I’m sure many of you will agree that living with a healthy, older dog is an absolute pleasure. They are often well behaved and enjoyable to live with and of course we know all their funny little habits and they know ours even better! As cherished family members we want long and healthy lives for our dogs. What is exciting is that by meeting their specific nutritional needs we may be able to extend their health and well-being beyond current limits. Here is a comprehensive look at keeping our golden oldies healthy: Nutrition for senior dogs.
The Ageing Process
As our dogs get older, some of the changes we may notice such as a few grey hairs or a slightly reduced activity level have no impact on health. However, the deteriorative changes that may negatively affect a senior pets overall health and quality of life, such as those associated with illness, changes in mobility, changes in cognitive function and the development of behavioural problems are referred to as senescence.
While few diseases are diet induced with the exception of obesity, many other diseases are diet-sensitive, meaning that diet can play a role in managing the condition. Examples of diet-sensitive conditions include chronic renal disease, diabetes mellitus, and arthritis. Other changes may impact on food intake and subsequent nutritional status such as gum disease, tooth loss, reduced appetite and changes in taste and smell. These are all important factors to consider when planning how best to support the nutritional needs of older dogs.
The Unique Nutritional Needs of the Older Dog
As ageing is a slow process, it is not always obvious as to when the best time is to make changes to the diet and so regular monitoring and body condition scoring is essential. Once we decide the time is right to make changes the major objectives are to maintain health and optimal body weight, slow or prevent the development of chronic illness, and minimise or improve clinical signs of diseases that may already be present.
Currently, there are no specific recommendations for energy or nutrient requirements for older dogs. For optimal feeding, the following can be as useful guide to ensuring their nutritional needs are met.
Dogs should ideally be weighed regularly and their feed adjusted accordingly. In general, inactive dogs or those that are overweight would benefit from foods specially formulated to have an increased nutrient to calorie ratio. This means their food portion sizes will be significant enough for them to feel satisfied after a meal. In contrast, if they remained on a standard feed formulated for younger dogs they would only need a small portion to meet their energy needs which may leave them feeling hungry between meals as well as obtaining a reduced amount of essential nutrients. Dietary protein is especially important in weight loss diets. Providing lower calorie diets with increased protein-calorie ratio significantly increases the percentage of fat lost and reduces the amount of loss of lean body mass. On the other hand, senior dogs are often underweight, perhaps due to taste changes, illness or poor dentition, so feeding a highly palatable food with a high energy density such as a soft wet food option will help to maintain a healthy weight in these cases.
Where a dog has a reduced appetite, diets should contain a higher protein concentration in order to meet their needs and delay age related loss of lean body mass, except when specific diseases require adjustments of protein level. The protein should be of good quality so that it supplies sufficient levels of essential amino acids. The level of crude protein in the diet should be 15% to 23% on a dry matter basis *(DBM) for healthy senior dogs.
Older more sedentary dogs can become constipated so a dog food which includes dietary fibre can be an advantage. The addition of fibre can also help to reduce the energy density of a diet formulated for overweight senior dogs. Crude fibre in the diet should be at least 2% on a dry matter basis for healthy senior dogs.
Fat is often a major consideration for Schnauzers prone to pancreatitis and inflammatory bowel disease. However, in some older dogs, chronic weight loss can be a problem, perhaps because of reduced appetite, so increasing the energy density of the diet by increasing the fat content can help to maximise the energy (calories) in the smaller portion they can manage. Fat also improves palatability and protein metabolism (protein sparing effect). This means the dietary protein is used for growth and repair rather than a source of energy which is of particular benefit to the older dog. The level of crude fat in the diet should be 7% to 15% on a dry matter basis or 5-7% to 10% on a dry matter basis for obese dogs or those with existing conditions like pancreatitis.
Given the prevalence of chronic renal disease in older dogs, ongoing medication such as diuretics chronic dehydration is a potential risk. There should always be plenty of fresh, clean water available and ideally owners should be monitoring the dogs consumption.
Fortunately, osteoporosis does not occur in elderly dogs compared to elderly humans so increasing levels of calcium in the diet above the required level for adult dogs is not necessary.
