At least 7.3 million dogs in the United States are 11 years of age or older, according to researchers at University of California, Davis. Since North American and European dogs have an average life span of 12.8 years, the numbers suggest that more canines than ever are reaching their senior years, likely pushing the life span limits ever upward. That’s a testament to how well we are caring for our pets, including the quality of the food we offer them each day. Health concerns are paramount in making such food choices. Just as these concerns now affect what we buy for ourselves, they influence what we purchase for our dogs, especially as they grow older, and health issues start to surface.

Therapeutic dog food formulas have been around, through veterinarians, for over 50 years, but now these foods are available “over the counter” at your local pet food stores, as well as from your veterinarian. Research on canine diseases, as well as nutritional innovations, have all improved over the decades and have made these types of condition-related formulas more effective and better than ever. Here, Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian Amy Dicke, DVM, who has been a member of teams consisting of nutritionists, researchers and veterinarians like herself that formulate new dog food products, explains what’s available now and how these new foods might benefit your dog.

Foods that Target Allergy, Skin and Coat Conditions
Does your dog scratch a lot, even when fleas and other parasites are under control? If so, your pet could suffer from food- or environment-related allergies similar to those that plague many people. If your veterinarian believes your dog may suffer from allergies or have other problems affecting its skin and coat, new therapeutic diets can help eliminate potential food allergens and provide itch relief.

Dr. Dicke explains, “These diets may contain a balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for normal skin structure and function. Research shows that manipulating the balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids can change inflammatory pathways and thereby reduce inflammation.” She also says that some of the new allergy diets contain hydrolyzed protein, which is protein broken down into small components that are not recognized as allergens in food-sensitive dogs.

Foods for Joint Health
Arthritis is a huge issue for dog lovers with aging pooches. This debilitating condition can change the structure and function of joint cartilage — connective tissue that covers the ends of bones where they come together in a joint. It can result in reduced mobility and a lot of unbearable aches and pains.

New therapeutic dog foods formulated for joint health target these problems in a one-two-three punch, according to Dr. Dicke. The first pow to arthritis comes from glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, two known building blocks for cartilage. The second is the optimal omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio mentioned earlier. For joint issues, it “helps to manage inflammation,” she says. Finally, a compound known as L-carnitine optimizes your dog’s overall body condition and thereby minimizes stress on its joints.

Kidney Care Chow
Kidney disorders, also known as renal problems, are quite common in both cats and dogs, particularly as our pets grow older. If your dog has been diagnosed with chronic renal disease, it means that it has an irreversible loss of kidney function. While this may sound abysmal and hopeless, you can take heart now, since nutrition plays an important role in managing the condition.

“Appropriate nutritional support can improve the clinical signs through a special blend of fibers that assist the kidneys in removal of waste products from the body,” says Dr. Dicke. “Nutrition can also slow the progression of the disease through lowered phosphorous levels and an adjusted omega fatty acid ratio to reduce inflammation and hypertension.”

Foods for Good Intestinal Function
If your dog has been diagnosed with a gastrointestinal problem, such as irritable bowel syndrome, specialized nutritional support can come to its rescue. In all mammals, including humans, intestinal problems may involve an imbalance of bacteria within the intestines. When you eat yogurt, for example, recent studies suggest that its cultures can support your body’s bacterial balance, leading to better digestion.

Yogurt isn’t optimal for dogs, but new intestinal health dog foods are perfect for our canine buddies with known gastrointestinal problems. Dr. Dicke says they “can restore intestinal bacteria back to a normal balance, repair the intestinal lining, decrease inflammation and reduce the amount of unabsorbed nutrients.”

Weight Management Foods
According to Lisa Peterson of the American Kennel Club Humane Fund, up to 40 percent of all American dogs, numbering around 17 million, are hauling around excess weight that could predispose them to all sorts of health problems — ranging from heart disorders to breathing difficulties. Similar to how we view our own bodies, many of us are in fat dog denial, Peterson believes. She says it’s difficult for owners “to see the reality that their own pet may be overweight or obese instead of just chubby or fluffy.”

Once your veterinarian has determined that your dog is overweight, special weight loss formula dog foods can help your furry friend to lose the excess pounds while still getting the right amount of daily nutrients, which minimize lean muscle loss. “Healthy weight is best achieved with low-fat, low-calorie, low-fiber diets that include special ingredients such as L-carnitine (the fat burner), increased levels of vitamin A to fight against weight retention, and a blend of carbohydrates that promote a healthy blood sugar level and satiety.”

Therapeutic Dog Food Dos and Don’ts

  • Do make sure your veterinarian has properly diagnosed your dog before considering feeding your pet a therapeutic dog food. Special health formula dog foods are meant for dogs with known medical conditions.
  • Don’t mix and match the foods, as that wouldn’t optimize the nutritional therapy for the particular condition. If your dog suffers from more than one problem — let’s say it is overweight and has joint problems — consider the severity of each condition and choose to target just one with the food. Consult with your veterinarian to make this determination.
  • Do feed as directed by your veterinarian and the manufacturer. Usually the amounts and feeding schedules are comparable to those recommended for regular dog foods.
  • Don’t give your dog one of these foods in the hopes that it will prevent the particular health problem from surfacing in the first place. The diets may be restricted in certain nutrients below the minimal level required for usual healthy maintenance.

If fed correctly, veterinarian-inspired and formulated dog foods may be just what the doctor ordered for your dog. Given the continued innovations in pet medicine and dog nutrition, it’s likely that our canine friends will grow ever older with us, providing us all with more quality time together.

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