Feeding Your Senior Dog

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Evo, a 6-year-old Boxer mix, had gained weight and lost his get up and go, according to owner Jan Hargis of Johnson City, Texas. She took him to the veterinarian for a geriatric checkup.

With the exception of arthritis and some weight gain, the veterinarian gave the Boxer a clean bill of health, recommending a lower-fat senior diet, which would help reduce Evos weight, and thus, his joint pain. Within a few weeks, Evo had lost 5 pounds and his activity level had climbed. As Hargis puts it, He was back to his young self again.

As pets age, their metabolisms slow down and activity levels drop. As with people, their diet must change to meet the needs of their changing lifestyles, says Linda P. Case, M.S., of the University of Illinois College Veterinary Medicine, author of Canine & Feline Nutrition: A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals (C.V. Mosby, 2000, $69.95).
But when should you change your dogs diet and what kind of senior diet should you look for?

No Magic Number
Most commercial diets label a 7-year-old dog as a senior, but the actual age varies depending on the size and breed of the dog, says Rebecca Remillard, DVM, Ph.D., senior staff nutritionist at Angell Animal Medical Centers in Boston. I’m not an advocate of changing to a senior diet just because a dog has reached a certain age, Remillard says. Each dog should be monitored individually.

Your veterinarian can help you determine whether your dog is ready for a senior diet, based on his breed, weight, activity level, and overall health.

What Seniors Need
Senior diets are often equated with chronic renal disease in which a reduction of protein is prescribed. Many people mistakenly think that senior dogs need a low protein diet, Case says. But protein requirements don’t necessarily decrease with age if the dog is healthy. Senior dogs still need protein to maintain good muscle mass.

Protein transforms food into energy, and the amount of energy needed depends on a dogs size, activity level, and health. A specially formulated senior diet with less protein might, for example, be appropriate for a small, sedentary dog, but not suitable for an older, active search-and-rescue dog.

Without good nutrition, your dog can suffer from a number of problems, including allergies, malnutrition, skin and coat problems, and obesity. Nutrition-related problems can affect any dog, no matter the size.

While dogs can be allergic to many things, some have food allergies to different meats, grains, dairy products, and artificial additives such as colorings, flavorings, and preservatives. Dogs with food allergies often develop skin problems such as rashes, hives, chronic itching, and hot spots (painful, warm infected areas of skin). Some dogs develop allergies to protein and carbohydrate sources after being exposed to them for a long time, so simply changing the protein and carbohydrate sources of your food from beef and corn to turkey and rice, for example, may be enough to halt the allergic reaction. Many dogs with severe skin allergies finally find relief when their owners switch to feeding them a homemade diet.

Most pet dogs are more likely to become overweight than malnourished, but when a dog is fed a diet lacking in basic nutrients, he can become malnourished. Malnutrition can be caused by a diet that is not complete and unbalanced or by a limited diet (for example, meat only). Dogs who aren’t fed enough, often due to neglect or other poor conditions, are likely to become malnourished.

On the other hand, too much protein may contribute to kidney disease in some dogs. Some dogs, especially the large and giant breeds, can develop bone problems if they were fed too much calcium as puppies. Some puppies, especially the toy breeds, need many small, frequent, nutrient-dense meals to avoid hypoglycemia. A lack of antioxidants like vitamins C and E could possibly contribute to an increased cancer risk (studies suggest this could be true for people), and inadequate fat can result in a dull, dry coat and itchy, sensitive skin. Some dogs are sensitive to too much copper or a dificiency of zinc in their diet.

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