The Nutritional Needs of Older Dogs

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Sep. 14, 2012

A few months ago, I wrote about the special nutritional needs of puppies. Today, let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum. In other words, how should we feed the "mature" dogs in our lives?

The situation is a little different than it is with pups. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has not developed specific nutrient recommendations for older dogs, so pet food manufacturers have a fair amount of leeway as long as they continue to adhere to AAFCO’s adult maintenance requirements. Each company goes about designing their "senior" dog foods a bit differently, but here are some characteristics to look for:

  • Enhanced antioxidant levels (e.g. vitamins E and C) to support the immune system
  • Moderate levels of high quality proteins to maintain muscle mass while not overworking the kidneys
  • Excellent palatability and smell to stimulate the appetite
  • Natural fiber sources to promote digestive health
  • Fish oils and other sources of essential fatty acids (e.g., omega-3s and omega-6s) to counteract the effects of brain aging and promote healthy skin and joint health
  • Extra L-carnitine (an amino acid) to help maintain lean muscle mass
  • Moderate fat levels to reduce the chances of weight gain
  • High quality ingredients for ease of digestibility and to reduce the formation of potentially damaging metabolic byproducts
  • Added glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate to promote joint health

Because of the variability that exists between the different foods that are made for older dogs, owners should be prepared to do a little research into which product might be best for their individual pets. For example, if your dog has already been prescribed glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and vitamin E for joint disease, and he is doing well on his current treatment regimen, providing more of these ingredients in his food may not be necessary. Concentrate instead on finding a diet made from high quality, natural ingredients that meets some of your dog’s other needs.

Whichever type of senior dog food you pick, monitor your dog closely for a month or two after making the change. He should be energetic for his age and have a glossy coat, bright eyes, and normal digestive processes. If you are not pleased with your dog’s response to a particular diet, a switch to another product may be in order. The variety in foods designed for older dogs means that if he doesn’t respond well to one, he could very well do better on another.

Owners also want to know when they should make the change from an adult maintenance food to one specifically designed for older dogs. This can be a difficult question to answer because of the different rates at which small and large breed dogs age. I typically recommend that small dogs start eating senior diets when they turn 8, medium-sized dogs at around 7 years of age, large breeds at 6, and giant breeds at about 5 years of age. Your veterinarian is a wonderful source of information about exactly when you should change your dog’s diet and what product might best help him enjoy his golden years.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Aaron Amat / via 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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