Nutrition Basics for Your Senior Dog

Senior dog eating kibble
The best diet for your senior dog will depend on his overall health status, preexisting health conditions and body condition.

It's important that senior dogs eat an age-appropriate diet to help maintain their health. But here's the catch: There's no single diet type that's ideal for every senior dog and no set of factors — for instance, fat or protein content — that will be right in every case. In fact, unlike growth, reproduction and adult maintenance in dogs, when it comes to commercially available senior dog diets, there's no specific nutrient profile established by the  Association of American Feed Control Officials and the  National Research Council. That means senior diets are, in effect, modifications of adult maintenance diets and those modifications are up to individual manufacturers to determine. In fact, a recent survey on senior dog diets reported a wide variation in caloric density and concentrations of protein, fat, crude fiber, sodium and phosphorus. If you think your senior pet might be due for a diet change, talk to your veterinarian before making that adjustment — your dog's overall health status, pre-existing medical conditions and body condition can all influence his nutritional needs. In the meantime, here are just a few things to consider: 

Like people, some dogs tend to put on weight as they age. Changes in metabolic rate can cause fewer calories to be burned, so some dogs entering old age may benefit from eating food with less fat and fewer calories or simply eating less food in general. But as some senior dogs become even older, they tend to stop gaining and instead start losing weight and may actually require more calories at that point. For these dogs, increasing the fat and calorie content of their diet may be beneficial. 

Additionally, many older dogs encounter other challenges relating to their diet. Because periodontal (dental) disease is a common problem for older dogs, some may find overly large or hard kibble or biscuits uncomfortable to chew. Ideally, your pet's dental problems should be addressed, but in the meantime, a softer food or perhaps canned food might be easier for him to eat. For some senior dogs, a blunted sense of smell, concurrent disease or some medications may cause them to have  less appetite. If you notice that your senior dog's appetite is not as it should be, talk to your veterinarian. There are ways to help improve appetite for some dogs experiencing these difficulties.

Even with exercise, some older dogs can lose muscle mass. These patients may need higher levels of dietary protein to help build and maintain muscle mass. Your veterinarian can tell you how much protein is right for your senior dog. Learn more about protein in pet food and the role it plays in sustaining daily life functions.

Old dogs can also be more prone to dehydration, often because of health problems such as kidney disease that alter the body's fluid metabolism or because they’re taking medications such as diuretics for heart disease. Making sure his water is always fresh, cool and readily available can help encourage your dog to drink more. This may mean placing additional water bowls around the house — like near your dog's favorite hangout spots — so water is never very far out of reach.

Learn more about caring for your senior dog and keeping him happy and healthy.

More on Vetstreet:

Join the Conversation

Like this article? Have a point of view to share? Let us know!