Senior Dog Nutritional Needs: Optimizing your Geriatric Dog’s Diet

When we think about senior dogs – I feel like most people think there is some type of “switch” that happens when their dog hits 7 years of age. Suddenly their active adult dog becomes a “SENIOR” and everything is different – perception of what is “normal” and “abnormal” starts to skew. A small limp every once-in-a-while is now shrugged off as “old age”, vomiting occasionally becomes “he has developed a sensitive stomach in his old age”, and decreased activity is a “normal progression of age”.

BUT – age is not a disease.

Let me repeat – AGE is not a disease.

Meaning that a number should not be the only thing you consider or look at when deciding to change your dog’s diet (or lifestyle!) in their golden years. And though there are changes that will be occurring due to the general aging process – dogs age individually.

Some dogs may require aggressive changes early in life, but others may be able to be kept on the same or a very similar diet and lifestyle for a majority of their senior years. Just because a dog is “old” does not mean that changes are normal. Any changes should be investigated and addressed by your veterinary team, then we can optimize your dog’s food so they have the best quality of life in their senior years.

This article will discuss:

  • Weight Management & Caloric Needs
  • Causes and Addressing Finicky Senior Dogs
  • Gastrointestinal Changes in Ageing Dogs
    • Probiotics, Highly Digestible Diets, and Fiber
  • Addressing Skin & Coat Changes in Older Dogs
  • Maintaining Muscle Tone by Adjusting Diet Composition
  • Joint Care and Canine Arthritis
  • Cognitive Decline & Doggie Dementia
  • The Ideal Senior Dog Diet

Canine Obesity & Weight Management for Senior Dogs

On average research has shown that senior dogs typically need 18% fewer calories than dogs less than 6 years of age (Case 2011). There is also a general trend towards an increase in overweight dog’s around 7-9 years of age, right as our dogs transition to their more “geriatric” years. What this means as a dog parent is that we need to be mindful of how active our dogs are, and watch their waist-lines to make sure we are not over-feeding them.

Remember that JUST keeping your dog at a healthy weight for their lifetime can add YEARS onto your dog’s life (Kealy 2002).

Generally speaking dogs who struggle with or are prone to obesity tend to do better on diets moderately high in protein, low in fat, and higher in fiber. This combination keeps dogs fuller for longer and tends to be less calorically dense, making it easier to maintain a dog’s weight.

Dulled Senses and Picky Senior Dogs

Some senior dogs can be exceptionally picky due to their dulled senses.

Another sign of aging that is a bit harder to see is that our dog’s senses start to dull – meaning that if you did have a dog that used to do amazing scent-work and tracking, they may not be as good at it as before.

Their eyesight might start to be impaired by things like nuclear sclerosis or cataracts making it harder for them to see. And their sense of taste may also start to lessen, making their taste preferences change, and potentially making them a bit more “finicky” than before.

Finicky dogs, or dogs with multiple concurrent medical conditions can struggle to eat enough food. Diseases such as dental disease or spinal pain can make it hard for dogs to eat how they normally would. The best diet for a senior who is a picky eater will depend highly as to why the dog doesn’t want to eat.

How do we keep our finicky senior dogs eating?

Dulled senses such as reduced ability to smell and decreased eyesight can also contribute to dog’s who were already pickier eaters, almost refusing to eat. In these cases choosing diets that are both highly palatable and smell very strong can make a huge difference. Many dogs will also prefer diets offered within enrichment items, or a variety or rotation of diets to keep them interested in eating.

We know from research that dog’s prefer diets that are high in moisture, smell of meat, are high in protein, and high in fat. If you do have a dog who is a picky eater choosing a diet that has above 25-30% protein, 20-25% fat (on a dry matter basis), that is over 65% moisture is a great place to start. Also choosing diets that have a strong smell to them because of the presence of game-y meat, organs, or fish is an excellent option.

BUT if you have a senior dog who is struggling with maintaining their weight due to increased pickiness, always check for the underlying cause first and see if there is another treatment or lifestyle adjustment needed. For some diseases increasing protein or fat would not be advised, so always check with your vet first prior to making these changes.

For example if your dog is suffering from cervical spinal pain or neck pain, simply elevating their bowl can make a huge difference. If your dog is having nausea associated with a condition like kidney disease - choosing a diet optimized for the stage of the disease that is high in moisture, and providing a variety of protein sources can be an excellent option.

Gastrointestinal Changes as Dog’s Age

Villi of the Senior dog start to atrophy, decreasing surface area for nutrient absorption.

Other issues we start to see are changes to the gastrointestinal tract of senior dogs – older dogs actually produce less saliva and secrete less acid than younger dogs. Their small intestine which absorbs nutrients starts to change as well… 

Small projections called villi which are utilized to increase the surface area for nutrient absorption, actually start to decrease in size, and the cellular turnover within the gastrointestinal tract decreases. Finally the colonic motility, or its ability to move food-stuffs through the system decreases. (Sheffy 1985, Taylor 1995).

