Senior Dogs …

The senior (geriatric or post-maturity) stage follows on from the maturity phase and continues until death. In small breeds of dogs this phase begins around 7 to 8 years of age, at 5 years in large and giant breeds and 7 years in cats, if we consider modern day veterinary guidance. We discuss this life stage in greater detail.
Fooding Senior Dogs

Fooding Dodger and Oliver …

The senior (geriatric or post-maturity) stage follows on from the maturity phase and continues until death. In small breeds of dogs this phase begins around 7 to 8 years of age, at 5 years in large and giant breeds and 7 years in cats, if we consider modern day veterinary guidance (please read our post on longivity). In many animals this will equate to a third or more of its life span. Certain breeds such as the Border Collie and Jack Russel, which are known for their longevity, probably have a later onset for the post-maturity phase, but little research appears to have been done in this field.

Since by definition maturity ends before visual and physiological changes appear, the tissues, organs and systems of the animal must deteriorate through the post-maturity phase, becoming gradually less efficient and eventually failing. Although this is a natural process, its progression can be managed and acceptable levels of activity and well-being maintained for a reasonable period through proper dietary control.

Our pet’s bodies are made up of millions of cells. Throughout their lives, individual cells die and are replaced with new cells. Each cell in your pet’s body is predetermined to live a length of time. But in order to do so, it needs fuel – true nutritional building blocks.

The rate of deterioration is dependent on several factors, including environment and genetic make-up, but nutrition and nutritional history are major factors. An animal at its optimal weight and having received a good diet throughout its life will enter the senior phase with the prospect of several health years still to come.

What happens during ageing?

  • Activity levels decrease, and muscle tone reduces;
  • Appetite and / or fluid intake may change;
  • Vision and / or hearing may not be as acute;
  • Bowel and urinary system functions may change;
  • The immune system may weaken;
  • Light sleep may increase but deep sleep decreases;
  • Coat condition may deteriorate;
  • Age-associated disorders may develop, such as arthritis, diabetes, hyperthyroidism or renal impairment;
  • Psychological and behavioral changes can occur, such as senility, aggression, increased dependence or excessive vocalisation;

Changes noticed by most pet parents may include greying, particularly of the muzzle, and a general slowing down and stiffness after rest. However, these changes are usually gradual and because of this may not be noticed for some time. You may also notice changes in eating habits and the quantity of water consumed. Many pet parents accept these changes, simply putting them down to “getting older” and do little about them until they become a nuisance, e.g. excessive drinking in a dog leading to excessive urination. Although this may be noticed earlier, most pet parents will often not mention it until the dog can no longer last through the night. At this point, most pet parents are faced with either morning puddles or a broken night’s sleep when their pet demands to be let out in the early hours, and begins to wonder “if something can be done“. Polydipsia and polyuria can be symptoms of several conditions, including diabetes mellitus and kidney disease, treatment for both of which will include dietary modifications to help manage and slow progression of the disease.

To be fully effective, dietary modification should commence before or as soon as ageing signs become detectable. All animals are individuals and it is therefore difficult to generalize, even though we have done so in these pages, and it is the senior phase where generalization are least appropriate. The whole body is degenerating, but different systems do so at different rates, so that one animal may show reduced kidney function while another may have satisfactory renal function but have impaired liver function. Yet another may appear normal, but a period of stress will reveal that functional reserves in one or more systems have been severely impaired. The combinations and computations are seemingly endless, so it is particularly important in this phase to tailor the diet to the individual and to be prepared to modify it as and when necessary.

Of course, some animals remain healthy and active well into their old age. Others, however, undergo physiological changes that can be impacted through diet. Senior dogs typically need a diet lower in calories, protein and fat, and one higher in fiber, as most are not as active as they were, again, a broad generalization.

Senior cats do not need a reduced-calorie diet as they maintain their energy needs throughout adulthood – obesity risks greatly decrease after age 10. Senior cats still need a high amount of protein. They don’t necessarily absorb fat as well, so they might need more digestible fat in their diets for the same amount of energy.

As noted by Dr Dodds and Diana Laverdure in their book Canine Nutrigenomics – The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health, there is a lot of misinformation floating around regarding optimum protein intake for senior dogs. Many people believe that protein overworks older kidneys and that protein should automatically be decreased in an older dog’s diet. This is false. Dietary protein does not stress or harm the kidneys of otherwise healthy senior dogs. On the contrary, healthy older dogs require slightly more protein. Protein minimizes loss of lean body mass that accompanies the ageing process.

Protein reserves are also important because the body mobilizes protein as a natural part of its response to stress, including disease, infection and injury; therefore, loss of protein reserves inhibits an animal’s ability to respond to stress. In direct opposition to common recommendations, senior dogs actually benefit from moderate to high levels of high quality, readily bioavailable dietary protein.

Older dogs have a decreased ability to fight disease, creating the potential for health problems ranging from infections to cancer. For example, genetic differences have been identified that determine which geriatric dogs will get kidney disease and which ones will remain healthy. These conditions are perilous enough to a younger body, but can spell debilitation or death to an older animal. Providing your senior dog with specific functional nutrients can help enhance and balance his immune systems’ function.

Based on Dr Dodds and Diana Laverdure book, the following additional foods for inclusion in your seniors’ diet should be considered:

  • Apples: protect the heart, block diarrhea, improve lung capacity, cushion joints;
  • Bananas: protect the heart, strengthen bones, control blood pressure, block diarrhea;
  • Beans: lower cholesterol, combat cancer, stabilize blood sugar (feed in moderation due to lectins);
  • Beets: combat cancer, strengthen bones, protect the heart. Berries: combat cancer, protect the heart, stabilize blood sugar, boost memory (do no feed strawberries to your dog);
  • Coconut oil: supplies medium-chain triglycerides, supports healthy brain aging;
  • Cranberries: antioxidant, lower urine pH, coat the bladder lining;
  • Curcumin: powerful antioxidant, antimicrobial and antineoplastic (prevents or halts tumor development);
  • Fish (low mercury, such as sardines) and fish oil: excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, anti-inflammatory, protect the heart, combat cancer, support healthy immune system and much more;
  • Plant-based oils (listed above): help the joints, skin, kidneys and brain. (Avoid oils that can promote inflammation such as corn, safflower and canola oils.);
  • Pomegranates: antioxidant, help buffer against cell damage, help cardiac oxygenation;
  • Raw honey (not pasteurized): aids digestion, increases energy (not for puppies under one year);
  • Sweet potatoes: combat cancer, strengthen bones, improve eyesight;
  • Yogurt (from goat or sheep’s milk): strengthens bones, supports the immune system, supplies probiotics, aids digestion.

Senior Meal Management

We believe you should aim to food a varied and balanced diet over the course of a week, averaged over a month, alternating different meats wherever possible. Remember, these percentages don’t need to be exact per meal or per day, just a target for the week.

Dogs need to consume 2-3% of their ideal (healthy sized adult) body weight per day, usually split over two meals. If your dog is overweight then feed 2%, likewise if you dog is too skinny, you may want to increase this amount to 3.5%. Start with a percentage and fine tune it over time, by using the Body Condition System (BCS) as discussed in our article on weight management.

Additional Articles and Videos

Good reference articles & videos further reading available at:

  • Agar, Sandie, Small Animal Nutrition, 2001, Elseview Limited (Amazon);
  • Dr Dodds and Diana Laverdure, “Canine Nutrigenomics  – The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health” (Amazon);

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