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It’s often been said that age, in and of itself, is not a disease.
But tell that to your aging pup.
From arthritis to muscle loss, to changing heart and kidney function, to all of those skin lumps and bumps and everything else in between. While maybe not a disease itself, aging is certainly associated with a lot of diseases.
We all know that diet is intimately associated with health. Our bodies can’t produce everything they need on their own. What we and our pets eat can bring in everything else our bodies can’t provide.
That’s why diet becomes a very important conversation topic for pup parents when their pooches reach their golden years. With all of the health problems senior pets face, everyone wants to know the best diet for their pup to be on.
In this article we’ll delve into several topics about aging dogs, including the changes many dogs face with their bodies’ function as they age, as well as some of the main nutritional needs aging dogs may have and how those needs can be addressed by diet. Most importantly, you’ll also learn how to choose a diet that’s best for your older pooch based on her needs.
What’s the Best Dog Food for Senior Dogs?
This question is the common one every pup parent asks when their dog reaches his or her golden years. But it’s a pretty easy question to answer: there isn’t one “best” senior dog food.
That’s because every dog is an individual and will have individual dietary needs, especially as he gets older and certain age-related changes start to come out of the woodwork.
So instead of just stating what the best senior dog food is (because there isn’t one), we’re going to discuss some of the changes aging dogs face and how diet can help.
That way, you can speak with your veterinarian about changes you’re seeing in your dog, combine that with any medical concerns your pup’s doc has, and together the two of you can work to choose a diet that will best meet your dog’s needs.
What Happens to an Aging Dog?
What happens during aging to any living creature is very complex. Breeding, genetics, and health problems all contribute greatly to how a dog ages.
We know far more about aging from research in humans, but we can probably extrapolate some to dogs and there are a few changes we all go through.
As we age, we tend to gain fat and lose muscle. This can contribute to weakness and mobility issues the older we get.
Immune function declines with age too, which is why older people and pets are more susceptible to infections and disease.
Kidney function will decline in all of us as we get older, and this is very common in pets. Even if a dog doesn’t develop kidney failure, there’s a likelihood of evidence for decreased function after 10 years of age.
Arthritis is a given for most dogs in their older years. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, at least 20% of dogs over one year of age in the United States are affected by osteoarthritis (OA). If 1 in 5 pups have OA that early, we’d presume that it only gets worse with age, and research tends to agree.
One 2018 study in Scientific Reports indicates that in North America, 80% of dogs over 8 years of age have evidence of OA based on x-rays and exam findings.
It does seem to take a long time for arthritis to really catch up to most dogs, even if they have some early changes when they’re young. But knowing the percentages means that we should start thinking about arthritis when our pups reach their golden years even if they’re not showing obvious signs yet.
So How and When Can Diet Help?
The reason why one best catch-all diet doesn’t really exist, is because dogs won’t be showing signs of all of these diseases at the same time, at least not initially. Here’s some considerations as far as diet goes, for each of the conditions we just went over.
Fat, Muscle, and Weight
While fat does generally replace muscle over time, it’s hard to predict how this will affect an aging pet’s body condition.
Some dogs, as they gain fat will gain more weight. If this is coupled with bad arthritis and decreased mobility, weight gain can be worse, which in turn places more stress on the joints. This vicious cycle can really affect the quality of life for many older dogs.
But other dogs will do the opposite. As they lose muscle mass, they lose weight, even as some of that muscle is replaced by fat.
The reason this is important is because calorie requirements can be different for different dogs. There is quite a lot of debate about whether senior dogs need less protein to protect against chronic disease, like kidney disease, or more protein to help stave off muscle loss.
This debate is another reason why there isn’t just one good diet. The truth is that some dogs suffering from certain diseases and weight loss could use higher protein and more calories in their diet, while others may benefit from lower protein and/or lower calories.
Fully understanding your pet’s nutritional needs for her weight and muscle condition is best obtained through an exam and discussion with your vet. If your older pooch’s weight has been trending down and we’re seeing muscle loss, it’s important to find out why and what diet change, if any, may be suitable.
But if your dog is turning 7 or 8 and isn’t having any weight or muscle loss issues, there probably isn’t any real reason to change from her current adult food, because the calorie content and composition is still appropriate for her.
