It's better to tailor your aging dog's nutrition to his individual needs than simply by age. Here's why.
The senior dog is not part of a uniform population," says Julie Churchill, DVM. "My biggest emphasis regarding nutrition for the older dog is to treat him as an individual." Dr. Churchill, who is a veterinary nutritionist with the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, adds that there is no absolute guideline on what constitutes an "older" dog, but it's generally an animal older than eight or ten and in the second half of her life expectancy.A professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, Joe Bartges, DVM, agrees. "There is no 'magic' age here and it depends on breed. As a general rule, smaller breed dogs live longer and age later than large and giant breed dogs. Regardless of age, there are different types of geriatric animals and dietary recommendations should be made not so much on chronological age, but on metabolic age.
"By metabolic age, I am referring to how they digest, absorb and utilize nutrients and their ability to expend energy in the form of activity. Some older animals are very efficient at utilizing nutrients and are still active. There is no reason to restrict energy, protein, etc. in these animals."
Both veterinarians caution against changing a dog's diet simply because he is getting older. Says Dr. Bartges, "in older animals that are consuming maintenance foods and who maintain weight and activity, there is no reason to switch.
"What's Your Dog's Condition?
But it all depends on your particular dog's situation, he continues. "If an older animal gains weight on maintenance foods, then feeding a diet that is higher in fiber, lower in fat and lower in energy content may help keep weight off. If an older dog cannot maintain weight and condition on maintenance foods, then feeding a diet that is higher in energy and protein may help keep the weight on - diets such as 'growth' diets or 'critical care' diets for example. Lastly, in older animals with diseases, there are therapeutic diets available for many diseases that may help."
Extra A, B and C?
Should your older dog be given vitamins? "If your dog is on a good quality food, then additional vitamins or minerals are not required," says Dr. Bartges. "Depending on the individual pet, other supplements may be indicated - for example, fish oil or glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate." He emphasizes that use of supplements should be tailored to the individual dog. "Many supplements are indicated for treatment or management of certain diseases."
Dr. Churchill says that in the realm of pet food, "there is no standard for the industry on a nutritional profile for a senior dog. Different brands of senior dog food are not equivalent and may have different ingredients or different percentages of ingredients."
She is very concerned about a growing problem. Although excessive thinness becomes a concern as dogs progress through their later senior years, the opposite problem is a bigger issue during the earlier stages. "As dogs enter the second half of their life expectancy, the number one nutritional concern is obesity. Almost half the older dog population is overweight or obese," she warns, citing a mid-1990s University of Minnesota study of over 120,000 dogs and cats. And overweight and obesity lead to further health risks, she says, such as diabetes, lameness and skin disease.
Her advice to dog owners on this widespread nutrition problem is simple but serious.
(1) Be aware. The threats of overweight and obesity are serious.
(2) Prevention is ideal. "It is much better to maintain wellness rather than to treat disease."
(3) Its never too late. Put your overweight or obese dog on a weight-loss regimen with the nutritional advice of your veterinarian.
Dr. Churchill's Nutritional Tips
"When helping your dog lose weight, beware of simply-cutting back on his amount of food. This could he dangerous i'f he is already on a restricted-formula diet. Smaller portions of this type of dog food would result in your pet not meeting its nutritional needs." She advises owners to seek out appropriate nutritional therapy' whether through weight loss programs or special weight loss diets.
Dogs should have basepne physical and blood work at seven or eight years of age. Nutritional recommendations should be based on body weight and condition, and internal organ health. "It is important to evaluate your dog's health. Don't just reflexively change his diet just because he has reached a certain birthday."
Measured and controlled feedings are essential, rather than "ad-pb" feeding which is strongly associated with overweight and obesity. An additional problem: "We give treats instead of time or exercise."
Learn to do a body condition score, using one of the available established scales. A basic assessment of your dog covers four spots:
(1) Ribs: they should be easy to feel with your knuckles.
(2) Waistline : you should be able to see an indented shape from above.
(3) Underside: there should be no hanging tummy.
(4) Tail: you should be able to feel the bones under the base of the tail.