The exact age at which dogs are considered "old" varies depending on size and breed. A large-breed dog is considered senior at about 7-8 years old, while a small breed like a Chihuahua isn't thought of as elderly until about 11 or 12. But one thing is true for all senior dogs: their dietary needs are different now than they were during puppyhood.
As your dog enters his or her golden years, you'll probably notice a few small changes. They’ll likely slow down a bit, both physically and mentally, and they'll probably be content to relax most of the day in a comfortable bed. Since your aging dog isn't getting as much physical activity as they once did, they might pack on a few extra pounds, too.
It stands to reason that what your dog eats in older age should reflect their nutritional needs at this stage of life. But you might be asking yourself: "What's the best senior dog food for my pet?" There are many choices out there when you visit the pet store or browse online — there are senior dog food options from brands like Blue Buffalo, Canidae, Purina, Nutro Ultra, Orijen, and Hill's Science Diet, for example.
Let's take a closer look at what our senior companions need out of their diets and what to look for in dog food as your canine friend gets older.
Nutritional Needs of Older Dogs
Like dogs of any age, your senior dog requires a high-quality diet that contains essential components like carbohydrates, fiber, protein, fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals. But because of the changes happening in your older dog — decreased physical activity, a less active metabolism, etc. — your pooch most likely needs a diet with specific qualities, such as:
Lower Calorie Count
As your dog's metabolism slows down in older age, they burn fewer calories and store more as fat. As such, many older dogs tend to gain a bit of weight in their golden years. A lower-calorie diet might be a good idea to help keep off some of those extra pounds.
Be aware that there is a difference between an older dog and a very old dog. Many humans get thinner later in life — the same is true for very old dogs. As dogs progress from being a senior into the last few years of their life, they may start to lose weight and muscle mass. As such, they’ll need a diet with more calories, not fewer, to help put some weight back on.
It might sound a bit confusing since there is no defined, universal age for “very old,”, so work closely with your veterinarian to determine what kind of calorie levels your senior dog needs.
Plenty of Protein
Older dogs tend to lose muscle mass as they get older, even if they exercise regularly. That's why getting plenty of muscle-building protein through diet is imperative. There's also evidence that protein deficiency can harm the immune system and cause loss of essential amino acids that help with tissue repair and metabolic function.
Proper Fiber Levels
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that, like calories, may or may not be needed in greater levels depending on your senior dog’s precise age. Many senior formulas have added fiber to help your dog with digestion and losing weight, and it can also help with constipation and regulate glucose levels.
But keep in mind that very old dogs probably don't need to lose weight. They need to gain it. Be sure to check with your veterinarian to find the best senior dog food that has the right fiber and carb levels for your pet’s particular needs.
Essential fatty acids — including omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids — are often in adult dog foods and senior formulas. That's because they're very important for your dog's health at every life stage, including old age.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may help balance out the inflammatory response in your dog's body. While Omega-3 may support inflammation, and omega-6 can encourage it. In this way, your dog's immune system can trigger inflammation when necessary — in response to an injury, infection, or other health problem — without overdoing it.
This delicate balance of omegas is especially critical for older dogs who tend to have decreased joint health and possible inflammation and discomfort. In fact, many senior dogs have full-blown arthritis. Omega fatty acids may help regulate the inflammatory response for dogs with joint problems or generalized joint discomfort.
What to Look for in Senior Dog Food
Now that you have some idea of the basic nutritional requirements for senior dogs, the question remains: What should you look for in a senior dog food when purchasing a bag of kibble? Here’s a short list:
- Natural ingredients. Do your best to pick a senior formula made with natural ingredients. In other words, plant or animal ingredients found in nature, not something manufactured in a lab. Be aware that even pet food with an "all natural" label might be deceiving. Read the list of ingredients to make sure you're giving your dog something healthy.
- No preservatives, additives, or by-products. Stay away from chemical preservatives and added colors or flavors. Check the ingredient list for by-products like chicken meal, for example, which isn't pure chicken meat but a mash-up of various leftover chicken parts. If by-product meal is the first ingredient listed as the protein source, choose something else.
- Additional joint health boosters. Aside from omega-3 fatty acids, there are other substances that can benefit an older dog's joint health. Look for chondroitin and glucosamine, which are commonly added to senior formulas. These are naturally occurring substances found in the connective tissues of both people and animals. Having them in the diet can reduce joint pain and increase mobility.
Keep in mind that every senior dog's nutritional needs are slightly different. The above recommendations are only general guidelines, and dogs with specific health issues like heart disease, kidney disease, or hypertension may need a different type of senior food than those described above. (A low-sodium diet, for example.) The best course of action is to talk to your veterinarian to ensure your dog is getting the nutrients they need for their age and health.
Tips for Feeding Senior Dogs
When your dog was a puppy or middle-aged, they probably gobbled up whatever was placed in front of them. Your older canine companion might be a little pickier. There are several things dog owners can try to encourage their older pets to eat, including:
- Heating up food. Carefully heating dry food or canned dog food in the microwave can make it more palatable for your pet. Always check it with your finger to make sure it's not too hot.
- Adding a food topper. Adding something like salmon oil makes your dog's food taste better, and it's very good for them. Pet Honesty's Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil is a delicious and flavorful option.
- Add some superfoods. Some dogs like fresh fruits and veggies added to their diet. Try slipping your dog a few blueberries, for instance, which are rich in antioxidants and other key nutrients. Take a look at our complete guide to which vegetables dogs can eat.
Talk to your vet about adding supplements to your dog's diet. Pet Honesty’s Senior HempMobility chews contains glucosamine and may help with your dog’s joint discomfort and support a normal inflammatory response. The Senior Dog Health Booster 3-pack gives you multiple ways to ensure your older dog stays in tip-top shape nutritionally.
The Best Dog Food for Your Pet: Making the Choice
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of the best senior dog food for your pet. The best food depends on their specific needs, so work closely with your vet when making a decision.
Generally speaking, the best senior dog food will be made with natural ingredients and minimal (or no) additives. It will also contain the right levels of carbs and fiber, protein, and fats without adding too many calories to the diet. Also, boosting your dog’s diet with natural supplements can make a positive difference.
For more insight into your dog's health and wellness, visit the Pet Honesty blog.