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A Vet’s Best Tips for Picking a Senior Dog Food

Healthy Dogs |  August 20, 2018

The right diet can make a huge impact on how your dog will enjoy her golden years. Older dogs are at higher risk for developing problems with their livers and kidneys, as well as losing muscle tone and gaining weight. In conjunction with regular veterinary care, the right nutrition can help with all these problems.

To talk about how to choose a senior dog food, we talked to Mud Bay’s in-house veterinarian, Dr. Katy Patterson-Miller about the challenges senior dogs face and how to meet them through the diet they eat. She’s also included the solution sheets she wrote for people who visit Mud Bay with small breed senior and geriatric dogs, medium breed senior and geriatric dogs, and large and giant breed senior and geriatric dogs.

Before we talk about diet, can you tell us at what age does a dog become a senior?

There isn’t a single answer to that question because it depends on the size of the dog, which correlates to the dog’s estimated lifespan. Small dogs become senior dogs at the age of nine, and they become geriatric dogs at the age of twelve. A medium dog is a senior dog at eight and a geriatric dog at ten. Large dogs hit senior status at six, and geriatric status at eight.

When your dog becomes a senior, it’s a great time to talk with your vet and consider getting routine bloodwork done to uncover any underlying health problems. Even if your dog is completely healthy, it also gives you a good baseline for what’s normal for your dog.

What are the top things you should consider when picking a food for your senior dog?

There are four main things to consider: Protein amount, protein quality, overall digestibility and moisture content. Dogs are facultative carnivores, so they need to eat high-quality meat to thrive through all stages of their life. But as they age, it’s harder for them to digest foods well. Therefore, it becomes really important for the protein quality, and therefore the overall digestibility of the food, to be high. And finally, moisture content in the food helps reduce the strain on the liver and kidneys of older dogs.

Palatability is also a major concern. If your dog has dental disease, he may have trouble chewing kibble. Some dogs also lose their sense of smell as they age. The solution to these problems is a wet, dehydrated or raw food diet, which is easier to chew and has a smell that’s distinctive to kibble.

But when your dog becomes a senior, shouldn’t you just look for a senior food for that dog?

Not necessarily. Senior food formulas tend to have fewer calories and fat than adult formulas. They may also contain more fiber, depending on the formulation. There are many excellent senior dog foods, but you should choose carefully to make sure that protein levels are adequate for your dog’s needs.

If a senior or geriatric dog doesn’t have a health condition that benefits from a low protein diet, I recommend keeping protein levels high to prevent muscle loss. Sarcopenia, which is the term used for muscle loss associated with aging, can be a result of your dog not getting his protein needs met. Some senior dog foods may only have 18 percent protein dry matter, which is significantly less than many adult foods.

I’ve looked at the studies surrounding sarcopenia and senior dogs, and if your dog doesn’t have a health condition that requires a low protein food, it’s better to look for a food with at least 24 percent dry matter protein. If you look at the back of a can, pouch or bag of dog food that translates to 8% for raw frozen dog food; 5 % for wet food; and 22% for kibble and freeze-dried foods.

So, there’s no need to switch foods if you have a senior dog?

Older dogs can benefit from food transitions, but not necessarily from a transition between an adult kibble to a senior kibble. You see, as dogs age, they become less able to fully digest their food. Therefore, switching to a high-quality protein source that comes from wet food, dehydrated food or raw food becomes even more important. Even swapping out 10 percent of the kibble with raw food can have significant health benefits for a dog.

Any other tips about senior dog food you’d like to share?

A high-quality dog food is going to help you maintain your dog’s overall health, so it’s worth finding one that meets your household’s needs and your dog’s tastes. If your dog has any other health concerns, it’s also worth considering if the right supplement or change in diet could help improve these problems. Dental, joint, skin and coat health can often be improved through the right mix of supplements and dietary changes. Some dogs’ mental health can also be improved with a mixture of antioxidants and omega three fatty acids.

But really, if you have a senior dog, it’s important to talk about any health concerns you might have with your dog’s veterinarian. Many people mistakenly think that legitimate, curable health problems are just normal parts of a dog getting old. Older dogs may slow down slightly, but pain, significant muscle loss or loss of interest in food isn’t normal: It’s a problem that you can work to address through proper nutrition and in partnership with your veterinarian.***

Cat gazing at a panting black and white dog

Katy Patterson-Miller, DVM, CVFT is the Director of Dog and Cat Health and Nutrition for Mud Bay. Before joining Mud Bay in 2011 and focusing on small animal nutrition, Dr. Patterson-Miller enjoyed six years in emergency medicine and general practice. She is a graduate of Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine with her clinical year spent at Louisiana State School of Veterinary Medicine.

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