The interesting thing about these changes – is though we recognize that they occur and could potentially cause decreased nutrient absorption or digestibility – several research studies have actually done comparisons of digestive efficiency in older vs. younger dogs – and have found no significant difference between populations. However, they did observe a trend towards lower digestibility in the older dog groups. (Buffington 1989)

What can we do to optimize our dog’s digestive health in their senior years?

Knowing that our older dogs will have some digestive changes – there are some ways we can optimize their diet in order to make sure they are able to receive as much nutrients as they need despite any possible decrease. The first thing we can do is provide our dogs with a highly digestible diet that contains high quality protein.

This brings to question – what is a highly digestible diet? The truth is – this can depend a lot on both the ingredients used, and the processing methods used, and even your dog’s individual gut health (active enzymes, genetics and microbiome).

Generally speaking – gently cooked and raw diets are more digestible than kibbled diets – however this is not always true. Certain protein sources, or combinations of ingredients may be more or less digestible. The best way to know how digestible your dog’s food is to ask the manufacturer!

A highly digestible diet will be above 85% digestible on a dry matter basis, with protein and fat digestibility above 90% (Case 2011).

Prebiotics, Probiotics and Postbiotics for Senior Dogs

Understanding that our dog’s gut may need some support due to changes to the surface area due to age which can lead to trends in overall decreased digestibility and motility. 

Making small changes to support the gastrointestinal tract by providing things like prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics may be a good idea for our dogs as they age. Also knowing that up to 75% of the immune system lives within the gut – supporting it in our dog’s later years when they may have other concurrent diseases or conditions is ideal.

The difference between prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics.

Prebiotics are a type of fiber (or carbohydrate) that is not ingested by the dog but instead fermented by the “good” bacteria within the large intestine. This fermentation process produces a by-product called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which feed the cells that line the gut.

Well-known prebiotics we can find within dog food are things like: Fructooligosaccharides, and Inulin – also called chicory root, beet pulp, gaur gum, wheat dextrin, pectin, and larch. Other whole food prebiotics for dogs are bananas, seaweed, oats, apples, and dandelion greens.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide health benefits to the dog. There are six different strains of bacteria that have been established as being beneficial for dogs: Enterococcus faecium, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium animalis. 

But watch out! A large majority of probiotics on the market do not contain what the package says they do! A 2011 study found that only 22% of animal probiotics had the same concentration of beneficial bacteria that was listed on the label! (Weese 2011)

When looking for a prebiotic for your dog look for one that has:

  1. Third-Party Testing for Quality (NASC, USP, NSF, CL, TGA)
  2. Single-Use Packaging
  3. Protectants Against Stomach Breakdown (gelatin capsule)
  4. Well-Researched Beneficial Bacteria (Enterococcus faecium, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium animalis)
  5. Greater than 5 billion colony forming units (CFUs)

Postbiotics are metabolic byproducts of the bacterial fermentation process. These are compounds such as: short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), amino acids, bile acids, vitamins and polysaccharides. Postbiotics are a very new area of research, but offer future benefits that allow dog food formulators to directly supplement the targeted beneficial end-products.

This may allow us to directly influence or treat disease (such as renal disease, or atopy), without having to worry about outside factors such as stress, composition, or other disease processes that would influence the metabolism/fermentation of prebiotics by probiotics. (Wernimont 2020)

Increased Fiber for Senior Dogs

Senior Dog Running
Some old dogs can benefit from additional fiber to help with keeping their regular.

One conflicting point to choosing a highly digestible diet for our dogs is that some older dogs will actually need increased fiber in their diet in order to help with gastrointestinal motility. Meaning – some older dogs due to a combination of joint pain (hip, lower spinal, knee) and decreased ability to move stool out of the system (decrease peristalsis) – can have difficulty passing normal stools.

These dogs can benefit from a slightly higher amount of dietary fiber in order to help keep them regular and prevent constipation or difficulty passing stools.

For a senior dog who is struggling to pass stools, increasing fiber to 7-10% may be ideal, however too much fiber can cause problems too!

Greater than 10% fiber has been shown in research to cause decreases to protein digestibility, and can bind up minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron - which are important for immune health, joints and bone health. (Vhouny 1985)

We also need to be mindful about the different types of fibers we choose for our senior dogs – ideally, we want a food that contains a combination of different types of fibers (both soluble and insoluble) to help with overall GI health.

  • Sources of Complex Carbohydrates Include: Brown Rice, Barley, Oats, Corn and Sorghum.

