Does My Senior Dog Need Special Dog Food?

Written by:

Lorie Huston, DVM
Published: August 24, 2012

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on April 29, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD

Whether or not your senior dog needs special dog food depends, to a large extent, on your individual dog. There are a number of health issues that senior dogs face that might benefit from a special food for senior dogs.

Here are some of the top health issues that might lead you to try specially formulated senior dog foods.

Senior Dog Foods to Help With Obesity and Being Underweight

As pets age, they may become less active. Less exercise may lead to an increase in weight, requiring changes in your dog’s diet to compensate and avoid obesity.

A diet formulated for dogs that are less active might be appropriate in these situations. This may be a dog food with a lower calorie content that still contains adequate levels of nutrients to meet all of your senior dog’s nutritional needs and keep your dog healthy. Many diets labeled for senior dogs have lower calorie counts, but not all of them.

In some cases, the opposite may happen, and your senior pet may actually start to have difficulty holding his or her weight. In a case like this, a diet with an increased calorie content and a highly palatable and digestible protein source may be useful. However, the choice of diet may depend on the cause of the weight loss as well.

The amount of calories per cup is labeled on every bag of dog food. It is listed as “kcal,” which is the same as the calories we see listed on our own food packages. Talk with your veterinarian to find out the appropriate amount of food for your senior dog.

Food for Senior Dogs With Arthritis

Arthritis is a common condition in older dogs, and a pet food supplemented with glucosamine, chondroitin and/or omega fatty acids may be helpful. These ingredients can help to improve joint health and decrease the pain associated with arthritis and other degenerative conditions.

However, these supplements can make food less shelf-stable, meaning the quality may be compromised unless you are able to make sure that the food is very fresh. The diets most likely to meet these qualifications are prescription dog foods, so talk to your vet about diet supplementation for arthritis.

It may be better for your pet to supplement a low-calorie diet with omega-3 fatty acids since many older dogs with arthritis are also overweight. Your veterinarian can help you manage multiple conditions at once through special diets, dog supplements, and the right prescription pet medications.

Choosing a Diet for Senior Dogs With Kidney or Heart Disease

Dietary protein levels for older dogs are controversial. Some veterinarians believe that decreasing protein content in dog food for senior dogs may be beneficial, particularly if your dog has evidence of kidney disease.

Others feel differently, worrying that restricting protein content may lead to inadequate nutrient levels being provided and muscle-wasting. It is important to remember, especially in senior pets, that not all forms of protein are equally accessible.

Some proteins are more easily digestible and, therefore, are more valuable for your pet than others. Your veterinarian can help you determine what is the best dog food for your senior dog.

In some illnesses, it may be required to control or manipulate electrolyte levels in your dog’s blood. Examples of this include dogs with advanced kidney disease and/or heart disease.

A special diet may be advisable in cases of kidney or heart disease to help control the disease itself. Again, the type of senior dog food necessary will depend on your individual dog and your dog’s health.

In the case of heart disease, some veterinarians recommend diets lower in sodium. In kidney disease, a diet lower in phosphorus may be necessary. These diets may have levels of nutrients below that permissible in food for healthy dogs, which is why it is only available by a prescription from your veterinarian.

Your veterinarian is your best source for determining what type of special food is best for your senior dog.

It's best if you take your senior dog for regular examinations in order to choose the most appropriate pet food as your dog continues to age. In many cases, this will include blood testing and other diagnostic testing to look for or monitor health issues that may be impacted by diet.

By: Dr. Lorie Huston, DVM

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