by Carlotta Cooper
Most dog food manufacturers seem to be under the impression that after a dog is past his prime adult years (about 7 years for most breeds), he will automatically begin to gain weight. Therefore, they formulate “senior” dog foods that are lower in calories which can also be fed as weight control dog foods. Although there are no specific nutritional standards for senior dogs, even the folks at the National Research Council, who come up with the nutritional guidelines for cats and dogs, suggest that senior dogs need 20 percent fewer total calories than middle-aged adult dogs because they have less physical activity and a slower metabolism. This is not always true.
The older dog’s metabolism
Some older dogs – dogs past their prime years, which varies depending on the dog’s breed and size – do gain weight as they get older. Their metabolism will slow. They will sleep more and exercise less. These older dogs can do well eating slightly fewer calories. You can continue feeding these dogs the same kind of diet they have been eating but just reducing their portions. This is true whether you feed a commercial dog food or cook for your dog. If your older dog is greatly overweight then cutting calories would be in order, along with portion control. Being overweight is not good for older dogs since it can worsen any tendency toward joint problems like arthritis.
One of the simplest ways to reduce your dog’s calories is by reducing the amount of fat in his diet. It’s not a good idea to drastically reduce the fat levels in your dog’s food. Good quality fats are not bad for dogs. They are good for your dog’s skin and coat. They are necessary for fat-soluble vitamins. And they are good for your dog’s immune system. If your older dog doesn’t have enough fat in his food he will constantly be hungry and begging for food, so don’t try to reduce the fat in his diet too much. Keeping the fat at moderate levels for an older dog is usually sufficient.
However, many older dogs, as they continue to age, will start to lose weight. Their bodies no longer metabolize food and nutrients as efficiently as they did when they were younger. It would be foolish to feed these dogs a diet with fewer calories. In fact, some of these elderly dogs may need to eat more calories to maintain their weight. They may need more good quality meat protein. Without enough meat protein in their diet, their bodies can start to utilize the protein in their own muscles which leads to muscles wasting. They will become more frail. A healthy older dog may need as much as 50 percent more protein than a younger dog. Protein supports the dog’s immune system and the central nervous system. It helps wounds heal and builds lean muscle. It keeps the skin and coat healthy.
At one time it was thought that older dogs should avoid eating more protein because it might be hard for their kidneys to process the by-products from the protein. Today studies have shown that even dogs with moderate kidney disease can benefit from eating more protein. Unless your dog has severe kidney problems there is no reason to avoid having more good quality protein in the diet.
Older dogs that are too thin can benefit from having more fat in their diet. Fat can make food taste better, for example, which encourages some dogs to eat more. It adds some calories to the food which these older dogs need.
What to feed your senior dog
If you make food at home for your senior dog and you are concerned about his weight, you can largely stick to what you have been feeding him. People usually feed a variety of meat proteins such as chicken, turkey, fish, beef, lamb, etc., plus organ meat like liver. You may add eggs, dairy, and vegetables to your dog’s diet. All of these foods are still good to feed a senior dog. At least half the diet should be animal proteins.
For dogs with health problems such as cancer, heart disease, and arthritis, they can benefit from eating a diet that is high in protein and low in carbohydrates.
If you are concerned about your dog’s weight, you can reduce fat by trimming visible fat from the poultry and other meats. You can also remove some of the skin from the poultry which provides most of the fat in chicken and turkey. If you give your dog yogurt and cottage cheese, you can choose low fat versions instead of whole versions. If your dog is overweight you can limit starchy foods such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, and oatmeal. Dogs with arthritis may do better without grains and other starchy foods.
If your dog needs to gain weight, dark meat poultry with skin has more calories than chicken breasts. Choose whole milk yogurt and other dairy products. Remember to increase fat in your dog’s diet slowly. Eating too much fat, especially when your dog isn’t used to it, can cause problems such as pancreatitis.
High protein with moderate fat, along with fruits and vegetables is recommended for most dogs, including senior dogs.
Use a kitchen scale to measure food portions. If you are reducing the portion sizes for your older dog, remember to do so very gradually. You should not reduce more than about 10 percent of the food every couple of weeks. As soon as you see your dog start to lose weight you can continue to feed the same portion sizes as long as he continues to lose weight.
Remember that exercise is also good for your older dog and will help him lose weight. It will also build muscle tone and fitness. Your older dog’s exercise should be increased gradually, especially if he hasn’t been engaging in much exercise recently.
Weight gain in older dogs is not always due to what your dog is eating. It can be related to health issues such as hypothyroidism and other problems. It’s a good idea to have a veterinarian check your older dog at least annually.
Carlotta writes for Dog Food Guide. She is also long-time contributing editor for the weekly dog show magazine Dog News. She’s also the author of The Dog Adoption Bible, the Dog Writers Association of America Adoptashelter.com Award winner for 2013. In addition, she’s written Canine Cuisine: 101 Natural Dog Food & Treat Recipes to Make Your Dog Healthy and Happy.