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Dog parents of older dogs often ask, "What's the best senior dog food to keep my dog feeling her/his best, healthiest self?"
As a canine nutritionist, senior dogs and their nutrition are my passion - three of my dogs are seniors - and I love answering that question and any others you have about your own senior dogs and dog food!
Let's talk about the best senior dog food & how to feed your senior dog to fulfill the nutritional needs that can keep a senior dog mobile, energetic, and thriving...
Setting up your senior dog and even your adult dog for their best health means sharpening your focus on the things we can control, like nutrition. Good nutrition can make all the difference in keeping your pups well and happy with the right dog food as they age.
There are five simple things to keep top of mind and pay special attention to as you plan the best nutrition and food for senior dogs... (Of course, there is no single best senior dog food - there are always nuances/questions with our individual dogs, so ask away in the Life Stage Feeding Community discussion here if you want to know more.)
5 things to look for when choosing the best dog food for seniors to support YOUR senior dog:
#1 : Look for dog food that helps older dogs maintain muscle mass
Maintaining muscle mass and preventing muscle loss plays a central role in determining what type of senior dog foods to feed. As muscle mass is lost in a senior dog, it puts more pressure and stress on the joints and bones and maintaining joint health and avoiding joint pain becomes an issue.
Why this matters
This is often how an older dog becomes unable to walk or struggles with arthritis issues, and the quality of aging dogs' lives begins to become less active and joyful.
Many pet owners think of joint issues affecting large breed dogs more, but small dogs (think especially long, low-riders) can be just as susceptible so we all have to focus on nutrition in our dog food that helps keep joints healthy and strong.
How to maintain muscle mass with dog food
To maintain healthy joints and support muscle mass, you'll want to feed more high quality protein that your dog's digestive system can easily access. In planning the best senior dog foods to support your dog, raw or lightly cooked protein is a much better choice to boost your dog's protein intake than a highly processed dry dog food/kibble (lower in real protein & less accessible to your dog).
Raw diets or lightly cooked meals have been shown to maintain lean body mass better for senior dogs and help keep senior dog's immune systems functioning properly. These types of diets also have the advantage of being less processed and easier for your dog to digest and assimilate so more of the nutrients are available to your dog, and the higher protein levels can help maintain muscle mass.
# 2: Aim to feed your senior dog bioavailable, high quality protein
You can see how each of these things to look for in dog food interacts with the others and in your dog's life. That's one of the lessons of good nutrition and being well - it's all connected! Even so, it's worth underscoring each separately to better understand how we can each impact our senior dogs' health.
Why bioavailability in dog food matters for senior dogs
Bioavailability means how accessible nutrients are to be absorbed and put to use in our dogs' bodies. (Applies to humans as well.)
With older dogs, their bodies might not be as good at absorbing foods (especially dry dog food) which means we need to increase the amount, quality, and bioavailability of essential nutrients like protein in their food. *We noted already the key role of protein in maintaining their all-important muscle mass for joint health and overall strength.*
In addition to more protein in your dog food for your senior dog, you'll want high quality ingredients across the board for more good nutrients that are easier to access. For protein, that means real meats and fish (real chicken, salmon, organ meats, etc) preferably raw or lightly cooked vs kibble for the reasons described above.
Not ready to go all in on fresh/raw? Try the 20% rule, eliminating 20% of the kibble in your dog's bowl and replacing with real foods from your plate or fridge (no sauces - just the good stuff like salmon, kale, blueberries, etc.) For more details on how to feed 20% fresh food, check out this step-by-step guide.
Since your senior dog's healthy digestion might need a bit of a boost, think about adding a probiotic to your dog's food to make all the good nutrients you're feeding even more accessible to be put to good use via a healthier gut. (You can see more on my suggestions for probiotics here.)
Added dental health bonus
When you feed higher quality, fresh & raw foods (& raw bones) rather than processed dry food, your dog's teeth stay healthier and more tartar-free - making your dog less prone to disease from poor dental health & reducing the need for dental procedures/sedation riskier for seniors.
# 3: Balance your senior dog's activity level with a healthy metabolism
As dogs enter into their senior years, their metabolism can slow down more than in other life stages (you may notice it beginning in their mid-late adult life stage).
However, some of this depends on activity level. If your dog is maintaining her/his energy level, feeding a higher protein and fat diet would be ideal for maintaining muscle mass and energy output. Since each one impacts the other positively, helping to keep your pup as active as possible helps balance and promote a healthy metabolism - so more high quality protein and fat becomes recommended food for senior dogs.
