How to Feed Older Dogs

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Jan. 2, 2015

Nothing beats a good, old dog. The relationship between canine senior citizens and their owners is exceptionally deep and multifaceted. Good nutrition can help keep this relationship going strong for as long as possible.

Definitive guidelines regarding what constitutes the best diet for older dogs do not exist. Owners and veterinarians need to work as a team to assess every dog’s individual nutritional needs and make appropriate dietary choices.

The first step is to screen the dog for disease. Nutritional management plays a role in the treatment of many illnesses that are commonly diagnosed in older dogs (e.g., chronic kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, some types of cancer, and heart disease). If a dog has a nutritionally responsive disease, he or she should eat whatever diet is recommended for dogs with that condition. Considerations based on age take a back seat in these cases.

Owners have a lot more leeway when feeding healthy, older dogs. Senior dog foods occupy a lot of shelf space in stores, but they can be quite different from one another. Picking the right product is very important. For example, most senior dog foods are somewhat lower in fat than are traditional, adult foods. Because most older dogs require fewer calories than they once did, reducing the fat content of their diet can help prevent obesity. A lower fat food is perfectly appropriate if your older dog does, in fact, have a tendency to gain weight. On the other hand, if you have a skinny old dog who struggles to maintain his weight, a low fat dog food will make the problem worse rather than better.

Older dogs can also have trouble maintaining their lean body (muscle) mass, and some senior dog foods contain less protein than those designed for young adults. I assume this choice is based on the misguided assumption that lower protein levels will protect an older dog’s kidneys from damage. In fact, many dogs actually need a little more protein in their diet as they age if they are to maintain a healthy lean body mass. Avoiding excess protein is important if a dog is in kidney failure, but research has shown that feeding reduced protein foods to older dogs “just in case” is a mistake.

Look for the following characteristics in diets designed for older dogs:

  • High quality ingredients to maximize digestibility and nutrient absorption and reduce the formation of potentially damaging metabolic byproducts
  • Antioxidants (e.g. vitamins E and C) to promote immune function
  • Fish oils or other sources of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids to maintain brain, skin, and joint health

Because of the variability in senior dog foods, there is no guarantee that the first one you try will be the right one for your dog. If after a month or so on one diet you are not pleased with your dog’s response, try another… and another… and another, or ask your veterinarian for help picking out the right food for your dog.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: sisqopote / Shutterstock

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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