By Elijah Merrill
If your older, once active dog is experiencing weight gain or health problems, consider looking into its diet -- it may be in need of a dog food that's formulated for senior dogs.
While senior formulas are nothing new, continued scientific advances lead to significant changes that are recent. For instance, senior formulas used to have greatly reduced protein content for fear that they could lead to kidney problems. But within the last decade, science has reversed the thinking in that regard, and a significant amount of protein is now a crucial aspect of senior dog food.
"The basic understanding of the science has really pushed the needle toward making food and nutrition optimal," says Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and nutrition expert in North Carolina. "Seniors are living better than ever before. It's never been a better time to be an old dog."
Senior Dog Food Ingredients
Ward and Dr. Katy Johnson Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian, point out some key things to look for when considering a senior formula:
Protein: Ideally from a formulation that's at least 24 percent and higher protein from animal sources like chicken.
Reduced sodium (salt): High blood pressure is a serious concern for aging dogs. While research on the effects of sodium is ongoing, few doubt that dogs should consume an appropriate, and not excessive, amount of sodium in their diets.
Low caloric density: Compared to adult formulas, senior formulations in general will drop 20 to 30 percent in calorie density per serving. "That's a big difference because we get into a habit of giving a cup or a bowl per day," says Ward. "So the food itself needs to have fewer calories in that cup or bowl." Keep in mind, however, that senior dogs (9 years of age and older for large breeds and 11 years of age and older for small and medium breeds) may have different specific caloric needs. Consult with your veterinarian to determine what is best for your pet.
Omega-3 fatty acids: To combat the increased inflammation that comes with aging.
Glucosamine and chondroitin: To combat and prevent arthritic conditions. "The only caution is that the amount of the omega-3 and glucosamine may not be adequate for a specific pet. You may need to supplement," says Ward.
When and How to Switch Foods
Senior status for dogs is generally considered to come at age 11, but large breeds should probably switch one to two years earlier. Beyond that, the doctors say to not wait for symptoms to present themselves before switching. "This is about prevention, not just treatment," says Ward. "Be very proactive."
When you introduce the new food, do so gradually as an increasing percentage of a mixture with your dog's current food. "Take at least seven to 10 days to switch your pet's food," says Nelson. "A fast switch can lead to significant GI upset and an aversion to the new diet."
It's important to remember there is no one-size-fits-all food. "There is no perfect food, but there is a food out there that is perfect for your pet," says Nelson. "Include your veterinarian in the conversation, and you can find the food that is just right for your pup's specific nutritional needs and health concerns."
In the future, Ward thinks genetic profiling technology will allow veterinarians to recommend a personalized diet that best suits your dog's unique DNA. For now, he stresses how important it is to take advantage of today's optimized, high-quality senior dog foods. "There's nothing better you can do to prevent disease and add longevity than choosing the right food for your pet," he says.
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