We’d all love our dogs to live as long as we do, but of course, that’s just not possible. Ageing is a part of life – an inevitable and irreversible process. And while we can’t stop our dogs from ageing, we do have a lot of control over how well they age and their quality of life during their senior years.
Read on for key advice on how to care for your senior dog, supporting their ongoing wellbeing well into their twilight years.
How dogs age
On average, smaller dogs mature faster and live longer than larger breeds, while bigger dogs mature more slowly and tend to experience shorter life spans compared to their smaller counterparts.
The popular calculation of ‘1 dog year being equivalent to 7 human years’ isn’t as accurate as we once thought it was, but it’s still a good place to start in gaining an understanding of how quickly your dog may be ageing.
And just to put another twist on things, the ages veterinarians consider a dog to become a senior are much earlier than many owners think, as shown in the table below.
Age considered senior
Tiny (<10 kg)
Small (10 – 25 kg)
Medium (25 – 40 kg)
Large (>40 kg)
Common signs of ageing in dogs
Just like people, dogs go through both mental and physical changes as they age. Common signs to look out for include:
- Reduced appetite
- Reduced activity levels and impaired mobility
- Loss of muscle mass
- Increased time spent sleeping and changed sleeping patterns
- Eyes becoming cloudy or bluish and pearl-like
- Reduced or loss of vision
- Poorer dental health
- Grey hairs around the muzzle
- Changes in coat and skin quality
- Confusion or other changes in behaviour and temperament
- Increased house soiling
Poor health and old age are not synonymous, but if you do notice any new or unusual changes to your senior dog, the best thing that you can do in the first instance is to get them checked over by your vet.
Ways to support your senior dog
There are lots of things that you can do to give your dog the best chance of ageing gracefully. In this article, we’ll just focus on certain aspects of diet, as food really is the foundation of health and considered the primary intervention when it comes to promoting wellbeing and reducing the risk of chronic disease - plus, it’s something that all pet owners have easy control over.
And while many dogs do well if fed the same diet they were given throughout their adult years, some seniors benefit from a few tweaks to their nutrition depending on their activity level and any underlying medical conditions.
One of the most important dietary factors to consider with senior dogs is both the quantity and quality of protein they’re getting.
Although there is a common belief that protein restriction is helpful for older animals, there is little scientific evidence to show that low protein foods are beneficial for a healthy senior dog.
In fact, kibbles (or any food for that matter) that highly restrict protein are likely to accelerate muscle loss, which is highly detrimental and the last thing that our senior dogs need.
Because older dogs are more susceptible to physical injuries and also more likely to undergo surgical procedures, ensuring adequate dietary protein intake is essential for the repair of damaged tissues, to promote healing and recovery and to support the function of the immune system.
Animal protein sources (such as muscle meats, organ meats, fish, eggs and dairy) are considered to be complete sources of protein because they contain all of the essential amino acids that dog’s need (whereas plant sources of protein mostly lack one or more of these essential amino acids). This makes animal proteins a necessary part of a healthy senior dog’s diet.
And while fresh is generally best when it comes to the protein sources we feed our dogs, that doesn’t always have to mean raw.
Due to compromised digestive function (reduced gastric acid and enzyme production) many senior dogs do better on cooked foods. This is because it places less burden on the digestive system and, likewise, the increased aroma can often be helpful for those dogs with a reduced sense of taste and smell that commonly occurs with increased age.
Senior dogs tend to have a slower metabolism, which is why many dogs tend to gain weight as they age.
Obesity shortens a dog’s life and makes them more likely to develop cancer, diabetes mellitus, heart disease, hypertension and osteoarthritis.
In these instances, decreasing the number of calories eaten (either by feeding less or changing to a food with a lower caloric density) will help to prevent weight gain.
My concern with feeding less food is that our dogs will then also receive less of the essential nutrients that they need to support healthy ageing. The better option, in my opinion, is to feed leaner meats such as kangaroo, goat or turkey, which will provide them with a high quality protein source full of all of the essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids that they need, while still supporting a healthy body weight.
