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Senior Dogs: Diet & Nutritional Needs

Nicole Cosgrove

June 30, 2021

As we get older, we have to adjust the kind of things that we eat and drink to help us stay fit and healthy. Eating certain nutrients and foods can also help us fight against diseases that are more common in the elderly. It is the same for dogs. You need to alter their diet if you want them to stay happy and healthy for as many years as possible.

Here, we break down how old your dog will be when you might need to think about switching them over and how to adjust their diet to make a difference in their health.

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The Age of a “Senior Dog”

There is no set age for a dog to be considered a senior. Some breeds can easily live for 15 or more years, while others have an average lifespan of 8. Because of this difference, the dogs with a lower life span also age much faster and might become seniors at only 6 or 7 years old.

Large and giant dog breeds typically have much shorter lifespans and age exponentially faster than their smaller counterparts. The rate of aging also depends on their breed and their body weight. Overweight dogs tend to age faster than those that are lean and healthy.

A good rule of thumb to use is their life expectancy. When they reach half of their life expectancy, they become an “older dog.” They might not be a senior yet, but you need to pay careful attention to their health from there on out. Big dogs are typically considered older once they hit about 6, while smaller dogs are older when they reach 8 or 9 years old.

senior labrador
Image Credit: Pixabay

Feeding Them Senior Dog Food: What’s the Difference

Almost any pet food brand will have food for puppies, food for the average dog, and food for seniors. Is there that much of a difference in their diets? Do you need to switch your dog over to senior food once they become an older dog?

There can be quite a bit of difference between dog foods. As long as you are buying from a high-quality brand, you will give your puppy or senior a specialized diet that helps them develop or maintain themselves in a healthy way.

Do keep in mind that there is no regulation on dog foods that claim to be for seniors. Sometimes, only the packaging will change, and nothing changes with the recipe. You need to monitor the difference between their food to ensure that they are getting what they need.

Seniors usually need a lower-calorie diet. Their metabolisms start to slow down about halfway through their lives, and they can’t use as many calories as they could when they were young. Their energy requirements are markedly lower. That means that continuing to give them the same amount of calories results in unhealthy weight gain.

Other differences between regular and senior dog food include increased palatability and a softer texture. As a dog ages, they tend to lose their appetite. Making the food taste better is one of the best ways that you can get your dog to continue eating regularly.

You should also check to see if your dog’s senior food has any added supplements, like MCTs, antioxidants, and omega-3s. All of these will help them develop healthy coats and keep their joints supple.

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Choosing a Senior Dog Food

There are so many pet food brands and diets nowadays that it can feel impossible to sort through the mounds of choices. It is easier when you have a guideline for what you want to look for in your dog’s food. It also depends on your pup, their health, and their current diet.

1. Consider whether your dog shows any signs of muscle loss.

As your dog ages, they are less excited to move around and get exercise like they used to do. If you have noticed that your dog has started losing muscle, their food should help them. Look for a senior dog food that is higher in protein. The typical recommendation for seniors is to give them 75 grams of protein per 1,000 calories.

old dog eating
Image Credit: Vlarvixof, Shutterstock

2. Has your dog started eating less than they usually do?

That might mean that your dog’s appetite has diminished. This is something that you should talk to your vet about first because it could be linked with other medical issues. Otherwise, you want to look for a diet that is higher in protein and fat with a little more moisture. The texture and taste help supplement its palatability.

As a dog ages, they just won’t eat as much as they used to, since their metabolism is slower. That means that each bite of dog food needs to contain a higher amount of minerals and vitamins to pack a better punch with each bite.

senior dog
Image Credit: Pixabay

3. If your dog has started to show signs of memory loss, diet can help.

Memory loss and small behavioral changes are effects of aging. However, additives like MCTs and fish oil can help offset or slow down these effects. DHA, an essential nutrient for brain development in puppies, can help slow down memory loss in senior dogs.

old dog eating
Image Credit: Maggie McManus, Shutterstock

3. Does your dog get constipated more often?

Constipation from a slower metabolism is another common effect of aging. You can get food with a higher fiber content from veggies like broccoli or in a form like psyllium.

Talk to your vet too. If they have been working with your dog for many years, they can make an educated suggestion based on your pup’s needs.

senior german shepherd
Image Credit: Pixabay

Adjusting Your Dog’s Nutrients

You should adjust nutrient levels and types quite a bit as your dog continues to age. They aren’t essential, but they will benefit your senior dog and help them live healthier for longer.

For example, additional protein is one of the most significant recommendations for senior dogs. However, if your dog has kidney disease at any stage, you need to keep a close eye on the phosphorus level in their food. As protein increases, phosphorus typically does as well.

If your dog struggles with their weight, then you need to control the fat in their diet. Some senior dogs are overweight and need less fat in their food. Others struggle to keep their weight on and will need higher fat and protein levels in their diet.

Since each dog is different even within the same breed, you need to adjust according to their specific needs. There isn’t an exact equation that you can use to understand exactly what your dog needs. Instead, work with your vet to find a food that supports them in their protein, calorie, and nutritional needs to maintain their weight and health.

senior dog eating chicken
Image Credit: Sophie Louise Davis, Shutterstock

Supplements to Fight Against Typical Diseases

A primary concern for a senior dog’s diet is the ability to help fight against common diseases and the effects of aging. Signs of aging in a dog include:

  • Vision problems
  • Memory loss
  • Lumps and skin issues
  • Struggle with weight maintenance
  • Bad breath
  • Dental problems
  • Impaired mobility
  • Altered behavior
  • Disruption in sleep patterns
  • Increased urination
  • Osteoarthritis

Once your dog passes that halfway point in their estimated lifespan, keep an eye out for any of these issues. Some of them are more severe symptoms, and certain things like kidney disease will often manifest because of poor health earlier in their life.

Regular checkups and blood tests at the vet can help you keep track of your dog’s overall health. They can also help you identify certain supplements that can aid in fighting against aging and specific diseases in senior dogs.

One great example of a supplement that you should ask your vet about is one for your dog’s joints. You can supplement their diet with extra glucosamine and chondroitin. These can help reduce arthritis symptoms and may act as a preventative measure against its onset.

It is best to supplement these kinds of nutrients instead of looking for foods that market their inclusion, since they won’t have adequate amounts of these supplements.

As your dog ages, it is essential to keep up with their health and try to work ahead of any possible health issues that could crop up because of aging. It is incredible what a healthy diet can do to help your dog age gracefully. Talk to your vet before you start to see these signs to effectively care for them and keep them healthy for many years to come.


Featured Image Credit: Anastasiia Vasileva, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.

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