Senior dogs make wonderful, rewarding pets, as they tend to be extremely well-behaved and affectionate. It’s 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. There are a number of senior dog diet foods on the market, but many products labeled “adult” or “all life stage” are equally good. Beyond labels, it’s most important to evaluate foods for critical features that meet the dietary requirements for senior dogs. Here are five things to look for:
1: Elevated protein content
Muscle mass in dogs, as in people, declines with age and increased dietary protein can help to prevent that decline. Many still believe that lower-protein diets protect from kidney disease and are therefore preferred in older pets—but there simply isn’t any evidence to support this. If your senior dog has have kidney disease, talk to your vet about how to find the right balance. For senior dogs, I recommend a diet with more than 75 grams of protein per 1,000 calories (and often go higher than 90).
2: Easy to digest
Senior dogs may have less efficient digestion of critical nutrients than younger dogs, so a highly digestible diet is often preferred. Diets lower in insoluble fiber are more digestible as are those with high-quality proteins. If your dog’s appetite is also finicky, digestible diets high in fat may increase the energy absorbed per volume of food. Canned or fresh diets may generally be a bit more digestible than kibble. Some companies report the digestibility of their foods; look for those with greater than 80 percent digestibility.
3: Elevated DHA (and EPA) found in fish oil
DHA is one of the long-chain fatty acids that’s frequently discussed in fish oil. There’s emerging evidence that it may help to preserve cognitive function, like learning and memory, in older pets. Dogs will consume fish oil most easily when it’s incorporated into their food, but, if it’s not in your dog’s food, you can also supplement. The dose I often use is about 20 mg/kg per day or 45 mg per pound. (The equivalent amount when present in the food is about 500 mg DHA per 1,000 calories.) For osteoarthritic senior dogs, EPA, another fatty acid found in fish oil, will help to reduce inflammation in the joints. The minimal starting dose I’d recommend is 30 mg/kg, or a diet containing 750 mg EPA per 1,000 calories. For diets that report the combined EPA and DHA, this equates to 1.25 grams per 1,000 calories.
4: Elevated vitamin and mineral content
Senior pets are generally less active than younger pets, and so they should be fed fewer calories to prevent weight gain. What they shouldn’t get, though, is fewer vitamins and minerals—so the food should be fortified with adequate amounts, especially once they’re eating less of it. All life stages foods will in some cases have higher amounts of vitamins and minerals than adult foods, as should diets designed for calorie restriction. A veterinary nutritionist can help to evaluate whether the concentrations are appropriate for your dog’s needs. (To find a vet nutritionist near you, check out acvn.org.)
5: Highly palatable
Senior dogs may show changes in their appetite and eating cycle—this could be due to cognitive changes, underlying medical conditions, altered metabolism, and changes in their sleep-wake cycle, and other habits. To keep senior dogs eating properly and on a schedule, it’s important to offer a food they enjoy. Many canned and fresh dog foods are more palatable than their kibble counterparts. Just be warned that once you offer these foods, your dog may become very selective—and often win in a battle of wills. That means you should offer these foods only when you’re prepared to feed them long-term. Dogs’ flavor preferences are for fat first, then protein, then carbohydrate. Feeding a higher-protein diet also comes with the benefits mentioned above. I often recommend a rotational feeding strategy for all my clients, but especially for senior dogs. And keep some flavors in reserve—senior dogs with medical conditions may develop an aversion to the flavors they were eating while sick, and you’ll want something new and tasty to sub in.