On the other hand, if you notice that your senior dog is losing weight without any dietary restriction, it’s important that you see your vet to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
The value of plants
As our dogs age they have reduced immune system function, increasing the risk for infection and disease development. As such, providing our senior dogs with foods rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients can make a significant difference to their overall quality of life.
Phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, are natural compounds found exclusively in plants – they are what give fruits and vegetables their vibrant color. In recent years, there has been an explosion in research highlighting the potential role of dietary phytonutrients in the promotion of health and in the prevention of chronic diseases.
And while phytonutrients are not essential to keep your dog alive like fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals, it’s widely accepted that the consumption of such natural compounds confers protection against oxidative stress, inflammation, vascular dysfunction and metabolic dysregulation.
This thus reduces several risk factors for a range of different pathological states including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular and neurological diseases and certain types of cancer.
Phytonutrients also enhance immunity and intercellular communication, repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxify carcinogens and provide increased benefits to cognitive function.
The brain is extremely vulnerable to oxidative damage, causing death of neurons and resulting in reduced cognitive function and changes in behaviour. Senior and geriatric dogs often display canine cognitive dysfunction with impaired learning and memory, increased anxiety, disorientation, a reduced ability to interact socially, house soiling, destructive behaviours, lethargy and disturbances in sleep patterns.
Feeding senior dogs a diet rich in antioxidants from a mixture of fruits and vegetables has been shown to counteract the effects of free radical damage on the brain, leading to decreased rates of cognitive decline as they aged and improved age-related behavioural changes.
Because dogs lack the enzyme cellulase (responsible for breaking down the tough outer cell wall of plants), it’s important that plant matter is prepared in a way that will maximize digestion and nutrient bioavailability. This might consist of blending raw vegetables in a food processor or lightly steaming them before feeding them. Starchy carbohydrates such as potato and sweet potato should always be cooked before feeding.
It’s also important that all fruits and vegetables are thoroughly washed before feeding, as many contain high levels of pesticides. And if it’s within your budget, I recommended that any fruits or vegetables listed on the FDA’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list be purchased organic.
Some examples of fruits and vegetable that are great for senior dogs include:
Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest. And although there is no dietary requirement for fibre in dogs, there are a number of health benefits from having certain fibre sources in your senior dogs’ diet.
For example, psyllium husks are great for relieving both constipation and mild-to-moderate diarrhoea, supporting healthy anal gland function, as well as helping dogs on a weight loss program feel fuller for longer.
Functional fibres such as slippery elm, larch arabinogalactan and inulin have potent prebiotic properties that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium spp. and Lactobacillus spp., which act to improve the health of the gut lining, enhance nutrient absorption, reduce the risk of infection, stimulate the immune system, and assist in the management of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Despite the numerous health benefits that come from consuming fibre, it’s still recommended that the amount of fibre in your dog’s diet be limited to a maximum of 5% of the total diet as a general guide, as over consumption of fibre will decrease the availability and digestibility of other nutrients.
Also important to keep in mind when feeding fibre is that highly fermentable fibre sources can produce large amounts of gas that may result in cramping and diarrhoea. It’s therefore important to introduce sources of fibre into your dog’s diet very slowly and in small amounts, with gradual increases over time. This gives your dog’s gut microbiota time to adjust.
Science has now clearly demonstrated that lower bacterial diversity is associated with various disease states in dogs such gastrointestinal dysbiosis, intestinal inflammation and compromised immune function, and that a fresh whole-food diet promotes increased bacterial diversity as compared to a kibble diet.
Ageing itself has also been associated with reduced microbial diversity.
Studies show that supporting our dogs with probiotics can help to:
- Aid digestion
- Support the immune system
- Reduce gastrointestinal issues
- Reduce allergic reactions
- Promote nutrient production
- Enhance nutrient absorption
- Eliminate toxins from the body
- Support skin health
- Positively influence mood and stress-related behaviours
Sources of probiotics for dogs can include:
- A probiotic supplement designed for dogs containing one or more of:
- Lactobacillus spp.
