As dogs move through their life cycle, their nutritional needs change. Puppies need extra nutrients to fuel their rapid growth. Young dogs need extra calories to support their active lifestyle. Middle-aged dogs might need a weight-control diet as their lives and metabolism concurrently slow down. Senior dogs also need a diet tailored to their life stage.
Senior dogs need significantly more protein in their diets than younger adult dogs. A higher-protein diet, such as a kibble diet with at least 25%, preferably 30%, protein is necessary to support optimal senior dog health.
Dogs carrying just a few extra pounds live much shorter lives than dogs kept at a healthy weight. Extra weight also worsens the symptoms of arthritis. Thus, dog owners need to work hard at keeping their senior dogs lean and fit.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that a high-protein, high-fiber, low-carbohydrate diet is the most effective way to keep a senior dog trim. The dry kibble diets used in these studies generally had 30 to 35% protein and 12 to 28% fiber. Unfortunately, and rather strangely, the commercial weight control diets for dogs all tend to be high-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-protein diets. Thus, the best approach for a senior dog would be to select a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet and add extra fiber, such as canned pumpkin puree or canned green beans.
You may have heard that senior dogs have greater difficulty digesting food than young dogs. However, scientists have shown this is not true. Age does not affect a dog's ability to digest its food. Thus, the digestibility of a diet is not a concern when selecting a diet for a senior dog.
Most senior dogs suffer from varying degrees of periodontal disease. The best way to improve your dog's oral health is to brush her teeth regularly, but most dog owners admit to having difficulty performing this task. Dental chews are a viable option for improving dog oral health. Many commercial chews are available, such as bully sticks, tendons, and edible dental chews. Some people prefer to provide natural raw bones for chewing purposes. Do not offer your dog rawhide; it is indigestible and can cause bowel blockages. Avoid hard bones derived from the legs of large animals, such as cattle (e.g., marrow bones). These bones are notorious for causing broken teeth in dogs.
Unfortunately, many senior dogs experience cognitive decline, which can culminate in overt dementia, a condition very similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans. Although the exact causes of the condition are still unclear, a simple, safe dietary intervention has been proven to reduce the risk of dogs developing cognitive decline and slowing the progression of any cognitive decline that might develop: just add medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) to your dog's bowl daily. MCTs derived from coconut oil or other oils are widely available in most grocery stores. The studies generally had good results with around 5% MCT, which roughly works out to one and a half teaspoons of MCTs per cup of dry kibble.
Most, if not all, senior dogs have some degree of arthritis. A recent systematic review of the literature found good evidence that fish oil supplements relieved canine arthritis pain. None of the other joint supplements, such as glucosamine, had sufficient evidence to support their use. When giving a senior dog fish oil to relieve arthritis pain, keep in mind the required dose is quite high, and thus a concentrated formula may be preferable to using salmon oil. The effective dose is 410 mg EPA and 340 mg DHA per 100 kcal of diet per day. If using salmon oil, this works out to around seven teaspoons of oil per cup of standard kibble.
When to feed
The Dog Aging Project recently published a robust finding that feeding dogs only once a day resulted in a longer life and better health in multiple domains. Thus, it is best to feed your senior dog its entire daily ration once per day, with no snacks or treats offered throughout the rest of the day.
If your senior dog has been diagnosed with a specific health condition, please consult a veterinarian about whether your dog needs a specific diet for that health condition. The advice in this article applies to healthy senior dogs only.
Senior dogs generally need a higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet. Diets with this formulation include kibble, canned, fresh cooked, and raw diets. Senior dogs should be kept lean by offering the proper amount of calories and restricting carbohydrate intake. Fiber can be added to the diet to help the dog feel full. Senior dogs benefit from supplementation with MCTs, DHA, and EPA. While senior dogs may not need to chew as much as teething puppies, they do benefit from being given a dental chew on a regular basis. And finally, only feed your senior dog once per day and avoid snacking. This simple approach has been proven to improve canine health as dogs age.