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As dogs age, they undergo specific internal and external changes. Some are obvious, such as greying fur, weight gain, or hip or elbow dysplasia. Others may be harder to spot, such as slower metabolism or decreased immune function. By the time your dog is a senior, one of these key changes is a new set of nutritional requirements.

For example, a healthy senior dog requires higher quality protein levels in his food than a younger adult dog. For various reasons such as dental disease and other medical reasons, seniors may also have less ability to digest and absorb nutrients from food, while at the same time needing less energy from their diet. Fat is calorie dense, so if your dog’s energy needs decrease, his need for fat will decline, too. However, not every dog is fat. Portion control and regular controlled activity and exercise are also keys to weight control (as in people).

In other words, once your dog hits the senior years, you might want to take a fresh look at his diet. But how do you know when your dog should be considered a senior? Yuanlong Pan, BVM, Ph.D., a principal research scientist at Purina, points out that although many factors can affect the health and aging process in an individual dog, including breed, genetics, physical activity, and nutrition, “on average, seven years of age is considered as senior.”

The goal of proper senior nutrition is to help minimize the effects of aging on your dog. Dr. Pan explains that aging is a “gradual and continuous process and is greatly affected by nutrition.” The right food and supplements for senior dogs should be considered an essential building block of healthy aging, with the aim of minimizing the signs of growing older and enhancing your dog’s quality of life.

Many of the supplements we consider taking for ourselves as we age can also be beneficial for our older dogs, although it’s important to consult with your veterinarian before adding any joint supplements to your dog’s diet. For example, glucosamine, chondroitin, and green-lipped mussel may help protect cartilage in the joints. If your dog is already suffering from osteoarthritis, adding a joint supplement with these ingredients to his diet could help him return to normal functioning (or close to it). Joint supplements are often used as an early intervention and throughout the progression of arthritis because they are safe for long-term use in most patients.

Senior Golden Retriever eating from a stainless steel bowl indoors.
Zinkevych/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Antioxidants are another potentially important supplement. Scientific studies have shown that, when combined with behavioral enrichment, antioxidants can improve memory and cognitive function in senior dogs. Supplements such as vitamins C and E can be added to your dog’s food, or you can consider using fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidant content as training treats or snacks. Berries, like blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, are near the top of the list of antioxidant-rich foods, as are apples such as Granny Smith and Red Delicious, and all will add beneficial prebiotic fibers, as well. Just be aware that not all foods are safe for your dog, so consult your veterinarian before adding anything you aren’t sure about.

Long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are great for older dogs with arthritis or cognition problems. These fatty acids are derived from fish oil, or shellfish, such as green-lipped mussels. The addition of omega-3 to the diet may help reduce inflammation in joints, help with the presence of any limping, and can also promote cell membrane health.

If the thought of adding supplements to your dog’s diet is intimidating, you can also choose a high-quality commercial dog food formulated for senior dogs that already contains beneficial ingredients. According to Dr. Pan, “Generally speaking, senior dogs can benefit from products that contain high-quality protein, and optimal levels of vitamins, antioxidants, natural prebiotic fibers, omega-3 fatty acids, and glucosamine.”

A recent breakthrough in senior dog nutrition is the use of particular ingredients, like medium chain triglyceride oils (MCT oils), to support cognitive health. Dr. Pan explains that starting at around age seven, a dog’s brain begins to lose its ability to use glucose as its primary energy source. It can adversely affect memory, learning, awareness, and decision-making. MCT oils provide the brain with an alternative energy source, and studies have shown diets containing these ingredients can help improve an older dog’s cognitive functioning.

Whether you’re adding supplements or switching to an additive-rich senior formula, proper nutrition that is suited to your senior dog’s stage of life will help support and positively influence the aging process. Your dog’s diet is a critical part of enhancing and maintaining his overall well being as he enters his senior years.
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Life with a Senior Dog

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