I get many questions regarding the best nutrition for dogs as they begin to reach their senior years. Most people want to make sure their companions are comfortable and getting everything they need. So, to answer some of your questions, we’re going to take a look at an overview of diet considerations, common senior health problems, and suggested supplements for seniors.
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The most common questions I get regarding older dogs pertain to diet. Many people believe they need to feed a senior dog a diet that is lower in protein and fat. Many commercial dog food companies make senior diets that do just that – lower protein and fat. However, the truth is, senior dogs need high amounts of quality protein in their diet and a moderate amount of fat.
High quality animal-based protein is essential to canine organ health, muscle tone and healthy skin and coat. High quality protein is even more important for older dogs. As dogs age, their ability to maintain good muscle tone and a strong immune system lessens. This is due partly from inactivity and partly from metabolism changes that occur as dogs get older. Senior dogs that don’t get enough quality and quantity of animal-based protein have less body mass and are more prone to illness and disease.
“This research is contrary to conventional opinion that senior dog foods should contain lower protein levels than adult maintenance formulas in order to avoid progressive decrease in kidney function. However, senior dogs that were fed a high-protein diet had stable renal function and a lower death rate than those dogs fed a lower-protein diet”
So don’t skimp on the protein! Don’t feed your senior dog a reduced protein diet. Be sure to feed a good raw or home-cooked diet with plenty of quality animal-based protein!
Fat is also important for seniors. Fat is what makes food taste good and when fat is reduced, the dogs tend to crave more food – they are usually looking for more fat. If you have a senior dog that needs to lose weight, do not substitute the fat with carbohydrates (vegetables, grains, starches) thinking you are doing your dog a favor. Carbohydrates can be fattening because they cause increased hunger. This is because your dog needs and wants fat. Feeding carbohydrates also increases stool size and gas. Generally, it is recommended to keep the animal protein amounts high and the animal fat at moderate levels – not low levels – and simply reduce the total amount of food fed by 10%. The following article was written by Christie Keith and gives specific instructions on weight reduction:
Additionally, dogs do not have the ability to break down sugars like we do as they have no amylase in their saliva. Therefore, the sugars remain on the teeth and gums and cause decay. If your dog has chronic dental problems or bad breath odor, it may be a good idea to switch it over to a homemade diet with no grains or starches. Look to the low glycemic diets listed below.
One health consideration with weight gain in seniors is hypothyroidism. If you have a dog that won’t lose weight by food reduction or increased appetite, it is probably a good idea to get a full thyroid panel on your dog. Hypothyroidism can cause weight gain and other health problems.
Health Issues for Seniors
Arthritis and Joint Pain
Arthritis is probably the most common complaint for dogs as they age. Joint inflammation and pain can affect dogs in many ways. They may become less active; they may show pain upon rising or after activity, and it can even affect their appetite. Any time you have a dog that shows pain in a joint or the spine, it is important to see a veterinarian and get a full blood panel, urinalysis and radiographs. Many things can cause pain and lameness, including arthritis, pinched nerves, muscle or tendon sprains, renal issues, pancreatitis and Addison’s disease (rear end weakness and muscle loss). In order to treat effectively, a diagnosis is paramount, don’t try and guess the problem. If the problem is arthritis, there are several approaches to try. EPA fish oil capsules are very effective, as the omega 3 fatty acids found in this animal-based oil helps reduce inflammation. Additional benefits from omega 3 fatty acids is that it is renal, heart and liver protective and it improves skin and coat.
White Willow Bark Liquid, derived from white willow bark, is a natural pain reliever. This comes in a liquid tincture and can be dosed in the gum line or mixed with food. Do *NOT* give Willow Bark if you are already giving a NSAID (Rimadyl, Metacam, Deramaxx, etc.). I have used this for my senior dogs during seasonal arthritic pain commonly caused by weather changes. Yucca Intensive is another good herbal product that helps relieve inflammation. It is given at one drop per ten pounds of body weight once or twice daily. This needs to be given with food to avoid stomach upset. Lastly, try to reduce the amounts of grains and starches in the diet as these can aggravate inflammation and pain.
A good homemade diet to help with arthritis pain and inflammation is the low glycemic diet. You can find information on this diet in this newsletter http://www.b-naturals.com/newsletter/low-glycemic/. You can also add quality animal protein and fat to a high quality grainless kibble food, which will help reduce the carbohydrates found in dry kibble diets. You can read this article, http://www.b-naturals.com/newsletter/mixing-fresh-food-with-kibble/, for more information on adding whole foods to kibble:
An issue that may affect senior dogs is leaking urine. This may be due to a weakening of the urinary tract muscles, however, be sure to contact your veterinarian first to test for a urinary tract infection. This would be determined by a sterile urine culture and sensitivity test. This is done in house at your veterinarian clinic to capture sterile urine. This sample is sent off to a laboratory to see if any bacteria should result. This test will not only identify the bacteria, but will also determine the correct antibiotic needed if there is an infection. If there is an infection, generally a four week course of antibiotics is needed. Then ten days after completing the antibiotics, another urine culture should be done to ensure the infection is gone. A UTI (urinary tract infections) can cause incontinence.
