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Every dog, and especially every senior dog, is different when it comes to nutrition. Sometimes longevity is simply a matter of good care, good genes, and good luck. But there are some basics that nonetheless apply to all.

How Many Calories Should My Senior Dog Consume?

One of several feeding quandaries associated with older dogs is do they need more, or fewer, calories? Well, just try squeezing yourself into that prom tux, wedding dress, or honeymoon bikini, and let’s hear how that pizza and doughnut diet is working for you. The same is true of our dogs. It’s not necessarily that we (and our dogs) get lazy as we age. Changes in metabolic rate cause fewer calories to be burned and more to be stored as fat. A recent study showed that mature dogs require 20 percent fewer calories in order to maintain the same weight as younger ones. Dogs entering old age may benefit from eating a food with less fat and fewer calories. Research also suggests that L-carnitine, a vitamin-like compound made from amino acids found in red meats, fish, chicken, and dairy products, may may help the body use fat for energy.

But it’s not that simple. Chances are most of the really old people you know are thin. The same goes for dogs. As dogs progress from old to very old, they tend to stop gaining weight and instead start losing weight, actually requiring more calories. In those cases, they often have a decreased appetite, possibly related to a decreased sense of smell or taste, and may even have difficulty chewing or swallowing. Increasing the fat content of the diet can increase palatability and calorie content, and may improve protein efficiency.

How Much Protein Should My Senior Dog Eat?

Increasing protein will help maintain muscle. But isn’t protein bad for old dogs because it overtaxes the kidneys? No — that myth began with rodent research from the 1940s. Dogs evolved to eat more meat and protein than rats, and subsequent studies have debunked the idea that protein is bad for old dogs and confirmed that protein does not adversely affect the kidneys. In fact, there’s evidence these days that suggests old dogs need more protein. A study comparing protein requirements in 2-year-old Beagles versus 13-year-old Beagles found that the senior dogs needed at least 50 percent more dietary protein.

Protein is important for older dogs. Even with exercise, older dogs tend to lose muscle mass, which means losses in protein reserves. Losses in muscle tissue and protein reserves may impair the immune system and decrease the body’s ability to respond to physical trauma, infectious agents, or stress. Loss of protein reserves also means the body may not have enough amino acids for tissue repair and energy metabolism. Senior diets should have increased protein-to-calorie ratio, providing a minimum of 25 percent of calories from protein.

How Much Fiber Does My Senior Dog Need?

Some senior diets may have added levels of fiber, usually along with fewer calories, as a way to help the dog lose weight. But remember, very old dogs probably don’t need to lose weight. In addition, fiber may also decrease the intake of some essential nutrients. Cellulose-based fibers are poorly fermentable and can significantly decrease the digestibility of other nutrients in the food.

Fiber has its uses, however. It can help alleviate constipation, which can be a problem in older dogs. It can also provide glucose regulation, which may be altered in older dogs. Although cellulose-based fibers are traditionally used in dog foods, recent findings suggest that moderately fermentable fiber blends, such as beet pulp, may provide better glucose regulation and nutrient digestion. And no, beet pulp doesn’t cause bloat or contain sugar, as some pulp fiction claims.

Does My Senior Dog Need Minerals?

As we age, we are told we should get rid of the salt in our diets. That’s only partially true for dogs. People tend to consume higher sodium levels than dogs and to suffer from high blood pressure more often. Most commercial dog foods supply more sodium than dogs need, but dogs, like people, prefer some sodium in the diet. Still, dogs with hypertension, heart problems, and kidney problems usually need a low-sodium diet. In addition, these conditions may make it difficult for the dog to excrete excess sodium fed in his diet. Decreasing, not eliminating, sodium is usually a good idea for any senior, as long as the dog will still eat the diet.

Unlike people, most dogs don’t seem to suffer from osteoporosis, at least not if they’ve been maintained on a balanced diet with adequate calcium in earlier years. Thus, senior dogs eating a commercial diet do not need calcium supplementation.

Old dogs are more prone to dehydration, often because of health problems such as kidney disease that cause them to urinate more frequently, or because they’re taking medications such as diuretics for heart disease. Making sure the water is fresh, cool, and readily available can help encourage a dog to drink more.

In the end, it comes down to both quantity and quality of life. Never forget that while dogs must eat to live, many also live to eat, and sometimes we must make compromises. Remember the dog’s motto: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” ­–Orson Welles

Originally published in AKC Family Dog
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This article was originally published in AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today ($12.95 for 6 issues, including digital edition) to get expert tips on training, behavior, health, nutrition, and grooming, and read incredible stories of dogs and their people.
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