Skin Changes in Aging Dogs

The first thing that most dog owners notice as their dogs start to transition into the later-years of their lives is an increase in grey or white hairs around their muzzle. Some people call this a “grey muzzle” others call it a “frosted face” but regardless of what you call this process – just like with people – dog’s hairs loose the ability to produce color (myelin) like they used to. They will also notice a decrease to their dog’s skin elasticity later in life – sometimes even flakiness of the skin.

What can we do nutritionally to optimize skin health and integrity?

It is estimated that 25-30% of protein ingested is actually used for hair and coat quality! Several amino acids such as phenylalanine, tyrosine, methionine, cysteine, and proline all contribute to overall skin health, and coat quality (NRC 2006). Thus providing highly digestible, direct forms of these amino acids may greatly improve our senior dog’s coat as they age.

Current recommendations for optimizing for skin and coat using diet are as follows:

  • 70mg/kg combined EPA and DHA – an active component of Fish Oils (Muller 2016)
  • 30mg/kg Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) – an active component of Borage seed, evening primrose, and black currant seed oil (Saevik 2004)
  • Increased fortification of vitamin B5 (6.5×), vitamin B3 (24×), vitamin B6 (8×), choline (1.4×), and inositol (2.8×) (va Beeck 2015)
  • Vitamin E (8 IU/kg) (Plevnik 2014)
  • Probiotics – in particular Lactobacillus strains (Shamalberg 2014)

We also want to provide these essential fatty acids at a ratio which is anti-inflammatory, meaning we ideally want this ratio to be closer to 1:4 omega 3 to omega 6, rather than the typical 1:30 that is recommended or allowed by AAFCO (Simopoulos 2002). Keeping oxidative stress low, and helping to potentially slow the aging process.

Maintaining Muscle Tone in Older Dogs

Decreased Muscle Tone in Senior Dog - as seen in v-shaped top of the head.
Loss of Muscle Tone can be seen most easily at the top of the head, the spine and the back legs.

Another visual sign many pet parents start to notice as a sign of aging is a decrease to the overall muscle tone of older dogs. This occurs because the number and size of muscle cells actually decrease over time, which coupled with potentially decreasing activity will cause muscle wasting and decreased muscle tone.

The first part of this puzzle to maintain our dog’s health is to keep our dogs active, while being mindful of their other joint and health related changes – for as long as possible. This may be modified activities, or even changes to activity over time.

Meaning that instead of having a dog who runs the agility course as fast as possible, they can leisurely trot the course, or switch to low-impact agility courses to help prevent high impact to joints. But the second part of this puzzle comes down to optimizing our dog’s diet to prevent muscle wasting.

How do we keep our dog’s from wasting away?

Research has shown that dogs fed diets containing at least 32% protein had an increased percent lean body mass in comparison to senior dogs fed a lower protein diet. The same study saw that using just meat-based protein (chicken) had a higher overall increase in lean body mass, however it was not statistically significant in comparison to the meat and vegetable protein diet (chicken and corn). (Davenport, 2001)

Current recommendations for protein content for senior dogs range from between 24 to 32% (crude protein) 

This increased need for protein within the diet may also come from the fact that senior dogs need a more nutrient dense diet due to their decreased caloric needs, similar to a dog undergoing a weight loss diet. At this time no studies have been done looking at higher than 32% crude protein for senior dogs and it’s effects on overall condition.

Q: But what about Kidney Disease?

Yes – about ⅓ of all adult dogs will actually have kidney disease. The intesteresting thing about kidney disease in older pets is that transitioning to a low-protein diet too soon can actually decrease survivorship.

Current recommendations do not support proactively decreasing protein within the diet until after a diagnosis, and instead recommend regular bloodwork – including a CBC, Chem (including CRE, BUN & SDMA), and UA to screen for kidney disease. Then changes are recommended based off staging and progression of disease.

Joint Support for Senior Dogs

Most people who think of senior dogs immediately think about arthritis and joint support. And this makes sense, most dogs over the age of 7 will have some joint-related changes. As dog’s age, the joints start to produce less joint fluid to provide cushion for the impact of day to day activities. This decrease leads to increased amount of scarring within the joint and bone on bone rubbing, causing arthritis.

What can we do to help manage joint related changes for our older dogs?

The most important thing to realize is that joint care can go well beyond supplements. The first thing you want to do to help your dog’s joints is keep your dog at a healthy weight! We have research showing that dog’s at a healthy weight have much later onset of joint-related changes (about 1-2 years), in comparison to dogs that are kept at just slightly overweight. Thus, if your dog has gained a bit of weight for whatever reason, the best place to start is to get your pup on a weight loss diet.

Beyond weight loss, other things we can do to help support our dog’s joints is provide them with the nutrients they need to maintain healthy joints, and provide extra supplementation to help with pain and inflammation. 

