Ride out the glory days with your #1 companion feeling healthy and strong.

By Zoe Denenberg and Meghan Overdeep
Updated July 14, 2020
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When they’re puppies, they’re the stars of the show: Much like a new child, young pups captivate our attention, receiving plenty of cuddles and treats. But seasoned dog owners know that older dogs are just as loveable as the young ones. Older dogs are often more mellow, and over time they learn your habits and become more equipped to respond to your needs. Many dog owners swear that their senior dogs can immediately tell when their humans are feeling sad and know exactly how to offer comfort, whether it’s a nuzzle or a paw-touch. Just as our older dogs watch out for us, it’s important to ensure that these precious family members are getting the proper care later in their lives. Older dogs’ nutrition is a great place to start.

As Mark Nunez, DVM, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, explains to WebMD, when a dog is considered "old" depends on their breed. "Little dogs live to about 15 to 20 years of age, while bigger dogs live to about 12 to 15 years," Nunez says. "Bigger dogs are considered older at around six years, and smaller dogs become older at around eight or nine."

Like the humans they love so much, a dog's nutritional requirements change as they age. Generally, once dogs reach 7 or 8 years of age, it’s important to start thinking about catering more specifically to their late-in-life nutritional needs.

In its guidelines to caring for senior dogs and cats, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) emphasizes the importance of three factors in a dog’s diet: “Digestibility, caloric content, [and] quality of ingredients.” While the needs of each senior dog will vary, a few trends provide a baseline understanding of the nutritional needs of older dogs.

According to AAHA, dogs are more susceptible to late-life weight gain than other animals like cats. “Often, an older dog does not need to consume the same number of calories as a younger dog,” says Harmony Peraza, a veterinary technician and study subject manager for the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Dog Aging Project. “This can be accomplished by simply feeding less or moving to a lighter or low-calorie food.”

Picking a pet food that’s low in calories and high in fiber can help dogs struggling with obesity. Foods specifically designed for older dogs, such as Purina One Senior Dog Food help ensure that senior dogs get all their necessary nutrients—and stay sharp and energetic.

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It’s also important to monitor muscle condition, as lower muscle mass can result in reduced mobility. “Even with exercise, older dogs tend to lose muscle mass, which means losses in protein reserves,” writes Caroline Coile, PhD, for American Kennel Club. One way to prevent or combat declining muscle mass? Adding more protein to your dog’s diet.

“Senior diets should have increased protein-to-calorie ratio, providing a minimum of 25 percent of calories from protein.” According to Coile, increasing your dog’s protein intake can help maintain muscle mass to keep your older dog strong and healthy. Keep in mind that as protein content rises, so does the phosphorus content in foods, which could be a concern for senior pups with kidney problems. Fiber is also an important component to get your dog pooping, well, regularly well into his twilight years.

Other nutritional changes can help keep your dog’s diet full and balanced. Supplements to strengthen joints, antioxidants to fight disease, and omega-3s to promote brain and heart health can all be beneficial additions to your dog’s diet. When looking for the right joint-strengthening supplement, there are a few key ingredients to look out for; Monica Weymouth details the recommendations of Dr. Heather Frankfurt, a Texas-based veterinarian, for PetMD: “Look for a product that contains MSM, chondroitin, and glucosamine—when combined, these ingredients promote healthy joints.”

To make sure your old dog gets enough antioxidants (which are great for maintaining brain health and preventing cancer!) consider supplementing his food with fresh veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes.

Although nutritional factors play an integral role in helping Fido stay happy and healthy, there are a few non-dietary factors that can impact your dog’s health. Pay attention to your dog’s dental hygiene—a toothache or dental discomfort could deeply impact your older dog’s appetite. After all, who wants to be chowing down on tough kibble with a sharp toothache? According to Dr. Frankfurt, “Proper dental care can greatly enhance an older dog’s life.” Additionally, think about how your dog is accessing his or her food: “For dogs with joint trouble, Frankfurt recommends a raised bowl to reduce the need to bend, keeping mealtime as comfortable as possible,” writes Weymouth.

While these suggestions provide an outline of some ways to proactively care for your aging dog, always consult with your veterinarian before changing your older dog’s diet to see what will be most beneficial. Each case is different, and the key to caring for older dogs is catching any signs of potential disease early on so they can be treated and monitored accordingly. Then you can relax and ride out your glory days together!