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5 FAQs about feeding senior dogs

At what age should I switch my adult dog to senior food (and is this really necessary)?

The age at which each dog should change food will depend very much on the breed and health of the dog. Smaller breeds mature faster, but age more slowly after reaching maturity. A small dog such as a toy poodle, terrier or Chihuahua isn't considered senior until much later than a larger breed (maybe 10 to 12 years old), and the Giant breeds are “senior citizens” at 5 or 6 years of age. Most vets, though, consider a dog 7 or 8 years or older to be a senior.

As dogs age, their health and stamina slowly decline. Their bodies lose the ability to repair themselves, maintain normal body functions and adapt to the stresses and changes in the environment. In addition, around age 7 for most dogs and age 5 for giant breed dogs, metabolism slows down and the dog requires fewer calories.

The switch to senior food should be considered carefully and your vet should be involved with this decision. Some dogs become less active as they age and therefore need fewer calories and nutrients. Other dogs need more due to poor digestion.

Correct diet is very important in the care of an aging dog. Senior foods may help older dogs to live happier and healthier lives, but they are not necessarily the right choice for an older dog with health problems. If your older dog has specific health problems (such as failing kidneys, diabetes or poor nutrient absorption in his gut) it will benefit from a diet that caters specifically to that problem. Senior dog foods that contain less energy and nutrition may be detrimental to the health of dogs with poor digestion. Most senior dog foods are lower in protein, sodium and phosphorus to support aging hearts and kidneys. Increased amounts of certain vitamins have also been found to be beneficial to the senior dog.

Obesity is a very common problem in older animals and should be taken seriously. It directly correlates to a decreased life expectancy, and may contribute to other health problems. Of course, many exceptions exist, and if a dog is active and in good shape, he may be able to be fed and exercised as if he is a younger dog. Routine veterinary exams and blood testing can help determine what diet is best for your older dog.

Each pet food manufacturer has a slightly different understanding of "senior" and therefore the age at which you change to senior food will depend largely on the brand of food you choose.

What are the characteristics of a good senior diet for dogs?

The older dog will need a good, well balanced diet that is lower in calories, but still has adequate protein and fat, and is higher in fibre. For some older dogs, you can continue to feed their regular food, but in a smaller quantity. Specially formulated senior diets are lower in calories and help to create a feeling of fullness. If your dog has significantly decreased kidney function, then a diet that is lower in protein will lower the workload for the kidneys. Lower fat usually translates to lower calories; so many senior diets have a fat level of around 8 to 12%. Older dogs are more prone to develop constipation, so senior diets are higher in fibre at around 3 to 5%. If your senior dog will eat dry food, it will help to control tartar build-up and reduce gum disease.

Can I still use the adult food on my senior dog?

In general, if your senior dog has no medical problems, is not overweight, and is active, your dog may remain on the adult diet it is used to. If you have questions regarding which food to feed your senior dog, contact your veterinarian.

Should I give my senior dog supplements?

Some older dogs will benefit from supplements. Ageing dogs have special nutritional needs, and some of those can be supplied in the form of supplements.

A large percentage of older dogs suffer from arthritis. They can benefit from vitamins and supplements, like MSM, chondroitin sulphate and glucosamine for their joints if combined with weight control and the proper exercise plan.

A vitamin/mineral supplement is recommended if your older dog is not receiving adequate amounts through his food. This can occur if your dog is not eating a complete balanced diet. A supplement may also benefit some older animals that tend to absorb fewer vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes through the intestinal tract, and lose more of them through the kidneys and urinary tract. Finally, some older animals eat less (due to conditions such as oral disease) and may not receive their daily needs of vitamins and minerals.

A fibre product such as wheat bran may also be given to help reduce the incidence of constipation if it occurs. Talk with your veterinarian to determine which supplements may be beneficial for your dog. 

What should I do if my senior dog won’t eat?

Most importantly, if your dog is getting thin and not eating well, he should have a complete veterinary exam to rule out any possible disease problems. If everything checks out, then you'll need to take steps to modify your dog's diet.

Some older dogs suffer a lack of weight gain and disinterest in food. If a dog normally eats dry food, he may have decreased consumption because he has a hard time chewing the large kibble. By feeding a kibble with smaller pieces, moistening the food with water or adding a nutrient dense canned food you can make the food easier to chew.  Adding other foods can increase the appeal; try adding a little water from canned tuna or a small amount of cooked chicken.

Homemade diets of boiled rice, potatoes, vegetables and chicken with correct vitamin and mineral supplements works well with others. Ask your veterinarian for a homemade diet recipe would be best for your dog. Do not try to formulate one yourself, as the vitamin and mineral levels are critical. Some dogs love to eat cat food, but this should be avoided, since it is too high in protein.