As we all know, good immune function is critical to good health. Because our immune systems decline with age, it’s crucial to support the immune system as much as we can.
A well-balanced diet with a complete array of vitamins, minerals, and essential fats is necessary for keeping the immune system healthy.
The best way to know if a diet you’re feeding is well-balanced is to look for the statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)
The nutritional adequacy statement, as it’s called, is typically found on the back or sides of food packaging.
There are three ways this adequacy statement can be satisfied. The first is that the food has scientifically been formulated according to AAFCO’s nutrient profiles, which are based on the nutritional recommendations set forth by the National Research Council (NRC). This is kind of like saying that the diet looks good on paper, meeting percentages or concentrations of nutrients that many years of research have directed standards for.
The second way is that the diet has undergone actual feeding trials, following strict AAFCO feeding protocols that determine if a feeding trial is considered successful. The third way is a combination of both the scientific formulation and feeding trial methods.
Sometimes, depending on needs, it can be beneficial to provide supplementation for immune support. For example, certain medicinal mushrooms, like shiitake mushroom and turkey tail mushroom, have shown beneficial in many clinical trials in people and pets for boosting the immune system in countering certain types of cancer.
You won’t typically find turkey tail mushroom and its other medicinal companions in a commercial diet. If your pup’s medical condition warrants it, adding a supplement like Mushroom Max Advanced Immune Support with Turkey Tail can be beneficial.
For additional immune boosting tips for your pup, make sure to check out 5 Ways to Boost Your Dog's Immune System.
According to the Illinois University College of Veterinary Medicine, kidney disease is the 3rd most common cause of death in dogs.
While it does seem to hit some dogs quickly, there are often signs and hints about it being present that can be caught earlier. Unfortunately, by the time the actual creatinine value increases on bloodwork, about 65% of kidney function has already been lost.
But when running routine lab work every year, we can sometimes find clues in urine samples in terms of the concentration of urine as well as protein levels. One of the kidney’s main functions is to help the body retain water, along with certain electrolytes. If urine is consistently more dilute, especially in an early morning pee, when it should be pretty concentrated, this can indicate early kidney insufficiency.
Another function of the kidney is to retain protein, which can otherwise be lost in urine. But when the kidneys stop functioning normally, we can see excess levels of protein leaking out in urine.
These clues can indicate the need to make some preventive changes now, before any bloodwork values change. The earlier the intervention, the better chance we have of slowing the progression of kidney disease.
One of the first treatment interventions we can make for dogs with kidney disease is dietary. There are five main areas that need to be addressed in a kidney diet. The first and most crucial, is restricting dietary phosphorus. Cutting down on phosphorus either by feeding a diet low in the mineral, or by adding a phosphorus binding product, has a high association with slowing progression.
Reducing sodium in the diet is important for keeping blood pressure low, as hypertension can also worsen kidney disease. According to the Clinical Nutrition Service at the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University, dietary sodium for kidney disease patients should be less than 1mg of sodium per kilocalorie of diet.
The third thing to be addressed is dietary protein. Especially in later stages of kidney disease, or in cases of kidney disease where protein loss is being documented through the urine, a low protein diet should be fed. Feeding higher levels of protein actually encourages further protein loss, and the excessive loss of some protein causes further damage to the filtration systems of the kidneys.
Some newer evidence has demonstrated that protein restriction may not be beneficial or necessary in very early stages of kidney disease, which is why it’s important to know what stage of kidney disease your pet has, by discussing this with your vet.
The fourth is related to the acid/base status of the body. The build-up of waste products that is caused when the kidneys don’t function as well to dump those products out, leads to the body being in a more acidic state. Many common diets are more acidifying in general, so a pet with kidney disease needs a diet that keeps the body’s acid/base status more neutral.
Lastly, omega fatty acids as found in fish oil have shown to have benefits for pets suffering from kidney disease, possibly from some of their inflammation modulating effects. We’ll talk more about omega fatty acids in the next part about arthritis.
Although there is no one best senior dog food, there is a clear best to feed for dogs with kidney disease. When trying to address all five treatment approaches for kidney disease with a diet, there is no over-the-counter diet that will suffice.
