Diet for the Golden Years
The right foods provide senior dogs with health-promoting nutrients.
Cook's Corner column by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine, December 2010.
We all want our dogs to live the longest and healthiest lives possible, but you might be confused about the best diet to feed an older dog. Here’s what you need to know to help keep your senior dog happy and healthy.
New thoughts on protein
Protein supports the heart and the immune system, benefits the skin and coat, and helps build lean muscle. Dogs that receive too little protein might appear healthy, but are more susceptible to stress, infection, and even cancer.
In the past, people were advised to feed older dogs less protein, but we now know that senior dogs need as much as 50 percent more protein than younger dogs. Seniors can’t metabolize protein as well as they once could so they need to eat more of it.
Veterinarians used to believe that feeding a reduced-protein diet to older dogs helped to protect their kidneys, but but that's also false. In a study conducted by Nestlé Purina Pet Care Company, 26 English Pointers aged 7 to 9 years were fed diets that contained either 15 percent or 45 percent protein over several years [see references 1, 2 and 3 below]. Those fed more protein had a higher percentage of lean body mass and a lower percentage of body fat; in addition, there was no evidence of kidney damage due to the higher protein intake. Even older dogs with just one kidney suffered no adverse effects when fed diets that were 34 percent protein, and mortality was lower compared to dogs fed 18 percent protein (see references 4 and 5 below).
Ensuring your dog gets enough protein
If you home-prepare your senior dog's diet, at least half the diet should be animal proteins, such as eggs, fish, yogurt, cottage or ricotta cheese, and various types of meat. Dogs with health problems, such as arthritis, heart disease and cancer, benefit from high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets. Dietary modifications might be needed for dogs with certain health conditions, such as liver and kidney disease, but a low-protein diet is rarely required.
The rest of the diet can consist of vegetables, fruits and grains. If your dog is overweight, limit the amount of starchy foods, such as rice, oatmeal, potatoes, sweet potatoes and pasta . Some dogs with arthritis do better when grains and other starchy foods are limited or eliminated from the diet.
Fat and Carbohydrates
As dogs age, they become less active and thus need fewer calories. Extra weight is hard on the joints and makes it more difficult for arthritic dogs to move around. This can lead to more weight gain, creating a vicious circle.
Fat provides more than twice the calories per gram as protein and carbohydrates. Less-active older dogs need less fat than younger, more active dogs. Too little fat, however, will leave them feeling hungry and can lead to dull coat, skin problems and deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins.
Reduce fat by removing the skin from poultry, cutting off visible fat from meat, feeding lean meats or cooking fatty meats and pouring off the fat, and feeding low-fat dairy products. Dark meat chicken with skin removed is preferable to feeding ultra-low-fat breast.
Limit starchy carbohydrates -- these are more likely to be stored as fat and might contribute to inflammation. Gradually reduce the overall amounts of food as needed to help your dog lose weight.
Older dogs that are underweight might benefit from more fat in their diets, which can increase palatability and encourage them to eat more. Increase fat gradually; too much can lead to problems, such as pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas, a painful and dangerous condition).
Supplements for Seniors
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are good for the heart, kidneys, eyes, brain, immune system and skin. They also help control inflammation, as occurs with arthritis. These fatty acids are found primarily in fish, so one of the best ways to provide them is by feeding canned fish with bones, such as jack mackerel, pink salmon and sardines.
You can feed whole meals of fish a couple of times a week, or add small amounts of fish daily or every other day (around 1 ounce of fish per pound of other foods). Rinse the fish if you’re concerned about excess salt.
You can also supplement your dog's diet with fish oil. Fish oil comes in both gel caps and liquid. Store liquid fish oil i dark bottles i the refrigerator to preent it from becoming rancid.
Healthy dogs benefit from 300 milligrams combined EPA and DHA per 20 to 30 pounds of body weight daily. Dogs with kidney disease, heart disease, arthritis or other inflammatory conditions can be given as much as 300 milligrams EPA and DHA per 10 pounds of body weight daily.
It’s important to supplement with vitamin E whenever you add oils to the diet. See Vitamin E for my current recommendations on vitamin E supplementation.
Other antioxidants include vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), lutein, ginkgo biloba, alpha-lipoic acid, lycopene and selenium. Natural antioxidants found in food have been shown to lower the risk of many chronic diseases, including cancer in humans, and the same is likely true for dogs.
Good food sources of antioxidants include deeply colored vegetables and fruits, such as asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, peppers (green, red and yellow), berries, apples, cantaloupe, mangos and papaya. Beans are also high in antioxidants. Remember that grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs and should be avoided.
We don’t know if antioxidant supplements provide the same benefits as fresh foods, though using them in moderation should not be harmful and might help. You can give supplements made either for dogs or for people, adjusting the dosage in accordance with the weight of the dog.
For example, give the full adult human dose to dogs that weigh 100 pounds, half the human dose to dogs that weigh 50 pounds, and one-quarter the human dose to dogs that weigh 25 pounds. Dogs smaller than 25 pounds require supplements specifically made for dogs to avoid overdosing.
CoQ10 benefits the heart and kidneys, and also contributes to periodontal health. One milligram per pound of body weight daily is considered a good dose for dogs.
Herbal antioxidant supplements offer similar benefits to whole foods. Examples of products made for dogs include Senior Blend from Animals’ Apawthecary, Invigor from The Honest Kitchen and Organic Green Essentials from Animal Essentials.
Keys to longevity
Keeping your dog lean and feeding a high-protein, moderate-fat diet that includes vegetables and fruits are the best ways to help your senior dog live a longer, healthier life. If you feed a commercial diet, you can supplement it with high-protein foods, but be sure to cut back on the amount of commercial food so your dog doesn't gain weight.
Try to keep your senior dog active. Moderate exercise helps the dog stay limber and build muscle, and is beneficial as long as your dog isn’t sore afterwards. Walks and training also stimulate your dog mentally, which can help to stave off problems of old age, such as canine cognitive dysfunction. Good diet and exercise contribute to both health and happiness so older dogs can enjoy their senior years.
Also see 10 Best Foods to Feed Your Senior Dog.
- Nutritional Needs of Older Dogs
- Geriatric Nutrition: Protein
- Demystifying Myths about Protein
- Effects of Dietary Protein Intake on Renal Functions in Dogs
- Effects of aging and dietary protein intake on uninephrectomized geriatric dogs.
You can contact me if you have any comments, but I regret to say that I can no longer respond to questions about individual dogs. See my Contact page for more information. My name is Mary Straus and you can email me at either or