphorus to suit the nutritional needs of elder dogs.
As your dog ages, it might suffer from weaker bones, digestive issues, or other old-age problems. However, it doesn’t mean that all old dogs suffer the same problems. A dog suffering from osteoporosis or osteoarthritis will need calcium but might have a perfectly healthy gut and does not need fiber.
So, it is best to understand your dog’s health and issues by consulting a vet and then decide on the supplements that would work well with it. Even so, supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, EPA, and DHA can be included in all senior dogs’ diets. These three nutrients help fight osteoarthritis and decline of mental functions, while EPA and DHA.
You can also include antioxidants, B vitamins, digestive enzymes, L-arginine, and probiotics in your dog’s food. These nutrients are good for senior dogs’ physical and mental health.
How to Avoid Excess and Deficiency in Your Senior Dog's Diet
Every dog’s body evolves with age. We should focus on creating a balance between too little and too much while working on their diet. Here are a few suggestions for you to follow to avoid the deficiency or excess in your older dog’s diet.
Water is an essential nutrient for a senior dog. Mature dogs are prone to dehydration during their sunset years. So, ensure your dog has easy access to drinking water even if they eat less food. Try to include canned food and add ice cubes in their food bowl.
When feeding senior dogs, choose quality over quantity. For instance, go for grain-free and filler-free foods. You should prefer white meat or salmon over chicken (higher quality proteins and easier to absorb) to fulfill your dog’s protein needs.
Avoid too many carbohydrates and instead focus on serving more fiber. Fiber will help with digestion, which is a common problem in older dogs. Add high content of omega-three fatty acids to reduce hair fall and dullness of coat with growing age while also boosting their immune system.
A poorly balanced diet increases the risk of several health issues, including kidney problems, heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, hair fall, lethargy, etc. Itchiness, licking their paws, dry skin, deteriorating immune system, and yeast infections can also result from the lack of balance in their diet.
Do Senior Dogs Have Special Nutritional Needs?
Yes, they do. Just like human beings, their bodies also change as they grow older. They have to deal with deteriorating levels of energy and the problem of obesity. Pet parents must understand that it is essential to bring several changes in their diets as they grow old, so they do not become prone to the diseases of old age.
Here are some suggestions on what to feed old dogs:
- High-fiber content, including legumes, leafy vegetables, and fruits
- Low-calorie food
- High-quality protein
- Omega 3 fatty acids
- Considerably low-fat treats
- Low sodium content
- Clean drinking water
- Make food palatable for them
- Focus on organ health
- In case of lack of balance in diet, add or include supplements.
While the above content works well with the special diet of most senior dogs, not all elder dogs’ diet needs to be the same. For example, a dog suffering from kidney ailments will need a low protein diet, while another senior dog with heart disease would require low-sodium food.
Getting your dog checked for any ailment every six months during their old age is essential to understand if they need a special diet. Give them a diet that would work specifically on organs requiring concern and attention.
Besides diet and regular health check-ups, you should also ensure that your older dog keeps its body active. Take them out for a walk and run around; any movement is good for their body and helps maintain their energy levels.
So, the answer to the question: of what to feed senior dogs is quite simple: feed them as per their needs. Reduce protein, bring down calories, cut down on sodium and phosphorus and add a lot of health supplements like Omega fatty acids, DHA and EPA. Get them checked up regularly, and figure out what needs to be changed in their diets.