It is common knowledge that smaller dogs tend to have longer lifespans than larger breeds.  

This is due to a number of factors, and some of the reasons are not well understood.  However, regardless of size, a dog's nutritional needs change a bit as they get older.

The biggest difference in dietary needs of senior dogs comes down to one word: calories.

Like people, a dog's metabolism slows down over time. In addition, senior dogs tend to become less active as time passes.  These factors can both lead to weight gain, which can be bad news for your pet.  Feeding amounts need to be adjusted based on a pet's weight and activity level.  Just as many hyperactive teenagers can eat more than placid middle aged adults without gaining excess weight, so young animals are better able to stave off the bulge than their senior counterparts.  

Excess weight can lead to multiple health problems in dogs and cats.  An animal's bone structure is designed to handle a certain amount of stress and strain.  This is generally fairly well matched with the normal weight of the animal.  As their weight increases, bones and joints are subjected to greater forces than normal, and this can lead to faster degeneration  and potential injuries.

All that fat can also lead to internal issues.  As fat builds up on the outside of your pet, it also accumulates inside the body.  The most immediate issue becomes space.  All that fat crowds the internal organs, limiting the capacity of lungs to expand and causing stress, ultimately shortening the potential lifespan of your best friend!

A generally good measure of 'ideal' weight for a dog or cat is the amount of 'padding' over the ribs.  In a healthy individual, you should be able to easily feel the ribs when you run your fingers across them.  If you're having to press down to feel them, it's a good sign your pet may be overweight.  Take a look at this chart for an overview.

While some have suggested that senior dogs require a reduced protein diet, there is little if any evidence to support this assumption.  In fact, an otherwise healthy senior dog's dietary needs are essentially the same as those of a young adult.    With some complicating conditions such as kidney disease, a reduced protein diet may be a benefit.  Reducing protein intake in healthy dogs is not recommended.

Due to safety concerns, I generally do not recommend feeding raw diets, as I feel the risks outweigh the potential rewards, and the benefits have not been clearly demonstrated in any kind of scientific fashion.  I personally feed my dogs a major brand dry kibble, and it works for us.  With a plethora of choices available, the decision on a dog food can be daunting.  Check out PetMD's Nutrition Center for some good, easy to digest information on how to make your choice.

Senior dogs may benefit from some additions to the normal diet.

 As dogs age, just like in people, things start wearing out.  Arthritis is a leading cause of concern in older pets as once-young joints begin to wear down.  Adding a joint supplement containing glucosamine and chondroitin can help prolong joint health and repair them to some extent.  These supplements are available in several branded products such as Cosequin™ or Synovi G3™ chews.  Adding an essential fatty acid supplement can also help reduce inflammation and has benefits for the skin and coat.  We recommend a veterinary specific product such as EFA Caps, available through your veterinarian.  While these supplements are available over the counter through many sources, the veterinary specific products recommended by your vet are guaranteed to be of high quality and dosed properly for your pet.  We will discuss this in more detail in a future article.

For more info on canine obesity, check out the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, and some really boring stuff from the AVMA  (click the Obesity in Dogs tab at left to read the articles).

Healthy Nutrition for Senior Dogs

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