How Old Is a Senior-Plus Dog?
Large-breed dogs age faster because their bulk puts greater stress on their bodies. Dogs that weigh more than 50 pounds are considered senior-plus at age 9, but dogs that weigh less than 50 pounds aren’t considered senior until age 11.
Mid Size Dogs
Unlike giant and large-size dogs that are considered seniors at 5 and 6 years old, respectfully, a small and medium-size dog usually doesn’t experience age-related changes that early. But by the age of 7 years old, however, your mid-size dog is thought of as a senior pet. Its nutritional requirements are also changing. You can help keep your dog active, happy and healthy with a diet that delivers highly digestible, enhanced nutrition.
When New York City native George Kingsman’s 11-year-old Pug, Lily, began regularly limping around after each of her many naps, her veterinarian suggested a food change: senior-plus formula. “I transitioned to senior-plus food. She lost weight and, even better, her joint stiffness subsided within weeks,” says Kingsman.
Dr. Trisha Joyce, veterinarian of BluePearl Veterinary Partners, says that Lily’s quick improvement was probably due to both the weight reduction and the special supplements in senior-plus food. Below, Joyce weighs in on the special nutritional needs of dogs in their golden years.
Recognizing the Signs of Aging in Your Dog
The changes your dog is experiencing right now affect it in many ways. You may notice that your dog could have a dull, dry coat and flaky skin, declining activity or weight gain, decreased immune system response, more frequent intestinal problems, joint stiffness and a loss of lean muscle mass. Experts believe that senior dogs may require fewer calories, but to address special mature concerns, your pooch still needs high-quality protein and carefully balanced nutrients.
Why Do Nutritional Considerations Change as Dogs Age?
“One of the more preventable problems for older dogs is probably weight gain,” says Joyce. “Like humans, dogs become more sedentary as they age, and their caloric needs decrease.”
Other concerns for older dogs will sound familiar to anyone who is familiar with the human aging process:
- Immune Functioning – A dog’s ability to fight illness declines with age.
- Mobility – Joyce says that large-breed dogs are especially prone to joint issues, though small dogs are not completely immune. “They are all susceptible to joint degradation, just like people.”
- Dental Problems – Like humans, gum disease leaves dogs prone to heart problems as well as other issues, like pain when chewing. “Dental disease is ubiquitous in small-breed dogs,” cautions Joyce, who adds that larger dogs are also at risk.
- Skin and Coat Issues – As dogs age, their oil-producing glands work less efficiently. Their skin and coats can become dry, allergies can worsen and wounds may become slower to heal.
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.
Senior Dog Food Ingredients
Ward and Dr. Katy Johnson Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian, point out some key things to look for when considering a senior formula:
Ideally from a formulation that’s at least 24 percent and higher protein from animal sources like chicken.
- Reduced Sodium (Salt):
High blood pressure is a serious concern for aging dogs. While research on the effects of sodium is ongoing, few doubt that dogs should consume an appropriate, and not excessive, amount of sodium in their diets.
- Low Caloric Density:
Compared to adult formulas, senior formulations in general will drop 20 to 30 percent in calorie density per serving. “That’s a big difference because we get into a habit of giving a cup or a bowl per day,” says Ward. “So the food itself needs to have fewer calories in that cup or bowl.” Keep in mind, however, that senior dogs (9 years of age and older for large breeds and 11 years of age and older for small and medium breeds) may have different specific caloric needs. Consult with your veterinarian to determine what is best for your pet.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
To combat the increased inflammation that comes with aging.
- Glucosamine and Chondroitin:
To combat and prevent arthritic conditions. “The only caution is that the amount of the omega-3 and glucosamine may not be adequate for a specific pet. You may need to supplement,” says Ward.
What Should You Look For In Senior-Plus Dog Food?
Given the most common health concerns of older dogs, senior-plus food should be crunchy and reduced in calories. “The crunch of kibble works like a natural abrasive to help reduce plaque buildup on teeth,” says Joyce. Senior-plus food should also address fat burning, immune functioning, joint health, and skin and coat dryness. The following ingredients mitigate each of these common concerns:
- L-Carnitine – This compound is thought to promote the metabolism of fatty acids, helping dogs burn them as energy.
- Antioxidants – “Antioxidants are thought to support immune functioning. These fall under the category of ‘Might help; can’t hurt,’” says Joyce.
- Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate – These compounds are naturally produced by the body and keep cartilage healthy. A senior-plus formula should be supplemented with these to stop the progression of arthritis.
- Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids – “They’re like immune boosters for the skin and coat,” says Joyce. These fatty acids are widely believed to support sleek coats and supple skin.
These components are key to an aging dog’s nutrition whether you choose dry or canned dog food. They also will help you to select healthier, age-appropriate treats.
How Do You Know If Senior-plus Food Is Right for Your Dog?
Senior-plus food is appropriate for all dogs 11 and older whose health problems do not meet the threshold for a specific prescription diet. Dogs with more severe health problems may need a more aggressive dietary approach. “Senior food is no substitute for a prescription diet. Make sure to involve your veterinarian in any decision to change your pet’s food,” advises Joyce.
When transitioning to a new food, it is recommended that you gradually make the change, substituting small amounts of new food for old over the course of a week.
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.”
If your older, once active dog is experiencing weight gain or health problems, consider looking into its diet: It may be in need of a dog food that’s formulated for senior dogs. While senior formulas are nothing new, continued scientific advances lead to significant changes that are recent. For instance, senior formulas used to have greatly reduced protein content for fear that they could lead to kidney problems. But within the last decade, science has reversed the thinking in that regard, and a significant amount of protein is now a crucial aspect of senior dog food.
“The basic understanding of the science has really pushed the needle toward making food and nutrition optimal,” says Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and nutrition expert in North Carolina. “Seniors are living better than ever before. It’s never been a better time to be an old dog.”
What to Feed an Older Dog Who Won’t Eat?
- Take your dog to your veterinarian to rule out any medical reasons for your senior dog’s lack of appetite.
- If your senior dog has gone off their usual food, you could try mixing in some moist or canned food into their dry food. Adding some warm water to the dry food could also help.
- Serve your older dog their food at room temperature, not straight out of the refrigerator.
- A change of flavor from their usual, may spark up your dog’s taste buds and create some interest in eating.
When Should a Dog Have Senior Dog Food?
Senior status for dogs is generally considered to come at age 11, but large breeds should probably switch one to two years earlier. Beyond that, the doctors say to not wait for symptoms to present themselves before switching. “This is about prevention, not just treatment,” says Ward. “Be very proactive.”
When you introduce the new food, do so gradually as an increasing percentage of a mixture with your dog’s current food. “Take at least seven to 10 days to switch your pet’s food,” says Nelson. “A fast switch can lead to significant GI upset and an aversion to the new diet.”
It’s important to remember there is no one-size-fits-all food. “There is no perfect food, but there is a food out there that is perfect for your pet,” says Nelson. “Include your veterinarian in the conversation, and you can find the food that is just right for your pup’s specific nutritional needs and health concerns.”
In the future, Ward thinks genetic profiling technology will allow veterinarians to recommend a personalized diet that best suits your dog’s unique DNA. For now, he stresses how important it is to take advantage of today’s optimized, high-quality senior dog foods. “There’s nothing better you can do to prevent disease and add longevity than choosing the right food for your pet,” he says.
How to Switch Your Dog To a Senior Dog Food
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.
With a minimum investment of time and effort, you may increase the chances that your aging companion will likely be at your side for many more years to come.