Healthy Nutrition for Your Senior Dog
By Elijah Merrill
Are you feeding your dog age-appropriate food? As a general rule, dogs are considered to be mature when they reach 7 years of age, and true seniors at around age 11. Large breeds skew a little earlier, and small breeds skew later. While 7 might seem like a young age to change the food of a dog that’s still active and playful, experts say looks can be deceiving. “Aging brings with it physiological changes. Some are obvious, others are not,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian and technical services veterinarian for Iams who specializes in diet and nutrition. “Skin and hair coat changes may be obvious, while lean muscle mass loss and digestive or immune system failing may be less evident or hidden. Changes also include joint/mobility/flexibility concerns and oral health.”
Dog Food for Mature Dogs
Some dog foods tailored to seniors may offer lower calorie levels, which are appropriate for an assumed decrease in activity. But Dicke says food for active older dogs needs to provide enough calories and address the physiological changes happening inside. Ingredients to look for include: antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to help support waning immune system function; glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health; sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP) for dental health; and prebiotics, like fructooligosaccharide (FOS), to support the digestive system. “A prebiotic fiber selectively feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut and starves the bad bacteria,” says Dicke. “This can create an optimal environment in the gut that can promote better digestion and actually have an influence on the immune system, as 70 percent of the immune system is located in the digestive tract.”
The right protein is another important factor at this age, according to Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian based in Alexandria, Va. “High protein in elderly dogs adds pressure on the aging kidneys. Low protein, conversely, doesn’t supply them with an adequate amount to preserve normal bodily functions, muscle mass or skin and coat. Therefore, moderate levels are ideal,” says Nelson.
How to Switch Foods
Both experts advise using the guidelines above as a starting point for discussions with your veterinarian, who should be involved in the decision to switch foods. From there, they suggest implementing the change slowly and gradually. Decide on a time period between seven and 10 days, and then give your dog a different mixture every few days. “The first two days, 25 percent of the current food volume should be replaced by the new food and gradually increase until your dog is eating 100 percent of the new product,” says Dicke.
As your dog gets even older and goes from the mature stage to the true senior stage, you may want to switch again to a food that suits a more sedentary lifestyle. That decision should be made with the close supervision of your veterinarian. If many of the early age-related changes may be hidden, the ones that follow into the senior years can be unpredictable. “Dogs, like people, age differently depending on their lifestyle and health condition,” says Nelson. Luckily, there’s likely to be a specialized food out there to help any dog age gracefully.
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Elijah Merrill is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Dog Daily. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Discover.