Can you still remember the day that you brought your lovable pup home as a furry little bundle of joy? Your canine companion may have started off as a frisky little pup that quickly became a beloved member of your family, but as time has went by your beloved pet has matured into a senior canine with new needs.
How can you tell if your pet pooch is now considered as being ‘older’? A general rule of thumb states that a dog can be considered senior if they are in the last half of their normal life expectancy. For instance, smaller dogs usually have a life expectancy of 15-20 years and are considered senior at around 8 or 9 years of age. Larger dogs typically have a life expectancy of 12-15 years and are considered as being senior after around 5-6 years old.
There are many factors which can effect a dog’s age, such as size, weight, breed and health history. However, the fact remains that once a dog becomes a senior, things change. An aging dog experiences body composition, immunologic and metabolic changes. While some of these changes are unavoidable, you can keep your dog’s health in top condition with a healthy diet and exercise.
Some of the most common problems faced by aging dogs include:
- Dental problems
- Loss of muscle mass
- More frequent intestinal problems
- Skin and coat deterioration
- Decreased ability to fight infections
The biggest and most notable changes in senior dogs are their energy levels and metabolism. With an older dog who has a slower metabolism and lower energy requirements, remaining on their average diet can lead to subsequent weight gain and obesity. On the other hand, as dogs age they may also lean to the opposite extreme and refuse to eat the amount that they should. Senior canines should receive a diet that is low in calories and high in fiber in order to stave off obesity and promote gastrointestinal health.
The Nutritional Needs of Senior Dogs
Before making the switch to a senior dog food, you should carefully consider your dog’s nutritional needs and your vet’s counsel. Just like humans, each dog is individual and unique, with unique nutritional needs. While some aging dogs will become less active and require less nutrients and calories, others may require more because of poor digestion.
Another major consideration that must be made before switching to a senior dog food is the health history of your dog. Dogs with particular health problems, such as diabetes, kidney failure, or poor nutrient absorption should have a diet that is specifically designed for that problem. Senior dog foods that are lower in phosphorus, sodium and protein may have detrimental effects on a dog with these conditions.
While weight gain is a concern for many older dogs, it is also possible that they may lose their appetite and fail to receive the nutrients they need. The most important thing to remember is to consider your dog’s individual needs and characteristics.
General nutritional needs for senior dogs:
- Lower Calories – As older dogs’ metabolism slow down and their energy needs decrease, they require less calories and fat content. Ensuring that they receive the appropriate amount of calories and fat content for their needs reduces that chances of weight gain and obesity.
- More Water – Senior dogs lose the ability to maintain their body’s water balance, so it is important to ensure that they always have plenty of water available.
- Healthy Treats – You should ensure that your senior dog’s treats are low-fat, low sodium and healthy. As an alternative to milk biscuits or bones, consider a vegetable such as carrots or apple slices.
- Protein – While many senior dog foods advertise reduced levels of protein, research has shown that the protein needs of senior dogs are not lower than younger dogs. You should ensure that your senior dog’s diet consists of highly digestible protein in optimal amounts in order to maintain muscle mass.
- FOS (fructooligosaccharides) – You should ensure that your senior dog’s diet consists of FOS, which promotes beneficial intestinal bacteria and can reduce the chances of gastrointestinal disease.
- GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) – This omega-3 fatty acid is integral to maintaining a healthy skin and coat, and older dogs’ liver may not produce the optimal amount. You should take to your veterinarian to determine if your dog’s GLA levels are appropriate for their age.
- Antioxidants – Antioxidant compounds of vitamin E and beta-carotene are essential for increasing the immune system’s effectiveness and eliminating free radicals that could cause damage to body tissues.
- Fiber – A senior dog’s diet should contain higher levels of easily digestible fiber to prevent constipation and increase nutrient absorption.
There are some older dogs who can benefit from the addition of supplements to their nutritional intake. Supplements are a viable choice for dogs who have special nutritional considerations, such as not eating a balanced diet, having health issues or having nutritional absorption issues.
- Chondroitin Sulfate & Glucosamine – These vitamins are commonly recommended to improve dogs suffering from arthritis. When combined with a proper diet and exercise plan, these vitamins can reduce joint pain and improve mobility.
- Fiber – Senior dogs suffering from constant constipation may benefit from the addition of a fiber product, like wheat bran.
- Multivitamin – In some instances, depending on your veterinarian’s assessment of your dog and their diet, they may recommend a multivitamin to ensure that your dog is receiving the appropriate amount of vitamins and minerals.
Senior Dogs Who Don’t Eat
While some senior dogs may fight obesity, others may suffer from disinterest in food or lack of appropriate weight gain. There are many reasons why a senior dog may be disinterested in food, however, the very first thing that you should do if you notice your dog losing weight or refusing to eat is have a visit with your veterinarian. Once your veterinarian rules out any serious health conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, or dental disease, the next step is to entice your dog to eat.
If there are no serious health concerns, your dog’s lack of interest in food could be due to a loss of smell or taste, or trouble chewing. If your dog generally eats dry dog food, then you may try adding water, broth, gravy or canned food to their kibble. Many pet stores also sell flavor enhancers that can be added to dog food.
Another option for enticing your senior dog to eat is home-cooked meals of rice, chicken, vegetables, potatoes, rice, hamburger, barley or lamb. There are a wide variety of home-cooked recipes for dogs and you may also consult your veterinarian for advice on the best recipes to meet your dog’s nutritional needs.
As a final resort, your veterinarian may subscribe appetite stimulants which can help your dog eat the appropriate amount. However, these medications should only be used after your veterinarian has ruled out more serious health problems that may be causing the loss in appetite.
Senior dogs, much like senior humans, may require a bit more special care, but nothing can change the fact that they are still beloved members of our families. By monitoring your senior dog’s health and nutritional needs, you can ensure that your beloved canine companion has many more healthy and happy years to spend with their favorite humans.