Welcome to another episode of “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.
Aging is a gradual process that can go unnoticed by dog owners. But when signs of aging are noted — touches of gray around the muzzle, cloudiness in the eyes, changes in weight and slowing gait — you might wonder if your dog needs a different food. The answer may be “yes,” “no,” or even “maybe.” We’ll explain what you need to know about senior dogs, their nutrition and senior dog foods so you can make an informed decision with guidance from your veterinarian.
Aging and dogs
The aging process in dogs varies tremendously from one individual to the next, just as it does in people. In fact, there’s more variability among aging dogs than there is in puppy growth rates. Aging is influenced by several factors, including a dog’s breed, size, genetics, nutrition and environment.
Aging isn’t a disease. But it is associated with a number of health conditions that result from the body’s declining ability to repair and protect itself. Just as in people, the aging process in dogs can cause changes in body composition (muscle versus fat), appetite, vision, hearing, skin moisture and elasticity, mobility, immune response and sleep.
Age-related changes that affect dogs’ nutritional needs also occur. Metabolism naturally slows for many aging dogs, which reduces their energy requirements for resting and maintenance. According to veterinary nutritionists, multiple studies encompassing a variety of breeds estimated an 18 percent to 24 percent decline in maintenance energy requirements for older dogs compared to younger ones. This lower energy requirement is primarily due to lean body tissue (muscle) loss. Activity level also tends to decline as dogs age, which decreases their muscle activity and the amount of energy they expend.
Senior dog nutrition
Optimal nutrition is the cornerstone for healthy aging and can be a powerful tool for maintaining health, preventing disease and managing health conditions. The key is treating each senior and geriatric (very old) dog as an individual. This includes adjusting your dog’s nutrition and feeding program as necessary as he or she continues to age.
Unlike adult humans, however, adult dogs tend to be considered as a single group, whether the dog is 2, 7, 11 or 14 years old. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) publishes two dog food nutrient profiles for use in formulating dog foods: one for growth and reproduction (which includes lactation) and one for adult maintenance. (Companies have the option of conducting feeding trials with their dog food formulas, including senior dog formulas, too.) In other words, a “senior” dog food could be designed to meet the AAFCO dog food nutrient profile for adult maintenance or for growth and reproduction if the food is intended for all life stages.
Yet it’s no secret that aging dogs’ nutritional requirements change and are different from those of growing puppies and even young adult dogs. This is the reason why you might consider switching your older dog to a senior formula when he or she reaches a certain age.
Does your senior dog need really need a senior diet?
Your dog may be a senior dog, but that doesn’t mean he or she needs to eat a senior food. Many dogs are very healthy even when they reach senior status. If your aging dog is healthy, in good body condition and eating a high-quality complete and balanced diet, you may not need to change foods. Many adult or all-life-stages dog foods are as beneficial — and potentially more appropriate for a particular senior dog — as some senior dog diets.
To help determine if your aging dog needs a senior dog food, think about your dog’s health and behavior (see the questions in the accompanying box).
If your senior dog has been diagnosed with one of the health conditions often seen in older pets — arthritis, obesity, diabetes, periodontal (dental) disease, cancer, heart disease or kidney disease — a diet change may be needed to help improve symptoms or slow disease progression. Of course, you’ll want to discuss your observations and concerns with your veterinarian before changing your dog’s food.
How senior dog food formulas may be different
Complete and balanced senior dog foods are formulated with an aging dog’s life stage and nutritional requirements — as well as the AAFCO dog food nutrient profiles — in mind. Although older dogs have the same nutrient needs as younger dogs, the amount provided per pound of body weight may need to be adjusted. In addition, the way nutrients are provided may also need to be modified. Here are some of the ways a senior dog food might differ from an adult maintenance diet:
- Energy — Some senior dog foods may be formulated to provide fewer calories than “regular” adult dog foods from the same company. Some senior foods may contain more calories per cup. That’s because not all dogs gain weight as they age. In fact, geriatric dogs may lose weight as they age. Also, dogs’ sense of smell can become blunted or less sensitive during their golden years, which can negatively affect appetite. For dogs with reduced appetite, an energy-dense, palatable food will help them maintain or gain weight.
- Protein — Reducing dietary protein isn’t beneficial or necessary for apparently healthy older dogs. Adequate protein is needed to help maintain lean body mass, make important proteins (e.g., enzymes and hormones) and support immune function. In fact, lower protein diets for senior dogs can have a negative effect by contributing to muscle loss. A moderate protein content in senior dog foods provides another benefit: increased palatability (tastiness), which may encourage eating an appropriate number of calories.
- Fat and omega fatty acids — Fats provide energy and essential fatty acids, act as a carrier for fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K), and improve food palatability. Omega fatty acids are also important to skin health as part of the epidermal skin barrier and as part of cell wall membranes. Fat increases the calorie content (energy density) of foods, which may be a concern if your senior dog is already overweight. But if your older dog has difficulty maintaining his or her weight, then you may want a food that provides more calories.
- Antioxidant supplementation — Senior dog foods may have added antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, selenium and beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor), to support a dog’s immune system. Antioxidants help protect the body against the harmful effects of free radicals produced through normal metabolism and associated with premature aging.
- Joint support supplementation — Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are naturally occurring building blocks of cartilage. Whether included in the diet or given as a supplement, these compounds may help rebuild joint cartilage. Glucosamine controls collagen production in cartilage and may have mild anti-inflammatory effects. Chondroitin sulfate inhibits destructive enzymes in joint fluid and cartilage.
The bottom line is that there’s no rule about switching your mature dog to a food that’s specifically designed for senior dogs. Every dog is an individual, which must be considered when choosing a food. Your veterinarian can help you determine if and when a change to a senior food, such as Diamond Naturals Senior Dog Chicken, Egg & Oatmeal Formula, is in your dog’s best interests.
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