The majority of people surveyed (over 84 percent) believe older dogs should eat differently than adult dogs, but only about half of them feed a senior diet. The reality is nutritional requirements should be tailored to the individual dog -- not based simply on the age of the animal.
Neither AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) nor the National Research Council (NRC) provides guidelines for senior dog formulas. There is no distinction made between the nutritional requirements for adult dogs and those for senior dogs. As a result, the ingredients used in pet food marketed for ‘seniors’ is determined by the manufacturer and varies widely.
According to Dr. Lisa M. Freeman, a professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts, pet food manufacturers "might be increasing protein, decreasing protein or keeping it the same.”
Survey respondents (as well as many veterinarians) generally believe senior dog food formulas are lower in calories and contain less fat, protein and sodium.
In fact, the 37 commercial senior formulas tested by Dr. Freeman and her colleagues didn’t necessarily have decreased levels of those three ingredients, and calorie counts per cup varied widely, from 246 to over 400.
We know dietary requirements change for humans as they age. And while there are very few studies proving the same is true for companion animals, it’s generally assumed dogs and cats also have special nutritional needs as they grow older.
However, as is the case with people, your dog’s diet should meet his individual nutritional requirements, which may or may not be similar to other dogs his age. Your dog’s body condition and any underlying disease are more important considerations than his age.
The majority of commercial dog foods tested by Dr. Freeman and co-authors of the Tufts University survey had a few things in common, including:
- Reduced calories
- Reduced protein
- Decreased levels of phosphorus and sodium
- Increased fiber
- Addition of supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, joint supplements and antioxidants
Let’s take a closer look at these senior dog food formula themes.
Not Every Older Dog is Fat
A reduced calorie senior dog food is obviously not a good choice for a pet that is either at a good weight or is too thin. Many older dogs experience signs of aging such as:
- A decrease in appetite
- Difficulty getting food into their mouths or chewing
- Reduction in the sense of smell or taste
- An underlying condition that increases their metabolic rate and muscle atrophy
Any one of these or a combination can cause your pet to experience weight loss in his senior years, and yet the majority of diets marketed for older dogs have fewer calories than adult maintenance formulas.
If your senior dog is overweight or obese, portion control and regular aerobic exercise are the keys to helping your furry friend lose those extra pounds and maintain a lean, fit body condition.
Protein Requirements Do NOT Decrease as Your Dog Ages
In fact, studies point to an increased need for protein as your pet ages.
The reason senior dog food formulas have reduced protein content is based on flawed logic.
The exceptionally poor quality protein used in most commercial pet foods is difficult for the bodies of even young, healthy pets to process. Rendered protein sources put chronic strain on your dog’s kidneys and liver as her body attempts to digest and assimilate food that is not biologically suitable.
Years of a diet based on terrible quality, rendered protein compromises kidney and liver function, which is why commercial ‘senior’ dog foods contain less protein than adult maintenance formulas.
Once your pet’s organs start to fail from years of a diet of low-grade protein, if you to continue to feed the same quality diet, you should select a ‘senior’ formula with reduced protein content.
It’s an unfortunate situation, because your dog actually needs more protein as she ages – not less -- in order to maintain healthy lean muscle mass and good organ and immune function. But the type of protein most dogs thrive on is whole, unprocessed, and preferably raw.
Added Fiber is Not Biologically Appropriate for Dogs
While it’s true some senior dogs have problems with constipation, the fiber added to commercial pet foods isn’t the answer.
A senior formula with increased fiber may make your dog poop more, but it will also block absorption of healthy nutrients. Too much fiber can create a barrier in your dog’s small intestine which prevents antioxidants, vitamins and minerals from being assimilated.
To prevent constipation in dogs of any age, rather than buy a commercial formula with increased fiber, I recommend the following:
- Feed a balanced, moisture rich, species-appropriate diet.
- Supplement with digestive enzymes and probiotics.
- Make sure your pet gets plenty of exercise.
If additional fiber is necessary for your dog’s individual needs, try these healthier alternatives to a high-fiber commercial formula:
- Psyllium husk powder: 1/2 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily on food
- Ground dark green leafy veggies: 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily with food
- Coconut fiber: 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily on food
- Canned 100 percent pumpkin: 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily on food
Don’t Count on ANY Food to Supply Adequate Omega-3 Fatty Acids or Joint Supplements
Omega-3’s are very sensitive to heat and light. The processing of commercial pet food renders omega-3 fatty acids useless. Technically they are still in the food, but they’re no longer active or helpful to your pet’s body.
Chances are, no matter what you’re feeding your dog, unless you’re supplementing omega-3 fatty acids daily, he’s probably not getting the amount he needs.
I recommend supplementing with krill oil, another fish-body oil or Algal DHA to supply your dog with a good source of omega-3’s.
Joint supplements are another area where I wouldn’t count on additives to commercial dog food to be either good quality or beneficial. The amounts added to foods do not provide therapeutic levels of support. They are added to better market the food. If your older dog needs help for sore joints or additional antioxidants, I recommend consulting your holistic vet about the following supplements:
- Glucoasmine sulfate with MSM, cetyl meristoleate, eggshell membrane
- Homeopathic Rhus Tox, Arnica
- Supergreen foods
- Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs such as turmeric and yucca, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals)
- Adequan injections
I also recommend you talk with your holistic vet about whether your senior dog needs a diet that restricts phosphorus or sodium intake. This will depend on your pet’s individual nutritional requirements and any health challenges she is dealing with.
When It Comes to ‘Senior’ Dog Food, Buyer Beware
Dog food formulas marketed for ‘seniors’ aren’t based on much science or even a solid set of guidelines outlining the general nutritional requirements for all aging dogs.
Based on the Tufts survey, it seems the majority of ‘senior’ formulas on the market seem to get it more wrong than right.
I encourage you to discuss your older dog’s dietary requirements with a holistic vet who understands the importance of species-appropriate nutrition and the individual needs of your pet.