- Bifidobacterium spp.
- Enterococcus spp.
- Bacillus spp.
- Saccharomyces boulardii
- Fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kefir
- Yoghurt (unflavoured and with no sugar added)
Other function foods for seniors
The list of individual foods and supplements that can benefit our senior dogs is extensive, but to keep things simple and practical, the following would be my recommendation for where to start.
Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)
- Promotes enhanced brain activity in older dogs
- Reduces symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction in senior dogs
- Increases alertness when training
- Provides an energy boost for active dogs
- Supports dental and oral hygiene
- Increases metabolism to promote weight loss in overweight dogs
- Works to improve skin conditions
- Supports healthy gut health and immune function
Super greens, such as spirulina, chlorella, moringa and barley grass
- Improve gut health
- Protect against infection
- Reduce the risk of allergies and food intolerances
- Remove heavy metals and other harmful compounds from the body
- Boost the immune system
- Support metabolism and cellular health
- Strengthen the cardiovascular system
- Support the normal function of the liver and the kidneys
- Fight off free radicals that can damage the body and contribute to disease development
Marine sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, green lipped mussels
- Reduce inflammation
- Reduce itchy and flaky skin
- Support heart health
- Promote a healthy coat
- Relieve joint pain
- Improve mobility
- Strengthen the immune system
- Lower anxiety and behavioural conditions
- Boost cognitive function
When feeding senior dogs, I generally recommend that owners avoid feeding frozen foods.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) very cold and frozen foods slow things down and constrict, which acts to negatively impact the circulation of blood and body fluids.
This can lead to an exacerbation of pain states and a worsening of digestive function. So serving meals slightly warmed or pre-cooked can not only promote a healthy appetite due to the increased aroma, but also promote healthy digestive function and enhanced nutrient uptake.
There is growing evidence that the type of carbohydrate consumed is important in relation to metabolic disease risk. Fruits and vegetables, particularly those such as berries and leafy greens, provide our dogs with a great source of low glycaemic carbohydrates that can reduce post-prandial (the period after eating) glucose and insulin levels.
This is an important dietary strategy for reducing the incidence of diabetes and associated health complications that are becoming more and more prevalent in our older dogs.
Cereal grains such as rice and corn that have been highly processed during the kibble making process are known to trigger rapid alterations in post-prandial glucose and insulin levels. Studies have also shown that highly processed and heat treated grains have an inflammatory effect in our dogs and act to increase markers of oxidative and metabolic stress.
Unfortunately, low-grade inflammation is often not apparent in the short term, but when foods that trigger inflammation are fed over a period of years, that’s when we see an increase in degenerative diseases, including cancer.
As such, my recommendation for any dog, but particularly senior dogs, is to feed complete and balanced home-prepared or commercial raw or cooked foods.
If that just isn’t convenient for you or your dog isn’t a fan, other great alternatives to kibble would be the freeze-dried or air-dried varieties that haven’t undergone extensive heat treatment and then had artificial vitamins, minerals, amino acids, flavours, colours and preservatives added back in.
When it comes to caring for our senior dogs, diet is crucial to ensuring good health.
For healthy seniors, feeding high quality protein at this point in their lives will help to promote a strong, healthy immune system and a better functioning body overall.
Adding in some phytonutrient-rich plant matter will support their cellular health and reduce the overall risk of disease development, including cancer. While ensuring a variety of good fats through the inclusion of MCT oil to support cognition and omega-3 fats to reduce inflammation, will also go a long way to ensuring quality of life in their remaining years.
But regardless of any advice given, the most important thing to remember is to always feed the dog in front of you. Not every diet is a good fit for every dog, regardless of how perfect it may be on paper.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts and intentions in making positive changes to our dog’s diet, it just doesn’t agree with them - and that’s okay. The best thing you can do in those instances is to feed the best diet you can within the limitations of your individual dog, and just keep loving them through their twilight years.
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