I have a “thing” for older dogs. Ok, I seem to have a thing for all dogs, but the older ones really get to me because they’ve given us their entire lives with pure love and abandon. So, I want to talk about what we can do to make things better for them from a dietary perspective.
First and foremost, be sure the dog is healthy by having a complete blood count (CBC) and super chemistry profile done every six months. The ageing process is speedier in dogs, so in dog-years, six months is a fairly long time. A lot of things can change during this seemingly short period, and dietary manipulation can address quite a few of them, so it make sense to do it sooner rather than later.
For example, blood test results for kidney function won’t show a problem until the kidneys have lost 50% of their function, and we can improve survival time by addressing this right away, but we can’t turn the clock back. The longer we wait to find out if the kidneys are in trouble, the more nephron damage has occurred.
Diets with less protein for healthy older dogs is old-think. The fact is that older dogs need more protein, not less. But, more protein is relative. If your dog is eating a diet that’s based on meat, poultry or fish to begin with, you may not need to feed more. Most home-prepared diets provide plenty of protein. The quality of that protein matters. In order of biological value, eggs, milk, fish and meat (in this order) have the highest ranking. So, a healthy older dog would do well with more eggs and yogurt, although protein from meat sources is certainly better than from, say, beans or wheat. The label on commercial diets show total protein from all food sources, so don’t be too impressed with more protein if it’s derived from a lot of grains rather than meat sources.
Good fiber sources can be important to some older dogs who tend to have a slower digestive tract and can tend toward constipation. But even those dogs who don’t have these problems can benefit from the antioxidants in fresh fruits and vegetables. Fiber from these sources are an all-around bonus.
Increase antioxidant levels to promote general health and cognition. Fruits (berries are super-foods) and veggies (dark green, bright yellow or orange ones are great), and vitamin E are important, as is CoQ10. Added vitamin C is unnecessary and can backfire if your dog tends toward calcium oxalate stones or GI problems. Not only do dogs produce their own vitamin C, but they’ll get plenty of it from fruits and veggies.
Joint support is more important than ever as a dog ages. I use Joint Complex for my own dog and many of my clients use it for theirs. It’s not just about what’s in a product, but the ratios between ingredients and how well they’re absorbed.
Essential fatty acids are important no matter the age, but keep in mind that age can bring some problems and wild salmon oil is top notch for helping to address some of them. The omega 3 fatty acids support heart and eye health, skin health, are friendly to the kidneys, are anti-inflammatory (thereby helping cases of arthritis) and have proven to help cognition. If you feed your dog a lot of fresh fish, the diet may not need this supplement, but keep your eye on the vitamin D content of the diet. Fish provides a lot of vitamin D which can be over-done, so in most cases, the diet shouldn’t be loaded with fish alone.
Stay with moderate levels of dietary fat. High levels can be difficult for older dogs to digest, but even when that’s not a problem, weight gain can be! In these cases, increasing activity level to a degree that doesn’t tax the heart or joints is an option.
Finally, digestive aids like acidophilus and digestive enzymes can be really helpful for dogs that seem to have slowed down in their ability to digest food as well as in the past. The bonus is that once these guys feel better, appetite improves the majority of the time. It’s no small thing when the finicky eater starts to enjoy meals again!