About 25% of older dogs have some degree of renal (kidney) impairment, which may be sub-clinical (no clinical signs apparent) phosphorus in the diet should be restricted in these cases on the advice of your Vet.
Sodium levels of more than 2% on a dry matter found in some commercial diets is too high for senior dogs with chronic renal or cardiac disease.
Once we have the right balance which suits the older dog, a few tweaks to the feeding schedule can ensure optimal intakes. It is recommended that older dogs should be fed at least two or three small meals per day rather than one large meal. Feeding several small meals per day promotes improved nutrient use and may decrease feelings of hunger between meals.
Dogs with a chronic disease should be fed a diet that is appropriate for the management of the disorder.
Joint Care For Older Dogs
Glucosamine & Chondroitin
Over time, cartilage can be damaged due to everyday wear on the joints. Specific supplements can help to maintain joint health in dogs throughout life. Glucosamine, which comes from cartilage can be used by the body to build new cartilage and Chrondroitin which also comes from animal or fish cartilage can help to slow the rate of cartilage damage. These two are more effective when used together either as a preventative measure early in life and also as a treatment once damage has occurred.
Dosage: 200mg of Glucosamine & 100mg Chondroitin per 5kg body weight (each day).
Green Lipped Mussel
Studies of green-lipped mussel (GLM) have found that its flesh has a naturally occurring combination of many nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin and antioxidants which benefit joint health. There is some evidence from well-controlled clinical trials supporting the use of green lipped mussel in osteoarthritis in dogs where it has been used to help in pain control with no side effects. It has not been shown to be as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) but it may be helpful for dogs that cannot use NSAIDS or who need pain control over long time periods. Studies have not yet demonstrated consistent improvement and there are concerns over the efficacy of farmed muscles and the sustainability of harvesting wild-caught green-lipped muscles.
Dosage: 15mg of the powdered extract per 500g of the dog’s body weight.
(Avoid if your dog has an allergy to seafood)
Curcumin is found in the spice turmeric and has been shown to contain a powerful phytochemical which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Existing research suggests it may be a beneficial complementary treatment for osteoarthritis in dogs. However, more research is needed to improve its solubility, absorption and bioavailability and to look at the possible side-effects if given at concentrations that have been shown to be biologically active in test-tube conditions.
Supermarket bought turmeric powder does not contain curcumin. Curcumin is poorly absorbed across the wall of the intestine and rapidly cleared from the blood so it would need to be given as a high quality (pharmaceutical grade) supplement in conjunction with an oil or fish oil to maximise its absorption. Freshly ground black pepper helps to activate the curcumin. Look for turmeric with 5% curcumin.
Alternatively you could make your own ‘Golden Paste’ which could kept in the fridge for up to one week. Simply combine one part organic turmeric powder (it has more curcumin) with 2-3 parts water and a few drops of coconut oil. Add freshly ground black pepper. Stir it over a low heat until it forms a thick paste and add the pepper once it has thickened. Be careful though, it can temporarily stain the dog’s whiskers if they have a light coloured coat!
Fish Oil (Omega-3 Fatty Acids)
These have anti-inflammatory properties which may help in joint pain. They can be given alongside green lipped mussel or a supplement containing both glucosamine and chondroitin.
Dosage: 100-150mg EPA or DHA per 5kg body weight.
*Working out nutrients on a dry matter basis (DBM) requires a simple bit of maths – I have included this on my Facebrook group: Special Diets for Dogs and also wrote a post for MAS on this too.
This article is written in loving memory of Buddy, adopted from the Blue Cross age 9 years, who inspired me to become a Companion Animal Nutritionist and continues to inspire me every day. Buddy 2007 – 2017.
Carole Sandhu – Bio
Founder of the Dog Dietitian, Carole is passionate about dogs and providing high quality, evidence based information on all aspects of nutrition for them. She has over 25 years of experience in Nutrition and holds an Honours Degree in Nutrition, a Master’s Degree in Sport Science and a Certificate in Companion Animal Nutrition (COAPE). She writes the feature article on nutrition for Edition Dog Magazine and works with pet professionals, pet food companies and pet parents. Carole runs two help and advice groups on Facebook: Special Diets for Dogs and Performance Nutrition for Sporting Dogs.
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