Top Benefits of Senior Dog Food

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.”

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:

  • Protein: 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.

When and How to Switch Foods
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 You and Your Dog Can Go Green

As we all become more aware of our impact on the planet, efforts to go green have crept into many aspects of both corporate and individual decision-making -- from how to package products to what kind of soap to buy. It is no surprise, then, that dog owners have become more interested in feeding their pets in environmentally responsible ways.

“I think for all my clients, sustainability takes a backseat to nutrition,” says Dr. Patricia Joyce, a veterinarian at BluePearl Veterinary Partners. “With that said, most pet owners would love to make ethical environmental choices in all aspects of their lives, including what they feed their dogs.”

The pet food industry is responding to this desire. In a recent industry survey conducted by the trade magazine Petfood Industry, 62 percent of respondents reported believing that consumers value sustainability and cited consumer demand as one key reason for their operations adopting green practices. Below, Joyce and Virginia-based emergency veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson weigh in on balancing your dog’s nutritional requirements with environmental responsibility -- and what else you can do to protect the planet while caring for your pooch.

Dog Nutritional Needs
While a vegetarian diet has less of an impact on the environment than one that includes animal proteins, Joyce and Nelson stress that dogs are omnivorous in the wild and should remain so in your home. “Animal protein is an essential source of vitamins, minerals and amino acids for dogs,” says Nelson. “You can do research and find a dog food you feel good about -- say one that uses cage-free chickens. But it’s neither fair nor healthy to force a vegetarian diet on your dog.”

Keeping that in mind, certain animal food sources do leave less of an environmental footprint. For example, because of a chicken’s relatively small size, transporting it “from farm to fork” results in a substantially smaller amount of greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation of beef does. Not unrelated, due to overfishing, some sea-dwellers have become better environmental choices than others. The World Wildlife Fund lists these fish, and a little research can go a long way in deciding which fish-based commercial food to feed your dog.

Though less publicly considered, even the farming of produce has its environmental costs, and as such, there is increasing interest in pulse crops -- crops such as peas, lentils and garbanzo beans -- which derive their own nitrogen fertilizer from the air, requiring less fossil fuel to grow, and releasing less carbon dioxide into the air. Environmentally aware pet owners might look for foods that count these pulse crops among their fiber sources (“Not as their protein source,” reminds Joyce) to guide their selection of food.

Other Ways to Help the Environment
“At the end of the day, the goal is to feed your pet the best-quality food,” says Nelson. “If that’s beef, then it’s beef. You can try to reduce your environmental footprint in other ways that don’t negatively impact your dog’s well-being. Ride your bike rather than drive. Recycle.” And use the Web to start researching the following nonfood aspects of your pet’s kibble company:

  • Packaging. Look for companies that use renewable or recycled materials for their packaging. For example, some dog food now comes in resealable plastic bags that can be returned to the grocery store for recycling after use.
  • Energy consumption. Some commercial pet food makers have made public commitments to using renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. Look for these commitments, as well as manufacturing plant Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
  • Giving back. Corporate philanthropy often supports green causes. Pet food manufacturers in North America are involved with all sorts of philanthropic programs -- from dedicating a percentage of their profits to supplying clean water to children, to supporting local conservation efforts.

With the pet food industry coming on board to support a whole host of changes that are environmentally friendly, dog owners can feel more optimistic about reducing their best friends’ carbon paw prints.

Nutrition Essentials for Sporting Dogs

In the ever-evolving landscape of dog food, formulas for highly active or sporting dogs are the latest trend. There’s good reason: Just like the nutritional needs of human athletes are different from those of non-athletes, the same is true for dogs. But what exactly is a sporting dog? Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian, says the athlete/non-athlete comparison is apt.

“Think of this in terms of people,” says Nelson. “Michael Phelps is going to have vastly different nutritional needs from the average person who goes to the gym a few times a week. In the dog world, a weekend warrior really does not need a diet change in order to compensate for one major calorie-burning session a week, whereas a dog that lives on a farm, runs with its owner every day, does agility training or hunts every day is going to have much higher caloric requirement just for maintenance than a normal dog.”

These special foods are differentiated mainly by higher quantities of fat and protein, as well as a focus on high-quality protein. “Fat brings in twice the amount of kilocalories per gram than protein and carbohydrates,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian and technical services veterinarian for Iams, who specializes in diet and nutrition. “Meat-based proteins, such as chicken, bring in the essential amino acids to support muscle maintenance and development. Other meat-based proteins also supply natural sources of glucosamine and chondroitin, which are important building blocks for healthy joint cartilage -- especially important for active dogs that may be performing activities that can stress joints.”

Improper Dog Food Use
Dicke says that regular dog food wouldn’t severely harm a sporting dog; it’s simply not optimal and it’s harder for these dogs to eat enough to get the energy input they need. In this scenario, owners should watch out for weight loss and loss of body condition. On the other hand, you definitely don’t want to feed a sporting formula to a nonsporting dog.