Diet changes can help. Often diets high in grains or starches, (which would include dry dog food or homemade diets where grains, potatoes, carrots, etc., make up more than 25% of the diet), may make incontinence worse. Removing the high amounts of sugar and fiber can help in many cases.
I would suggest trying both of these methods before pursuing prescription incontinence medications. They may be needed, but I would rule these out first. Often a dog with a urinary tract infection is thought to have renal problems. Whenever an older dog is found to have elevated BUN, creatinine and phosphorus levels, be sure to check for a UTI, have a leptospirosis blood titer done, ACTH Stimulation test (Cushing’s and Addison’s disease) and a tick borne disease blood panel. Old age does not cause renal problems. It is wise to run these tests to either find the source of the problem or rule these other health conditions out. With Cushing’s disease, Addison’s disease and leptospirosis, liver enzyme values may be high as well. More information on diets for dogs with renal issues can be found here: http://www.b-naturals.com/newsletter/kidney-diet/
Skin Problems and/or Odor
Some senior dogs may develop dry or itching skin and dry hair coat. Sometimes these issues can be taken care of by changing the diet. Increasing the quality and quantity of animal protein in the diet may help. If you are using a senior dog commercial diet, change to an adult diet (higher fat) commercial food or a home-cooked or a raw diet. Fat quality is also important for good skin and coat. I have often found homemade diets reduce odor in dogs, as the fats in dry foods can oftentimes cause body odor. Adding EPA fish oil capsules at one per ten to twenty pounds of body weight daily will help due to the omega 3 fatty acids. If the dog has mouth odor, be sure to have a complete check up on the dog’s teeth and gums. Often teeth in poor condition or gum disease will cause this. Removing grains and starches will often help keep teeth cleaner and reduce the need for dental procedures. As mentioned earlier, dogs do not have the ability to break down starches in their saliva which can, in turn, cause tooth decay and gum disease. Weekly baths with a good quality oatmeal based shampoo such as Pure Pet Care Herbal Shampoo will also help skin and odor. Rinse with a solution of ¼ white vinegar and ¾ water. If the skin problem persists, be sure to have your veterinarian do a skin scraping to check for bacteria, yeast or mites. Both bacteria infections and yeast can cause skin odor. For more information on skin care:
Cognition Problems in Senior Dogs
Symptoms of possible cognitive problems in senior dogs can include confusion, restlessness and less enjoyment of life, and some can have increased house soiling incidences. Research done in humans has also been found to apply to dogs. BOTH senior dogs and people, need MORE protein for good health; especially for heart, kidney and liver health. Dogs who have been raised solely on dry dog food tend to be more prone to decline in cognitive ability. Studies have shown that when protein levels are increased and antioxidants and fish oil with EPA and DHA (from animal based oils such as fish oils) are added to the diet, senior dogs were known to sleep better and show clarity improvement in their surroundings and had less house training issues. I would suggest senior dogs have a fresh food diet – home-cooked or raw – or a commercial diet with fresh animal protein added in. Additionally, I think it is important to add a couple of quality supplements. These would be Berte’s Immune Blend, which contains antioxidants and other good nutrients, EPA Fish Oil capsules at one per ten to twenty pounds of body weight daily and CoQ10 at 2 to 3 milligrams per pound of body weight. CoQ10 is also thought to help cognition as well.
Additional Health Problems of Senior Dogs
Cushing’s disease and Addison’s disease are both adrenal disorders caused by either too much or too little cortisol production. Either disease can create a major health crisis. Both diseases can be vague in their symptoms, which can cause these health problems to be over-looked and mistaken for simply being attributed to old age. Cushing’s disease is an over-production of cortisol and symptoms often are mistaken for other ailments. These can include sudden onset of thirst, increased urination, increased appetite, development of a pot belly, poor hair coat and/or skin, dark spots on the belly, more prone to infection and lack of energy. If any of these symptoms occur, have a complete veterinarian evaluation. For more information:
Addison’s disease is caused by under production of cortisol and there are three types, primary, secondary and atypical. Like Cushing’s disease, the symptoms can mimic other problems and are often over looked or confused with other health problems. These symptoms include diarrhea, lack of appetite, rear end weakness, loss of energy, shaking and depression. Both Cushing’s and Addison’s disease, if not treated can result in death. Your veterinarian can test for either of test with an ACTH Stimulation test. For more information on Addison’s disease:
Daily Supplement Suggestions
Two good supplements for senior dogs include the EPA Fish Oil Capsules and the Berte’s Immune Blend. The Fish oil contains omega 3 fatty acids which help with skin and coat and are renal, heart and liver protective. Recommended dose is one capsule per 10-20 pounds of body weight daily. The Berte’s Immune Blend contains the antioxidants vitamin C and E and also a B complex (good for nerve and eye health), L-Glutamine (helps slow muscle atrophy and helps with digestion), digestive enzymes (helps break down proteins and fats) and Probiotics (help keep the good flora and fauna in the digestive tract).
On a final note, it is always important to keep your senior dog in good condition. This means daily walks and exercise as their mobility permits. Good nutrition, bi-yearly wellness checkups at your veterinarians, and keeping your senior physically fit and mentally active will lead to a long and healthy life!