If your dog is getting older and slower, you may be worried about how much weight she has gained. Or maybe you have a dog that once chowed down with gusto, but now seems to have lost interest in food.
When a beloved pet ages, its eating habits and dietary needs can change. WebMD talked with two veterinarians to learn more about the challenges of feeding a senior dog.
At what age is a dog considered senior or geriatric?
“It really depends on the breed and body weight,” says Fred Metzger, DVM, Diplomate ABVP. “Large and giant breeds age faster than smaller dogs.”
Metzger -- who owns Metzger Animal Hospital in State College, Pa. and is an adjunct professor at Penn State University -- tells WebMD that in addition to breed making a difference, overweight dogs also age faster than lean dogs.
As a rule of thumb, dogs are considered older when they’ve reached half of their life expectancy, says Mark Nunez, DVM, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association from 2009-2010 and owner of a veterinary practice in Van Nuys, Calif.
In general, “little dogs live to about 15 to 20 years of age, while bigger dogs live to about 12 to15 years.," Nunez says. Bigger dogs are considered older at around six years, and smaller dogs become older at around eight or nine.
Do senior dogs have special nutritional needs?
"Seniors and geriatrics generally need lower-calorie diets to help prevent obesity -- a huge problem in seniors -- and higher-fiber diets to improve gastrointestinal health,” Metzger says.
“Probably the most important thing for a geriatric dog is that their energy requirement gets lower,” Nunez says. With a slower metabolic rate, older dogs are more likely to become overweight or obese.
Many dog food companies now offer senior dog food formulations, which Nunez recommends as an age-appropriate diet for older pets because they’re lower in calories.
If possible, owners should feed their pets foods that are suitable to their stage in life. But some owners have more than one dog and would prefer to buy just one type of food.
In that case, foods labeled “multi-stage” would be acceptable for puppies, adults, and seniors. “You make some compromises when you do the ‘multi-stage’ diets,” Nunez says. “So they’re my second choice. But some people just can’t separate the foods. The puppy will get into the senior diet, and the senior dog will get into the puppy food.”
Metzger tells WebMD that when it comes to snacks, you should serve your senior dog healthy, low-fat, low-sodium treats. Although many dog owners think of bones and milk biscuits as snacks, there are alternatives. “Vegetables are great,” Metzger says. “Most dogs like carrots and apple slices.” But avoid grapes and raisins because they’re harmful to dogs.
Dogs may also need more water as they age. “The body’s ability to maintain water balance is decreased as they get older,” he says. It’s important to make sure that senior dogs have plenty of water.
What health problems can affect a senior dog’s diet?
If your dog has medical problems in its later years, you may need help from a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist to plan a proper diet. “Older pets with specific conditions, like diabetes, kidney failure, or liver disease may require special veterinary diets to assist in the treatment of their conditions,” Metzger says.
Dogs with heart disease may need lower-calorie senior dog foods to help keep weight down as well as lower-sodium formulations.
“The goal of a diabetic diet is to delay absorption of a food," Nunez says. That's important for dogs with diabetes. When foods are absorbed slowly, blood sugar tends to rise more slowly.
Lower-fat, higher-fiber foods are best for diabetic dogs, Nunez says. Consult your veterinarian about which type of food to buy.
Some senior dogs also have trouble with constipation, so a higher-fiber diet will help them stay regular.
Many senior diets have higher-quality protein sources than standard foods. This helps to maintain body weight and muscle mass without putting too much strain on the kidneys.
Should senior dogs take supplements?
Many older dogs struggle with arthritis and joint pain. To address this problem, many senior dog foods contain glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate, which Nunez says may help the joints.
Metzger also says that owners who decide to give their dogs glucosamine and chondroitin supplements should use veterinary formulations, not human ones.
Although such supplements may be useful, dogs with joint problems and arthritis benefit more from slimming down, Nunez says. “People think glucosamine is the best thing, but the very best thing is weight management.”
What should an owner do when a senior dog won’t eat?
It’s common for older dogs to have reduced appetite, Nunez says. Causes vary. For example, some dogs have gastrointestinal problems that bring on nausea, while others lose their appetite because of cancer.
“When a dog won’t eat,” Metzger says, “make sure your veterinarian rules out any underlying health problems, such as dental disease, diabetes, kidney disease, or cancer.” He also says that when dogs lose interest in dry food, adding warm water, chicken broth, or a small amount of canned food can make it more appealing.
Home-cooked meals can be enticing, too. “That extra smell and that extra TLC can get the dog to eat,” Nunez says. Some owners feed their dogs combinations of foods, such as cooked chicken and barley or cooked lamb and rice.
Pet stores also sell bottles of flavor enhancers that owners can add to food. “Also, as a last resort, there are medications -- appetite stimulants -- that can help dogs eat," Nunez says.
But these treatments should be used only after veterinarians have ruled out serious diseases, Metzger says.