Do You Know What Food is Best for Your Senior Pet?

Do You Know What Food is Best for Your Senior Pet?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Estimates are that in the U.S., 50 percent of dogs are over 6 years of age, and over 40 percent of cats are older than 7.
  • Based on these statistics, pet food manufacturers are very interested in figuring out how to develop and market formulas for senior pets. The industry has decided senior pet foods should address such common old age maladies as weight gain, declining immune function, declining cognitive function, and osteoarthritis.
  • Unfortunately, the end result in most cases will be yet more processed pet food with high fiber content and added supplements cleverly marketed to appeal to pet owners with aging dogs and cats.
  • The best nutrition for your older pet and pets at any age is fresh, moisture rich, species-appropriate food. Highly processed pet foods, no matter what special modifications are made to them, will never match the nutritional value of a balanced, species-appropriate diet.

By Dr. Becker

According to pet industry estimates, half the dogs in the U.S. are over the age of six, and over 40 percent of cats are over seven years old.

In order to come up with special formulas that can be marketed to consumers with older animals, pet food manufacturers make assumptions about some of the health challenges your companion will face as he ages. These include obesity, reduced immune system function, reduced cognitive function, and osteoarthritis.

I think we can all agree many pets do encounter one or more disorders associated with aging, but I don’t think it’s wise to build pet food formulas based on the assumption all older animals suffer from a set group of maladies.

Pets are individuals just as people are. There are plenty of senior pets with good body condition, no apparent loss of cognitive skills, and no signs of arthritis.

Assuming all older pets are sick with A, B and C, and therefore should be fed pet food formula D is the sort of one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition that seems to sell commercial pet food, but doesn’t work well when applied to real dogs and cats.

In addition, in my professional opinion most pet food manufacturers would do better to improve the quality and species-appropriateness of their products first … and worry about ‘specialty formulas’ after they have perfected the basics of high quality pet nutrition.

So how do pet food companies use these so-called common old age ailments to develop senior pet food formulas?

Here We Go Again with Added Fiber

According to, to address the problem of overweight and obese senior pets, “Formulas with nutritional modifications for reduced energy density, kibble density and fat levels, with added dietary fiber and higher-quality protein, appeal to the pet parent trying to keep an animal trim in old age.”

In other words, most pet food marketed for older dogs and cats has fewer calories, ‘fluffier’ kibble (less dense, and presumably more filling), a reduced amount of fat, and more fiber (often much more). You’ll notice ‘higher-quality protein’ is also mentioned, but I’m skeptical. I can believe most companies might increase the percentage of low-grade protein in senior formulas, but I doubt they are actually improving the quality of the protein itself.

And that’s a real shame, because aging pets need more protein than their younger counterparts, and the quality of the protein is of paramount importance. The more digestible and assimilable the protein, and the higher the moisture content of the food, the easier it is for aging organs to process.

The healthiest foods for most pets, regardless of age, are whole, raw, unprocessed, and in their natural form – and this includes animal meat, which should be the foundation of your dog’s or cat’s diet throughout his life. Foods that have not been dehydrated or processed are the most assimilable for your pet’s body. These foods are biologically appropriate. All the moisture in the food remains in the food.

Now, if your pet is overweight, no matter her age, it makes sense to reduce calories and fat in the diet. But adding more fiber is where the pet food manufacturers’ nutritional modification falls apart. The presence of fiber in commercial pet food is marketed to consumers as a healthy addition, very similar to how it’s marketed when added to human food.

But fiber in dog and cat food, because it is biologically inappropriate nutrition, is nothing more than an inexpensive filler ingredient. In other words, it’s much cheaper to feed wheat than meat, despite the fact that meat is species-appropriate nutrition for canines and felines, and wheat is absolutely not.

I recommend you steer clear of any commercial pet food that contains a high percentage of fiber, no matter your pet’s age or weight.

Supplements Added to Processed Pet Food? Useless!

Joint discomfort from osteoarthritis, while common in both overweight and older pets, can be avoided or alleviated by keeping your companion at an ideal weight and physically active throughout her life. Chiropractic care, stretching, massage, and physical therapy can also be tremendously beneficial in keeping her frame in good condition into old age.

Pet food companies are increasingly supplementing their senior pet formulas with joint remedies like glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and omega-3 fatty acids. There are three things you should know about the supplements added to pet food:

  • The amounts added don’t provide therapeutic levels of support
  • There’s no way to determine the quality of the supplements used (and quality is important)
  • At some point in the extreme processing of commercial pet food, the value of every ingredient – including added supplements -- is significantly compromised

If your pet suffers from joint discomfort, there are many excellent supplements you can add to her diet yourself, including eggshell membrane, Ubiquinol, natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs like turmeric and yucca, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals), and Adequan injections.

I recommend talking with your holistic vet about which ones would be most appropriate for your pet’s individual needs. I do not recommend relying on supplements added to commercial pet food. The right high quality supplements in the right amounts can make a tremendous and often immediate difference in your pet’s quality of life.

And the same logic applies to the addition of antioxidants to commercial pet food for immune system support and to maintain cognitive function. A high quality diet should provide most of the antioxidants your pet needs (carotenoids, vitamins C, A and E, lutein, Ubiquinol), but there are also excellent supplements like SpiruGreen that can round out your dog’s or cat’s nutritional intake.

Don’t Feed Your Aging Pet Based on Clever Advertising

On the whole, in my opinion, commercial pet foods marketed for senior dogs and cats are a waste of money. Almost without exception, the food (especially if it is kibble) will be loaded with fiber and other filler ingredients. And the bells and whistles offered in the form of supplements for aging pets are of little or no value by the time they reach your pet’s food bowl.

Those of you who have researched smaller pet food manufacturers using human grade ingredients have probably noticed they don’t typically offer special formulas for older pets, overweight pets, puppies/kittens, etc. This is because they produce high quality, species-appropriate diets that provide optimum nutrition for dogs and cats at all life stages.

When you offer your pet food in its natural form, full of moisture and unprocessed, you provide the best possible nourishment for your dog or cat throughout his life.

+ Sources and References