By Monica Weymouth
As your dog enters his golden years, some things will inevitably change. He’ll still be your best friend, of course, and the vacuum will always be Public Enemy Number One. But just like with humans, his health needs won’t be the same. One major area pet parents should be aware of as the years go on? Food and nutrition. We asked the experts what to look out for and what you may need to adjust for your senior pup. As always, consult with your own veterinarian before making any changes to your pet’s diet—each dog is unique.
If you notice your senior dog is having a hard time eating his kibble, you may be wondering what to feed an old dog that won't eat. But, it may not be his diet at all. Dental disease and tooth pain may very well be to blame for your senior dog's lack of appetite. While switching to a softer food may seem to help, it’s crucial to actually address the root of the problem. “Proper dental care can greatly enhance an older dog’s life,” says Dr. Heather Frankfurt, a Texas-based veterinarian who sees many senior dogs with advanced dental disease. “Imagine having a tooth ache, or many, for several years!”
If your dog has stopped eating, however, it’s very unlikely that dental disease is solely to blame—Frankfurt notes that most pets will figure out a way to eat through tooth pain. As with all changes to eating patterns, a visit to your veterinarian is in order.
Just as senior humans experience joint trouble, your dog is at risk of arthritis and pain. And while plenty of commercial dog food is formulated to support joint health, an additional dog supplement may be appropriate. Frankfurt recommends that dogs over the age of 7 take a joint supplement; for larger breeds, this age could be even earlier. “There are many brands and types of joint supplements available, and it can become overwhelming to choose one,” she says. “Look for a product that contains MSM, chondroitin, and glucosamine—when combined, these ingredients promote healthy joints.”
What to know what the best diet for senior dogs is? Consider one with antioxidants.
Antioxidants are prized for their ability to fight disease and the effects of aging. They’re front and center at your trendy juice bar, and can be a healthy addition to your dog’s bowl as well, under the guidance of a veterinarian. “If they’re acting aged, they usually need antioxidants, in my view,” says Dr. Susan G. Wynn, a veterinary nutritionist. “One of the best ways to do this is to supplement fruits and veggies, but some dogs don't tolerate them or won't eat them. In that case, I will prescribe an antioxidant combination in capsule form.” If your pup is open to it, consider adding berries, turmeric, and dark leafy greens to his senior dog diet.
Known to boost the immune system and reduce inflammation, omega-3 fatty acids are good for you and your aging pup. Want to reap the benefits? Consider adding fish to food for older dogs. “Senior pets require higher levels of omega-3s for brain and heart health,” says Dr. Judy Morgan, a veterinarian certified in food therapy. “I use sardines, due to the higher heavy metal contamination in larger fish.” Fish oil supplements are another option to increase omega-3s in your senior dog’s diet. It is possible to get too many fatty acids, however, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian.
A healthy weight makes for a healthy pup at any age. When seniors slow down, it’s especially important to keep an eye on that scale—extra weight is just as dangerous for our pets as it is for us.
“It’s just so easy to give an extra treat or fill up the food bowl a little bit more—food makes our pets so happy,” says Frankfurt. “However, obesity is something I take quite seriously because of the toll it takes on our pets’ bodies.”
So what can you do? Start with the basics, says Frankfurt. Measure precisely how much food you give at each meal, and never allow your dog to free-feed throughout the day—a constantly full dog bowl is a fast pass to obesity. Instead, feed your pet at designated intervals at least twice a day to keep him feeling satisfied. If he eats too quickly, consider a “busy bowl” or food puzzle to stretch out mealtime and help him get the most enjoyment out of those calories.
Your dog loves them, and you love giving them to him. But unfortunately, commercial treats are calorie bombs and can undo all the work you’ve done portioning out breakfast and dinner. Fresh fruits and veggies are just as rewarding—you just have to condition your dog to see them as dog treats.
“I always recommend that pet owners introduce veggies and fruits to their pets at as young an age as possible,” says Wynn. “They’re the healthiest treats we can use. If you teach the dog early that a vegetable is good, then veggies are treats to them.”
For easy rewards, consider small apple slices (without seeds), pear slices, blueberries, mini carrots, or for a cold treat… frozen green beans.
If you’ve ever dieted, you know how it works—a big leafy salad will keep you feeling full longer than that small side of fries. When the pounds creep up, switch your pup to a weight-loss formula that’s bulked up with healthy, low-calorie fiber. “That way, they’re still receiving nearly the same amount of kibble, but it’s not as calorie-dense,” says Frankfurt. Pet foods that are marketed for senior dogs often have a reduced caloric density as well as higher levels of antioxidants, omega-3s, and other ingredients that can help pets as they age. As always, consult with your veterinarian before making any changes to your canine companion’s diet.
When was the last time you bought a new food bowl? Was it during puppyhood? If so, it may be time to upgrade to something more senior-friendly. For dogs with joint trouble, Frankfurt recommends a raised bowl to reduce the need to bend, keeping mealtime as comfortable as possible. And while you’re at it, put those bowls through the dishwasher—we have a tendency to forget this chore.