Once your dog reaches their golden years, it can be hard to understand how their nutritional needs change. There are many misconceptions in the dog food industry (and amongst pet owners), but veterinary nutritionist Dr. Justin Shmalberg sets the facts straight. Here are some core truths about what your senior dog needs from their food, and how to use this knowledge to choose a senior dog food that is right for your loved one.
Browse for senior dog food, and you might see the words “Lower protein!” splashed across many of them. This is red flag number one.
For a long time, there was a common misconception that protein would lead to kidney disease in senior dogs, when in fact phosphorus was what was causing kidney disease in older dogs. The reason these two ingredients have been confused a bit is because in some dog foods the protein source comes from whole animal carcasses that have been ground, rather than pure meat (yes, that should sound alarming– this is the case with many “budget” kibble options, though it can also be found in more expensive diets such as raw and frozen foods). The ground bone contributes phosphorus, whereas the meat contributes the protein.
Now that there are dog foods made with higher quality protein sources, it didn’t take long for veterinarians to determine that the protein wasn’t the problem– it was the phosphorus. However, in dog foods where the two ingredients are married (read: cheaper dog foods that use whole carcasses and ground bone as protein sources), achieving a low-phosphorus diet means making it a lower-protein diet as well.
The truth is that seniors need a high protein diet so that they can maintain mobility and strength as they age.
What does that mean for your senior? You'll certainly want a lower-phosphorus diet, without sacrificing protein. That means avoiding senior diets that have ground bone listed as an ingredient, or anything diet that advertises low protein (unless, of course, your senior dog has a unique dietary restriction for which their vet has prescribed low protein).
It's important to know that hard kibble does not actually clean teeth (one of many dog food myths). And for seniors, hard foods can be especially challenging due to dental issues. Whether your dog has lost teeth over time or has less energy, a soft diet is easier on senior jaws, as well as on their digestive system. Fresh diets that are composed of whole, real ingredients are better for seniors (as they are for any other dogs), because the body is able to use more of the nutrients, and less goes to waste.
Soft, fresh foods with a high palatability can also help keep seniors interested in their diets, as appetites may wane over time.
To account for reduced food intake and smaller appetites, it’s important that a senior dog's food has plenty of vitamins. This is why seniors should have as hearty of vitamin blends as growing puppies.
You’ll want to look for anti-inflammatory foods in for your senior dog, that reduce inflammation in the body rather than promoting it. Fish recipes, or anything with fish oil, are great examples of anti-inflammatory foods to help senior dogs thrive.
Determining when a dog is considered a senior will vary based on the dog's breed. However, when your dog reaches this point, you should switch to a senior dog food, as it's important for making sure the needs of high protein, soft food, and high nutrient values are met. For larger breeds, the time to switch to senior dog food is around 7 to 8 years, and the age for smaller dogs is closer to 11 years. The portions, however, should only really change as your dog’s activity changes.
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