Some of these supplements include (Wooten 2019):

  • Fish Oil at a dose of 100-145mg/kg
  • Glucosamine Hydrochloride at a dose of 15 mg/kg
  • Chondroitin Sulfate at a dose of 15 mg/kg
  • Green Lipped Mussel at a dose of 77 mg/kg

Cognitive Decline and Doggie Altimerzers

The final major change we can look to manage in our older dog’s in Cognitive Decline, as our dog’s age some dog’s will suffer from signs similar to dementia or altimerzers. They may seem “forgetful” and suddenly not be able to tell day from night, they may have accidents within the home that are not related to urinary issues, they may pace during the day or at night.

How do we support our dog’s aging brain?

Running Senior Dog
Keeping our senior dog’s active and providing the with enrichment is the best thing we can do for their cognitive health.

There are three things we can do for your dogs to support their cognitive health. The first and probably most effective way is to provide our dogs with daily enrichment activities. This is similar to older people being advised to do puzzles, and other problem-solving tasks as they age.

Dogs also benefit from continuing to use their brain. Enrichment activities can be as simple as placing your dog’s regular meal into a puzzle feeder or as complicated as doing a scavenger hunt in the backyard! Old dogs can definitely learn new tricks – and they LOVE doing so.

We also have research regarding the addition of several different supplements for improved cognitive function one of which is medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs. MCTs work to provide the brain with an alternative energy source to glucose, allowing it to function more optimally despite decreased glucose production due to aging. 

  • Dose of MCTs: 5.5-6.5%, or 2g/kg per day (Pan 2010, Pan 2018)

Finally, multiple studies have looked at different combinations of amino acids, b-vitamins, and antioxidants (vitamin C and vitamin E), and have found that they can also improve overall cognitive health of older dogs. (Dowing 2011, Cotman 2002, ) These complexes or blends of nutrients can be found in two different prescription diets – Hill’s b/d, and Purina NeuroCare.

The Ideal Diet for a Senior Dog

As you can see – the best diet for a senior dog is highly variable, and depending on your dog’s needs and what medical conditions you are trying to manage will depend on what composition would be best for your dog. The biggest take-away I hope you have from this article is that if you are choosing a diet for your senior dog:

  • Highly digestible (above 85% on a dry matter basis).
  • Unless contraindicated by a certain disease or condition choose a diet with above 30% protein on a dry matter basis.
  • Fat content may be low or high depending on your dog’s needs for weight management.
  • Choose a diet with added Fish Oil instead of Flaxseed Oil for a direct form of EPA/DHA.
  • Choose a diet with a lower omega 3 to 6 ratio (of 1:4) to be more anti-inflammatory.
  • Consider a moderate/high fiber diet if your dog has trouble passing stools.
  • Consider adding on supplements for joint health such as glucosamine, chondroitin, green-lipped mussels, or fish oil.
  • Consider adding on a live probiotic, do not rely on probiotics added to foods as probiotics are extremely sensitive and unstable.
  • Consider choosing a diet with higher amounts of MCTs to support the brain.
  • Consider a food fortified with additional antioxidants/vitamins to support the skin & brain.

x DO NOT rely on flaxseed oil as a source of EPA & DHA, conversion from ALA to EPA & DHA is LOW

x DO NOT rely on coconut oil as a source of MCTs, the amount of MCTs within coconut is TOO LOW to achieve a therapeutic dose!

And remember to keep your senior dog physically and mentally engaged throughout their senior years! Do not decrease or adjust your dog’s activity unless it is advised to do so – age is just a number – and many dogs can be active well into their geriatric years.

I hope you found this in-depth overview of senior dog nutrition helpful and eye-opening – I know I enjoyed researching this piece and putting it together! Feel free to drop a comment below or reach out if you have any questions. If you are looking for a custom homemade dog food recipe or need assistance choosing the right food for your senior dog make sure to contact me for more information about my senior dog food consultations!

Til next time my canine health nuts!

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Shmalberg J. Surveying supplements: current trends, research, and recommendations. Today’s Veterinary Practice 2014; 4(3):79-84.

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Fish oil for dogs. Caninearthritis.org. Published June 10, 2019. Accessed June 1, 2021. https://caninearthritis.org/article/how-much-omega-3-fatty-acids-should-i-give-my-dog/

Sarah J. Wooten DVM. Joint supplements for dogs: The helpful vs. the hype. Dvm360.com. Accessed June 1, 2021. https://www.dvm360.com/view/joint-supplements-dogs-helpful-vs-hypeWernimont SM, Radosevich J, Jackson MI, et al. The effects of nutrition on the gastrointestinal microbiome of cats and dogs: Impact on health and disease. Front Microbiol. 2020;11:1266.

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