We’ll go over this a little more towards the end of the article, but formulation for commercial diets, even senior dog diets, can be very variable. For example, there is a minimum level of phosphorus required in the diet, but no diet can tell you exactly what the percentage of phosphorus is, and very few will list a maximum level in the diet.
This means that you have no idea what the phosphorus level really is in most diets. And the same goes for sodium and protein as well. Additionally, most diets out there are acidifying, which is not a problem for healthy dogs, but when a dog is already in an acidotic state from a disease, it’s not helpful.
For dogs with kidney disease, the best diet to feed is a prescription diet specifically formulated to meet all of the needs we’ve discussed. If your veterinarian suspects early kidney disease in your older pup, following advice on getting a prescription kidney diet going is extremely important.
The Aches and Pains of Arthritis
There are a couple of dietary ingredients that are beneficial for arthritis. As antioxidants, Vitamin E and Vitamin C help to combat the free radicals that contribute to tissue damage. While it’s true that dogs can synthesize their own Vitamin C, you’ll often find it supplemented in diets for its antioxidant and immune benefits.
Omega fatty acids, namely the omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, have the ability to counteract inflammation. It’s more common to supplement them now in diets because of the multiple health benefits they have. But not all diets do, so make sure to look in the ingredients list or guaranteed analysis for DHA, EPA, or omega 3 fatty acids.
Another option if your pup’s diet isn’t fortified with omega fatty acids is to add in a joint health supplement like Advanced Care Arthrisoothe Gold.
There are other beneficial ingredients that help joint health and mobility including glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, and green-lipped mussel, which most diets, even senior diets, don’t include.
Because it’s common in people as they age, many pet parents may wonder if supplementing extra calcium and phosphorus is important for senior dogs to prevent osteoporosis.
But interestingly, except in very rare cases, dogs don’t develop osteoporosis. And in fact, oversupplementing calcium and phosphorus when it’s not necessary can have a negative impact on the body, messing around with calcium absorption by the body as well as kidney function.
Other Things to Know About Senior Diets
There are a couple of “buyer beware” types of points to make when it comes to senior diets, another reason I don’t recommend switching to one just because your dog turns seven, if he’s been doing great on his current diet and has no current health concerns.
According to the Clinical Nutrition Service at Tufts, it’s important to understand that the words “senior” and “geriatric” on a pet food label have no legal meaning and are strictly speaking, marketing terms.
Senior dog food diets are legally required to follow the same formulation guidelines for nutrients as young or middle-aged adult foods.
This means that there is a lot of leeway in terms of nutrient composition. Some companies will formulate their senior diets with lower protein, and others with higher protein. Likewise, sodium and phosphorus levels can vary widely too. According to Tufts, one study on commercial dog foods found that sodium in senior diets can range anywhere from 0.3 milligrams per kilocalorie up to over 4 (and if you remember, less than 1 is where we want to be for at-risk dogs with hypertension, heart, or kidney disease).
Diets may also vary in terms of calories from fat as well as fiber. Some senior diets have higher fiber and reduced fat, which is not ideal for all pets, especially those having trouble keeping weight on.
It is actually a challenge to counsel pet parents on choosing over-the-counter diets for disease conditions because there is so much variability. It can be helpful to look for diets that include not just minimum levels of ingredients, but maximum levels as well, especially when it comes to protein, phosphorus, and sodium.
This is why veterinarians often recommend prescription diets for diseases like kidney disease, because the nutrient levels are guaranteed to be within certain ranges and formulated to meet specific needs.The variability of over-the-counter diets is why it’s so important to discuss diet changes with your veterinarian.
Some Final Food for Thought
The most important thing to remember when contemplating what to feed your senior pup is to continue feeding a well-balanced diet. This is important for a dog of any life stage. But because all dogs age differently, make sure not to change foods on your dog just because he’s reached a certain number in age.
Feed her based on her needs as they arise. Fortunately, these health changes are slow to progress for most dogs, and this provides ample time to recognize them and discuss with your vet the best way to assist.
Catching some of these diseases early, including heart disease, arthritis, and kidney disease, means having your senior pup examined by your vet, sometimes every 6 months, and having regular lab work panels performed.
Good preventive care and nutrition go a long way towards a long and meaningful life for your senior pup!