Dogs’ bodies change as they age, so should their food

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

senior dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Research confirms that older dogs experience detrimental physiological changes just as aging human bodies do, including oxidative damage and increased inflammation
  • To help mitigate the effects of aging, it’s important to offer the right diet; the perfect fuel for most dogs, especially older ones, is a variety of species-appropriate, living, whole foods
  • The diet should be rich in antioxidants to help reduce oxidative stress and DNA damage
  • Older dogs can also benefit from nutraceuticals to boost brain health, supplements to reduce inflammation and support aging joints

If you have a senior dog in the family, you may be wondering if her diet needs adjusting now that she's getting up in years. This is actually a very good question, and in fact, recent research suggests that dogs' bodies experience significant changes as they age.1 The study evaluated 80 large-breed dogs from adulthood through old age or death and measured levels of certain chemicals in their blood. The following changes were observed to occur as they got older:

  • 51% increase in DNA damage, specifically, increased 8-Hydroxydeoxyguanosine (80HDG) levels; 80HDG is a specific marker of oxidative damage to DNA
  • 86% decrease in heat shock proteins (HSP70), which measure the ability of the body to repair cellular damage
  • 30% increase in C-reactive protein (CRP), which rises in response to inflammation

These results illustrate that just like humans, dogs' bodies undergo damaging physiological changes as they grow older. That's why it's tremendously beneficial to add appropriate "antiaging" high-quality supplements to an older dog's diet (more about this shortly).

I also almost always recommend digestive enzymes and probiotics for older pets. For dogs who need additional fiber, I suggest supplementing meals with natural sources of fiber such as psyllium husk powder, ground dark green leafy vegetables, coconut fiber or canned 100% pumpkin.

I also typically recommend an omega-3 fatty acid supplement such as krill oil, another fish body oil (except cod liver oil) or algal DHA for pets who are allergic to seafood.

The diet most older dogs thrive on

Contrary to what many pet parents have been told and many veterinarians still believe, aging pets need more protein than their younger counterparts, and the quality is vitally important. The more digestible and assimilable the protein is, and the higher the moisture content of the food, the easier it will be for aging organs to process.

Feed a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet rich in healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids such as krill oil. The perfect fuel for an aging dog is a variety of living, whole foods suitable for a carnivore.

Eliminate all refined carbohydrates, which are just unnecessary sugar. No grains, potatoes or legumes, which foster inflammation in the body. Replace those unnecessary carbs with extra high-quality protein. Eliminate extruded diets (kibble) to avoid the toxic byproducts of the manufacturing process.

Highly processed pet feed (most pet food isn't made from human-grade ingredients and is therefore, by definition, animal feed) does not nourish aging bodies in a way that slows degeneration.

It's also important to note that AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) hasn't established nutrient profiles for senior or geriatric pets. This means processed pet feed diets with added supplements marketed for older dogs are formulated without guidance from AAFCO.

Most pet foods are manufactured in a way that creates byproducts that can affect cognitive health, including heterocyclic amines and acrylamides, in addition to advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Fresh, biologically appropriate foods provide the whole food nutrients and amino acids the aging brain requires.

The right diet will also enhance your dog's microbiome, which has been linked to improved cognitive health in humans, and I've seen improvements in pets as well.

Those of you who subscribe to Dr. Mercola's health newsletter may have noticed more articles focusing on optimizing antiaging strategies. Most of the senolytic protocols emerging in human wellness literature have been studied on animals with impressive results. The good news is most of the compounds evaluated come from high-antioxidant foods you can supply to your pets via a fresh food diet.

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Antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress and dna damage

Antioxidants are molecules that gobble up toxic free radicals floating around in your pet's body before they can harm healthy cells and tissue, thereby reducing oxidative stress and DNA damage. Antioxidants play a key role in longevity, and several studies of older dogs have proved the benefits of an antioxidant-rich diet for the aging canine brain.2,3,4,5 The more free radicals the body makes, the more antioxidants the body requires.

Most commercially available pet foods, even those of very high quality, contain synthetic vitamins and minerals that provide minimal nutrition, not optimum nutrition. Your dog's body is designed to absorb nutrients from fresh, living foods very efficiently. Antioxidants are contained in the vitamins in fresh foods, including:

  • Vitamin A and carotenoids, which are found in bright colored fruits and veggies like apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, peaches, squash, sweet potatoes and tomatoes
  • Vitamin C, found in citrus fruits and strawberries, as well as green peppers, broccoli and green leafy vegetables
  • Vitamin E, found in nuts and seeds
  • Selenium, found in protein sources like fish, chicken, beef and eggs, as well as Brazil nuts

Phytochemicals also contain antioxidant properties:

Flavonoids, including super-potent fisetin, are in strawberries and apples6

Green tea (decaffeinated and cooled, for pets) is rich in polyphenols, including epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)

Lycopene is in tomatoes and watermelon

Lutein sources are dark green vegetables like spinach, broccoli and kale

Curcumin, a polyphenol derived from turmeric

Quercetin, a polyphenol found in leafy veggies, broccoli and peppers

Nutraceuticals to help keep an aging brain sharp

Nutraceuticals can significantly improve memory, and the effects are long-lasting. Krill oil and other healthy fats, including MCT oil, are very important for cognitive health. Studies of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as coconut oil show they can significantly improve cognitive function in older pets.

MCTs provide an alternative energy source for the brain in the form of ketone bodies versus glucose, which can dramatically improve brain metabolism and cellular energy within the central nervous system. Supplementing with MCTs is a great way to offer an instant fuel source for your dog's brain.

Ketone bodies cross the blood brain barrier to efficiently nourish aging brains. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon per every 10 pounds of body weight, added daily to food. Your dog's brain is about 60% fat, and that fat needs to be appropriately fueled as he ages.

I also recommend providing a source of SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine). Other supplements to consider are SOD (superoxide dismutase) and resveratrol, which is Japanese knotweed. Japanese knotweed has been proven to help reduce free radical damage and beta-amyloid deposits.

Ginkgo biloba may improve blood flow to the brain. Phosphatidylserine and ubiquinol, which is the reduced form of CoQ10, feed your dog's mitochondria and improve cellular energy. Nicotinamide riboside (NR) also has a promising future in slowing down the physical and mental changes associated with canine cognitive disorder.7

Supplements to address inflammation and support aging joints

Keeping your dog at a healthy weight and physically active will help control arthritis and degenerative joint disease as he ages. Chiropractic adjustments, water exercises and acupuncture can also provide enormous benefits in keeping dogs mobile in their golden years.

There are a wide range of supplements that can be added to your dog's diet to help maintain healthy tendons, ligaments, joints and cartilage. These include:

  • Glucosamine sulfate with MSM, perna mussel and eggshell membrane
  • Omega-3 fats (krill oil)
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Boswellia
  • Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (curcumin, proteolytic enzymes and Esterified Fatty Acid Complexes [EFACs])