Okay, but tell me more...
On the contrary, if a senior dog has already slowed down and you're starting to see weight gain instead of maintenance, then you’d need to decrease calories while ensuring you’re still feeding nutrient-dense, high-protein foods. It’s also important to note that a senior dog’s weight might never fluctuate yet the dog still has lost muscle mass.
This is where referring to the BCS (Body Condition Score) chart previously discussed and working on a diet to target muscle mass stability can be important. (You can read more on BCS here.)
# 4: Choose dog food that helps your senior dog maintain a healthy weight for their healthiest life
As in every life stage, optimal weight for your senior dog is critical to helping prevent so many diseases (cancer, heart disease, diabetes) as well as joint health issues and mobility concerns.
“Feeding an appropriate food with a different nutrient profile with respect to energy, fat, or fiber content (increased or decreased) may be needed to maintain optimal body weight and condition [in senior dogs].” -Merck Veterinary Manual
This is where you can apply what you’ve learned for metabolic weight or RER/MER to determine the calorie amount (see previous guide here). Then you’d also take into consideration the bioavailability of ME of foods.
Foods such as eggs and lean meat are good for providing additional protein while potentially not delivering as many calories. Sometimes even just improving protein quality vs. quantity can make all the difference in certain senior dogs to help lose weight and improve strength (Small Animal Clinical Nutrition).
If you’re noticing your senior dog is packing on a few extra pounds, consider switching to a food with slightly fewer calories (as long as it’s still high quality and meets all the other criteria discussed). For example, if you feed 2 cups of food per day and you switch to a food with 10% fewer calories, you’d feed 1.8 cups per day instead of 2 cups.
As long as you continue to monitor weight loss (should be no more than 2% of body weight per week), this should help your pup slim down while still providing all the nutrients your dog needs without overfeeding or undereating.
# 5: Include fat in your senior's dog food
Fat is another important component in the nutritional requirements of a balanced diet especially if your dog is still very active. I like to include additional fat sources in a recipe or nutritional plan such as grass fed butter, butterfat oil, coconut oil or a fattier cut of meat so that the fat is being used to burn the energy while the higher protein amounts I am feeding are supplying the muscle.
Increasing fats in your senior dog's diet is also useful when your pup shows signs of getting too thin and you want to help your dog gain weight. You do not want to ever overdo it with fat though in senior foods, or for any dog.
Making sure your dog can tolerate extra sources of fat is important. Signs that too much fat is in the diet would be loose or mucus stools.
Okay, but tell me more...
Unfortunately, adding fat to dog food isn't as simple as adding in some butter or red meat to your senior dog’s diet. You will want this diet or recipe to be balanced, complete, and specially formulated to meet nutrient guidelines while taking into consideration the extra protein, fat, and potential for restricted calories.
With senior dog food, this can be a balancing act and you’ll also need supplements especially for calorie restricted diets. On the subject of supplements and fats, you might want to add Omega fatty acids such as Omega 3s for joint support and Omega 6 fatty acids for your senior dog's healthy skin and coat into your senior dog's food.
And if your dog has special health issues...
If a senior dog has kidney disease or needs to be restricted in phosphorus intake then adding more protein will not work for that dog. Same thing goes for a senior dog who has been prone to pancreatitis; adding in fat won’t work. In these cases or for ultra picky eaters or senior dogs with liver disease or other diseases/conditions, you’ll want to consult with your veterinarian and a canine nutritionist to come up with the best nutrition plan or recipe for your dog.
Senior dogs can thrive long into their golden years especially when given ample nutritional support. If you have any questions on senior dog food and feeding your senior to be at his or her personal best, feel free to ask in the Community discussion. I'm always happy to help!
Next up in the Life Stage Feeding Channel on Dogly
Now that you've learned how to analyze dog food for senior dogs, you can go back to the beginning on why feeding for your dog's life stage matters or dive straight into the puppy or adult dog feeding guides.
Hop over to the Life Stage Feeding Channel if you have any nutrition related questions for the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Needed Nutrients. And if you ever need more personalized nutrition guidance, please reach out!
Merck Veterinary Manual
Small Animal Clinical Nutrition
FEDIAF Guide to Feeding Senior Dogs
Optimal Nutrition by Monica Segal