Nutritional Needs of the Senior Dog
There are no AAFCO or NRC (National Research Council) guidelines for feeding a senior dog. As a result, the ingredients and guaranteed analysis for “Senior” pet foods varies greatly between manufacturers. Overall, the trends for senior foods include:
- Reduced calories
- Reduced protein
- Decreased phosphorus and sodium
- Increased fiber
- Added supplements like omegas
- Joint supplements and antioxidants
However, these vary between different foods. High quality senior foods such as Orijen Senior, for example, still contain more calories and protein than adult foods of other brands.
More important than feeding your pet a diet labeled “Senior,” is feeding a diet that is most appropriate for your individual dog. Not every senior dog, for example, is overweight, so not every senior dog needs a reduced calorie diet. Many senior dogs are still active and may require as many calories as they did at a younger age.
Low Protein Myth
As dogs age, and kidney and liver disease becomes more common, you may hear that senior dogs need a low-protein diet, because high-protein foods puts too much stress on the kidneys/liver. (You often hear this with younger kidney-disease-prone dogs as well.) Vets may even suggest an expensive prescription diet with very little meat protein and a high carbohydrate count.
This is a myth!
In the early days of pet foods (and with many cheap foods now), most protein was derived from hard-to-digest sources such as by-products and corn meals. These protein sources, in high quantities, DID put a lot of stress on the kidneys, liver and the rest of the body, particularly for aging dogs whose digestive functions were slowing. Many vets, seeing these symptoms, recommended that their patients reduce the quantity of protein, rather than increase the quality, as they should have suggested.
Today, there are MANY wonderful brands of pet foods that are made with high-quality, easily digestible protein sources like muscle meat and organ meat. These proteins are easy for the body to process and do not require much work from the kidneys to filter out the junk. In fact, many dogs actually need more protein as they age in order to maintain healthy, lean muscle mass and good organ and immune function.
Another common myth about senior pet nutrition is that they need extra fiber in the diet to prevent obesity as well as constipation. In reality, this is often an excuse for pet food companies to add cheap “filler” to the food and call it “added fiber.” While added fiber may help keep your pup more regular, it will also block the absorption of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in the small intestine.
If you are concerned about your pets’ digestion, consider adding a supplement containing digestive enzymes and probiotics rather than increasing fiber quantity. Raw goats milk is delicious and contains both of these important digestive aids, as well as being a prebiotic.
Glucosamine, Omegas etc. in Pet Food
One of the most common marketing tools for senior pet foods is the inclusion of supplements that are supposed to help your senior dog age healthily. While these supplements, such as Omega-3’s and Glucosamine, are great for your pets, they should be given as an external supplement and you should not count on the food to provide them. There are three reasons why:
- The amounts don’t provide therapeutic levels of support
- There is no way to determine the quality of the supplements used
- The extreme processing of pet foods compromises the value of supplements
Omega-3’s are both heat and light sensitive. The high-heat methods of pet food manufacturing, then, will render any omegas in the food useless. It is recommended for all dogs, but particularly senior dogs, that omegas be supplemented through the use of fish oils, krill oil, or Algal DHA.
Joint supplements are equally important, and, like the Omegas, should be supplemented separately from the food. Foods claiming to contain glucosamine and chondroitin may only contain a fraction of the recommended therapeutic dose and will not be as easy absorbed by your pet as an external supplement.