Senior Dog Food - A Feeding Guide

Every dog has different nutritional needs at each stage of its life, from a puppy to adulthood and to its golden years. As your dog transitions from an adult to a senior dog, it will lose weight and muscle mass. You should be feeding it a suitable and nutritious senior dog diet that can help prolong its life and health. 

In fact, a 14-year landmark study found that dogs fed according to their ideal body condition lived 1.8 years longer than their overweight littermates.

When is a dog considered a senior?

At what age is a dog considered to be in its golden years?

While there's no medically agreed-upon definition of what is considered a senior dog, large breed dogs have a shorter life expectancy and are considered senior at around 5 or 6 human years old. Smaller breeds live longer lives and are in their advanced years when they are around age 8 or 9 years old.

What should I feed my senior dog?

A suitable diet for older dogs should take into account the dietary factors that can help manage the physical and medical changes dogs experience as they age. Consult your vet when you want to address these conditions through diet, supplements, and other lifestyle changes.

It also helps to read up on senior dog food reviews to glean general insights. The best recipes for senior dogs in the market would contain above-average protein, moderate fat, below-average calories and no high-risk preservatives, which makes them ideal for dogs of advancing age.

Do older dogs need more protein or less? 

Older dogs may require a biologically appropriate diet. This means they usually require more protein, lower calories and specific nutrients in their diets such as  DHA for healthy joints and prebiotic fibre to support digestion. 

"How much protein does an old dog need?" This is a question vets are often asked and for good reason. Like humans, dogs start to lose muscle mass as they age. Extra protein supplies amino acids that help make up for that loss, and these keep ageing dogs stronger and more mobile. 

To get an accurate picture of the protein-to-calories ratio in your dog's current food, or if you’re unsure of your dog’s ideal weight and body condition, check with your veterinarian. 

What is the best senior dog food?

What ingredients are important in a senior dog diet? There are some of the ways a normal diet might differ from a regular adult dog diet. They are different in terms of nutrients, the meal texture for digestibility as well as special formulations for certain diseases like joints and dental issues.  

The best senior dog food is typically enhanced with supplements like MCTs (Medium-chain triglycerides), omega-3s, glucosamine and antioxidants. The results from this dog study confirm the benefits of MCT in managing clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in dogs.

Here are some of the primary food groups that you should pay attention to: 

Protein

As a major food group, sufficient protein for a dog is the first concern. If muscle mass is the problem, a high-protein diet is critical. Be sure the food you’re currently feeding your senior dog contains an above-average amount of meat-based protein and moderate calories.

Fat

If your dog is losing weight unexplainably, you may feed a diet higher in fat. Just be sure to run it by your vet first. On the other hand, a diet with reduced fat may be in order for an old dog struggling with obesity. 

Fibre

There are two categories of fibre: soluble, which serves as "food" for bacteria to ferment, and insoluble, which adds bulk to the stool that bacteria cannot break down. 

Mixed fibres, like psyllium, combine both and appear in some older dog foods to help provide general gastrointestinal support. For elder dogs with constipation troubles, it may help if you switch to a higher fibre diet to help them pass regular stools. 

As it is not yet clear which fibre modification (more or less), if any, is best for senior pets, large breed dogs often have a poorer stool quality as compared to smaller breeds. For this reason, too much soluble fibre can worsen the effect, and some insoluble fibre, like those in vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, can be beneficial. Your vet may suggest adding a portion of greens with extra insoluble fibre into your senior pet’s existing diet.

Calories

Lower-calorie foods are often the way to go because dogs in their advanced years tend to be less active than their younger counterparts. Since their activity levels drop as they age, it means they do not need to consume as many calories. Thus portion control is key. 

If your old dog is losing muscle mass, a vet might recommend a diet higher in protein and calories. Another key factor to consider is vitamins and minerals. Since the diet is designed for calorie restriction, it is important that their food is fortified with adequate amounts of necessary vitamins for optimal health. 

Specific Nutrients

Dogs, like humans, may show changes in memory and the ability to learn as they age. Some key nutrients that they would need are:

  • Medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs, a type of fat.

