Feeding Mature and Senior Dogs

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

The population of mature and senior dogs is increasing. Better nutrition, safer lifestyles, and improvements to senior_dogpreventive health care have contributed to this trend.

While old age is not a disease in itself, the body changes associated with aging make older dogs more vulnerable to medical problems and disease. Cancer, kidney disease, and heart disease are the most common causes of non-accidental death in dogs, but proper nutrition may help mitigate the risk of developing certain diseases and chronic conditions.

When is a dog considered to be mature or senior?

Dogs are mature when they reach half of their anticipated life expectancy and senior when they are in the last 25% of their expected lifespan. Small breed dogs tend to live longer than large and giant breeds, so large and giant breed dogs are considered to be senior between 5 and 8 years of age while small breed dogs are considered to be senior at 8-10 years of age. The term geriatric is used when a dog has lived beyond the average lifespan for their breed and size.

"Before you consider switching to a senior dog food formula, it is important to first consult with your dog's veterinarian for a thorough physical and metabolic evaluation."

At these approximate mid-life points, it is common for dogs to gain some weight and exhibit age-related physical and behavior changes. But before you consider switching to a senior dog food formula, it is important to first consult with your dog's veterinarian for a thorough physical and metabolic evaluation. Since many of the diseases commonly found in older dogs can be detected early on, your dog's veterinarian may recommend a nutrient profile to deal specifically with any current medical concerns.

What is a nutrient profile?

A nutrient profile is a specific and unique combination of protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, and minerals. The nutrient profile of a senior dog will differ from that of a puppy. It will also differ based on your dog's size and health - the nutrient profile of a healthy senior dog will be quite different than the nutrient profile for a senior dog with kidney disease.

What do I need to know about switching to a senior dog ration?

Most senior dog diets are formulated with appropriate nutrient limits and are less calorie-dense (fewer calories per cup/can) than rations for puppies and young adults; however, there are currently no established specific nutrient requirements. This means that the amounts of nutrients found in different foods can vary widely. Your best resource for choosing a diet for your senior dog is your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will recommend a specific diet based on your dog’s specific needs.

The key principles for feeding a senior dog are to:

  • control calorie intake and avoid nutrient excesses,
  • ensure proper hydration, and
  • provide an ideal mix of fat, protein, phosphorus, and sodium.

How do I control calorie intake and avoid nutrient excesses?pug_scale_1

It is important to closely monitor your dog’s body condition and muscle condition and keep both in a good range as discussed in the handout “Obesity in Dogs.”

Calorie control in mature and senior dogs usually means reducing calorie consumption by approximately 20-30%. In very old dogs, it may be more important to increase their caloric intake to sustain a normal physique as their body condition and weight naturally declines with advanced age.

For the average mature and senior dog, reducing calories reduces the risk for obesity and many other diseases, including cancer, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, and immune-mediated disease. It can slow the progression of age-related changes and increase a dog's lifespan.

Avoiding nutrient excesses means reducing the recommended upper limits of some nutrients, like protein, compared to the recommended limits for younger dogs.

Portion feeding plays an important role in controlling calorie intake and decreasing your dog's chance of becoming overweight or obese. On the other hand, portion feeding also helps you identify a decreased or absent appetite early on, which could signal underlying medical problems.

Be sure to ask your veterinarian for a specific portion recommendation and divide the daily total into 2-5 meals depending upon your schedule. Do not rely on the feeding chart on the bag of kibble as it will overestimate how much you should feed. You need a portion recommendation tailored to your specific dog's needs.

Once you know the appropriate quantity to feed at each meal, you can schedule regular weigh-ins at your veterinarian's office to monitor any weight gain or loss.

How do I ensure proper hydration?

Water is the single most important nutrient for dogs of any age. Senior dogs, however, are medically more prone to dehydration, so access to fresh, clean water is critical.

"Water is the single most important nutrient for dogs of any age."

Make sure your dog has regular access to water and monitor the amount of water left in the bowl to see if there is any reduction in their water intake. Canned food can increase water intake as can adding ice cubes to your dog’s water bowl.


What's the right mix of fat, protein, phosphorus, and sodium?

Many interrelated metabolic changes occur as dogs age, and their daily energy requirement may decrease by 12-13%.

Protein is a critical nutrient for maintaining good physical health in the face of aging. While the amount of protein that should be fed to senior dogs remains a topic of discussion, there is agreement that higher protein quality is important.

Although high protein food has not been shown to cause kidney disease in healthy dogs, high protein foods may contribute to the progression of kidney disease once kidney function is compromised.

Also related to kidney disease, excessive phosphorus should be avoided in a senior dog ration.

Excessive sodium in the diet can contribute to kidney disease and hypertension, both of which can be present for long periods of time before clinical signs emerge.

Do I need to be concerned about offering treats and snacks to a mature or senior dog?

It is important to include treats and snacks in your discussion with your veterinarian about appropriate food choices for your mature or senior dog. Unfortunately, many dog treats are just as unhealthy as the 'junk food' people consume!

"Water-based vegetables, like fresh or frozen green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce make good guilt-free snacks for senior dogs."

It is best to choose commercial treats that reflect the nutrient balance of the chosen senior ration. Snacks from the table are not balanced at all and may contain high levels of fat and sodium. Water-based vegetables, like fresh or frozen green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce make good guilt-free snacks for senior dogs.

With just a bit of planning and monitoring, you can lay the nutritional foundation for your dog's healthy senior years.

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