“House dogs should not be fed sporting dog food,” says Nelson. “The extra protein could cause undue pressure on the kidneys, the added fat could cause gastrointestinal upset, and the unburned calories will lead to obesity.” And while you may wean a dog on or off the food as sporting seasons come and go, she warns against feeding it to dogs only on weekends. “It would definitely lead to gastrointestinal distress if introduced abruptly. Any time you’re introducing a new diet, it should be done over a period of seven to 10 days. If they are just a weekend warrior, go with the law of averages: Some days they’ll do less, other days more. No need to over-supplement.” These formulas are also not for puppies. In fact, a sporting lifestyle is wrong for puppies, whose growing joints may be harmed by overly strenuous, repetitive activity.

Don’t Overdo Activity
As a last word of advice, both doctors warn overzealous owners not to mistake sporting dog food for a performance enhancer, and to guard against pushing dogs too far. “Owners need to be keenly perceptive of their pets’ tolerance, as some dogs will continue to perform past their max because of their enjoyment of the activity,” says Dicke. “Fatigue, lameness and post-exercise muscular, paw pad or joint pain can be indicators of overexertion.”

Healthy Nutrition for Your Senior Dog

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.

Dog Food: Then and Now

The latest archaeological evidence suggests that dogs were domesticated as early as 26,000 years ago. It’s amazing to consider that commercial dog food dates back fewer than 200 years. So how did packaged dog food emerge and evolve?

James Spratt’s Mid-1800s Breakthrough
Before a better understanding of dogs’ nutritional needs developed, people mostly fed dogs dribs and drabs from human food stores. This held true for shipyard dogs, which used to gobble down hardtack biscuits. These biscuits, which are still sold today, were just crunchy, wheat-based crackers that stored well.

According to Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor for The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one day in the mid-1800s lightning rod salesman James Spratt had a light bulb moment while he was standing on a dock. Spratt, from Ohio, “watched how dogs would eat up hardtack biscuits on fishing docks, and thought, ‘I could make something similar,’” says Zawistowski.

Spratt compressed beet root, various other vegetables, meat and wheat into cakes and baked them, and the first manufactured pet food was born. He called it a “Meat Fibrine Dog Cake” and cleverly printed ads on the opposite side of dog show flyers, which he created and controlled with business partner Charles Cruft, founder of Crufts dog shows.

At around this same time, says Zawistowski, small-business owners -- often working through farm animal feed operations or veterinary offices -- started selling their own pet food products to locals. Horsemeat was a popular ingredient in early dog foods, since horses were plentiful then. (Using horsemeat for pet food was outlawed in the U.S. in the 1970s.)

Early Advertising Fuels Interest
Advertising targeted dog owners, with celebrities of the time serving as spokespeople. For example, Zawistowski says that posters of Admiral Richard Byrd, a famous explorer who went to the Arctic and Antarctic, featured photographs of Byrd in the tundra with his dogs. At least one pet food company even paid Byrd to travel around the world and promote dog food.

Regulated Products and the Birth of AAFCO
With the growing popularity of commercial pet products came a need for regulation. In 1909, the Association of American Feed Control Officials was founded to oversee pet food quality. To this day, quality pet foods feature an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement that indicates that the food is complete and balanced for a particular life stage. Kurt Gallagher, communications director of the Pet Food Institute, indicated that AAFCO paved the way for canned dog foods, “with regulations established in 1917 for canned pet food products.”

1950s Machinery Breakthrough
The two World Wars put a dent in businesses, but during the high-growth 1950s, snack food manufacturing resulted in yet another ingenious moment. Clever observers, watching cheese puff extruders turn out tasty bites, had the idea that such machinery could produce dry pet foods with yummy nutritious coatings, says Zawistowski. This resulted in the first pellet-sized dry foods, similar to those still sold today.

During the early- to mid-20th century, new influential entrepreneurs associated with companies like Purina, Hill’s Pet Nutrition and Iams forged new commercial ground. Paul Iams, for example, “worked as a dog food salesman during the Depression,” according to Jennifer Bayot of The New York Times. “Not even severe economic hardship, he learned, could deter pet owners from paying the price to feed their companions.” Iams created some of the first meat-based, high-protein foods for pets, putting the emphasis on quality and good health. Gallagher says that, at the same time, interest in pets began to skyrocket. “Dog food sales in 1958 were $298 million,” he says. “In 2010, they were about $12 billion.”

Continued Emphasis on Quality and Growth
To this day, most dog owners wish to feed their pets foods that contain high-quality ingredients with health benefits. The “eat healthy” trend really kicked in during the late 1960s, with momentum building with each subsequent year. We all want to live longer, healthier lives, and that extends to our dogs as well. “The pet food industry continues to grow and expand,” says Zawistowski. “Even during the toughest economic times, owners want the best for their pets.”