Recent research has shown that long-term supplementation of MCTs can improve cognitive function in ageing dogs. So look for coconut oil or palm oil as sources, or you can add MCTs to your dog's food as a supplement.

  • Antioxidants like those found in some vegetables, such as carotenoids (beta-carotene is one example) and other phytonutrients. 
  • Dogs are more likely to develop arthritis as they age, especially if they are overweight or obese. A diet with extra EPA and DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that appears in high concentrations in fish oil can help to lessen the symptoms.

    Food with more than 1 gram of EPA and DHA per 1,000 calories will be the most effective. Here is a study that attests modest improvement in the clinical signs of osteoarthritis in senior pet dogs. 

Finally, always consult your vet, who can help you determine what is right for your senior dog and make adjustments accordingly.

Should all older dogs eat senior dog food? 

There is no one best dog food for older dogs.  Evaluate your dog before making adjustments to its diet because every dog, more so an ageing one needs a different nutritional strategy. Just because your dog is in its golden years does not automatically qualify him for senior dog diet.

If your older dog is healthy and eating a quality, balanced diet, there’s no reason to switch to a specific dog diet.

What’s the #1 cause of food-related illness in senior dogs?

Obesity is the #1 cause of chronic disease and premature death in dogs. Even worse, dogs affected by obesity are more prone to arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer. Pancreatitis, a condition whereby the pancreas becomes inflamed is likewise linked to high dietary fat intake as well. 

Dogs also face issues with heart disease, especially if their diet isn't properly balanced. One key factor to heart disease in dogs is their sodium (salt) intake. Hence it is better to avoid feeding your senior dog human food that may be high in sodium and enhancers. 

Finding the best dog food for your older dog involves looking for certain beneficial ingredients whilst avoiding ingredients that could pose problems. Here are two to keep in mind:

  1. Certain grains: There is no evidence about grains being harmful to ageing dogs, but some grains may be less digestible than other plant-based proteins and carbohydrates. Some dogs may find diets high in grains and low in animal proteins less palatable too.
  2. Grain-free proteins: Interestingly, newer research shows an emerging association between low levels of blood taurine (a nutrient important for heart function) and grain-free diets that are high in legumes ( peas, lentils, and chickpeas). It may be because these grain-free protein sources are less digestible. 

How much food should I feed my senior dog?

It is impossible to predict the exact serving size that is perfect for each dog

Ideally, start with the package’s feeding instructions. Adjust that serving size up or down to reach and maintain your senior dog’s ideal weight. A vet can help keep your dog on track and with prescribing supplements or new foods over time.  Either method will work because you’re using it only as a starting point.

Check out this study for further reading on senior dog nutrition. As there is no current geriatric or matured dog food nutrient profile recognized by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), there is no guarantee that any brand of senior dog food will contain ideal amounts of protein or other nutrients mentioned here.

How to enhance your older dog's appetite?

Has your elder dog stopped eating? Do not stress too much; because as they age, dogs tend to become less active and eat less to maintain their weight. Cognitive changes could impact a matured dog's eating schedule or frequency, too. For a dog who is still in good shape, this is not a huge concern. However, there are a few steps you can take:

  • See your vet. A professional can help rule out any serious underlying causes and prescribe supplements or new foods to help keep your dog healthy into his twilight years. Set a regular schedule for checkups; twice a year is recommended for older dogs.
  • Switch it up. If your dog has developed an aversion to a particular flavour or ingredient, or if he is simply bored of his usual food, some changes in the taste of dog food for older dogs might help.
  • Add moisture. Canned, fresh, or raw foods are often more palatable than dry foods to picky dogs (of any age) due to the extra moisture inside. Adding a little water to kibble is also an option.
  • Pick an energy-dense food. They are usually higher in fat and therefore more palatable for older dogs.

It is understandable that owners want to give their senior pets the best life has to offer, and that includes food. Diet, as in all life stages for a dog, from puppyhood to the twilight years, is critical.