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What Should You Feed Your Senior Dog?

It seems to happen overnight. One day, your dog is leaping like a puppy, the next you notice that your beloved pooch has a little extra paunch to him—and is that grey in his muzzle? (Come to think of it, were those jowls always so pronounced?) That’s when you get out the calendar, start doing the math, to realize that your dog could officially qualify for a doggie AARP card. Yes, aging—in both the human and canine species—can come on quickly, making you wonder what this means for your dog’s future.

Not to worry. If your dog is starting to become long in the snoot, there are plenty of ways to ensure your pet lives long and prospers as a healthy senior, starting with simple additions to your dog’s diet—in particular, raw food. “Eating raw can be such a gift to older dogs,” says Laurie Coger, D.V.M. (www.healthydogworkshop.com). “I’ve had people tell me, ‘oh my god, you just took three years off his life, I wish I had done this sooner!’ after beginning a raw-food diet.”

We asked experts and scoured the research to discover why raw food can be the best choice for your senior dog.Dog food for Senior Dogs by Darwin's Pet

Surprising Facts about Senior Dogs:

The Seven-Year Myth

Did you know that the “one dog year equals seven human years” adage is actually just a myth? That’s right: According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, your dog’s equivalent human age is actually a range depending on size and breed. The magic number seven does factor in when discussing a pet’s age, though, because that’s when the average pet is considered to be senior (which roughly translates to a range of only 44 to 56 human years). For smaller dogs, who tend to live longer (such as terriers, dachshunds, beagles, and toy breeds), that number goes up to 10, while larger breeds (such as Great Danes and Alaskan Malamutes) can fall into the “senior” category by age six. But the biggest factor in how your dog ages—besides genes, that is—is you, the owner. “I’ve seen dogs who are old at age five, and those who are on the agility world team still performing well at age 11, and many times that difference comes down to how you are managing your dog,” reports Dr. Coger.

Did You Know? You Can Teach a Dog New Tricks!

One day, your dog gobbles up his usual meal with gusto and the next he’s picking at his food like a picky two-year-old. What gives? Well, just as with humans, dogs that are getting a little older have a more rollercoaster effect when it comes to appetite. Factors like weather, medical conditions or medications, and plain old exhaustion after a spirited hike, for example, can leave your pooch turning up his snoot at food. That’s when it’s time to take matters into your hands: in some cases, literally. Tips like hand-feeding (try it, it works!), mixing in some water or other “people food” like eggs or cottage cheese, can turn on the appetite button in some seniors. Or turn “dinnertime” into a game: place treats or meals into a Kong or Buster Cube can get them interested in mealtime again (Think of it like feeding a baby, turning “feeding time” into a game).

Another reason a senior dog may be low on appetite: maybe they aren’t getting enough exercise. As dog’s age, their exercise needs and desires can change—so maybe it’s time to mix things up. Instead of insisting on your regular two-mile walk, turn exercise into a game, suggests Dr. Coger: spend exercise time playing ball instead, or set up an obstacle course (the only limit is your imagination!) to make exercise fun again!

Health Challenges for Senior Dogs

So, what should you be aware of when owning a senior dog? When it comes to aging, dogs, and humans are similar. The same issues that start to plague us, humans, as we get older also affect our canine friends, such as the following:

The good news is that there are simple ways to help your dog with tweaks to his/her diet.

help your dog with tweaks to his/her diet. Let’s take a look at the best foods for older dogs, and why they’re so beneficial.

The Perfect Senior-Dog Diet

As your dog ages, so do his nutritional requirements. Yet there’s no AAFCO statement for senior dog food, and as more and more companies are making specially formulated senior dog food, it can get confusing to navigate.

When considering a diet for your dog, keep in mind the following:

  • High-quality protein: Protein has been the center of confusion when it comes to feeding older dogs. While low-protein diets used to be recommended for seniors—with the thought being that high amounts of protein can overtax the kidneys—now the opposite is known to be true. “We’re not afraid of protein anymore,” says Dr. Coger. According to a review of evidence published in Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, “protein restriction for healthy older dogs is not only unnecessary, it can be detrimental.” Reviewers discovered that sufficient amounts of protein help prevent loss of lean body mass and even increases mortality rates. Older dogs’ protein needs actually increase by about 50 percent. High-quality, easily digestible protein is key.
  • Low in fat, carbs, and calories: Thanks to a more sluggish metabolism, your older dog may be more prone to tipping the scales as she ages, so a diet low in fat, carbs, and calories will help your canine companion maintain a healthy weight. Keep in mind, with calories, it’s not a “how low can you go” contest; high-quality sources of meat protein are key.
  • High fiber: As dog’s age, their digestion tends to slow down and they can experience constipation. A high-fiber diet will ensure that things are moving right along.
  • Low sodium: Dogs have an increased risk of heart disease, so a lower sodium diet is best.
  • Antioxidants: Antioxidants and essential fatty acids like omega 3 and 6 are an older dog’s best friend, because they reduce inflammation, help slow down cellular aging, and can prevent diseases like cancer.

Add These 5 Items to Your Dog’s Bowl

Fess up: If you’re like most dog owners, you may have snuck a human treat to your pooch from time to time when no one else is looking (we don’t blame you, those begging eyes can be hard to resist!). While it’s not a good idea to make it a regular practice, there are times when it’s okay—and even beneficial—to give a dog human food. Consider these top five superfoods to add to your graying dog’s bowl:

  1. Small amounts of cooked broccoli provide a one-two punch of antioxidants and high fiber content.
  2. Blue, black, or red, berries are another dog superfood thanks to their rich antioxidant and fiber content.
  3. Packed with omega-3 fatty acids, sardines are helpful for reducing inflammation, contributing to a healthy skin and coat, and providing a boost to the immune system
  4. Adding a dollop of plain yogurt to a meal can assist an older dog’s digestive issues, thanks to the active, beneficial bacteria—which elderly dogs tend to have lower levels of— that replaces “bad” bacteria.
  5. The incredible, edible egg isn’t just a superfood for humans, but it can also do a dog’s body good too. Eggs provide an easily digestible, superior source of protein, plus vitamin D and calcium for healthy teeth and bones.

senior dog food 5 things to feed by Darwin's Natural Pet Products

But Don’t Forget the Treats!

Every dog owner has a treat (or three) up his/her sleeve, but not all treats are created equal. If you’ve ever tried giving your dog medicine dipped in peanut butter, you know that wrapping a good-for-you morsel in a tasty treat helps that medicine go down. Well, these natural treats act the same way—providing real medicinal value disguised as a tasty treat (your dog will never realize how good it is for him!).

Bones. “Give a dog a bone” may be a catchy part of the classic This Old Man song, but this old standby treat still stands the test of time. While your elderly dog is crunching happily on a fresh bone, you know that bones are helping your dog’s teeth and providing calcium for her old, uh, bones and teeth, as well as fatty acids and minerals.

Green Tripe. Consider green tripe as another miracle treat for your dog. Tripe is, simply put, the stomach lining of grazing animals which include cows, buffalo, deer, and sheep. These grazing—also called ruminating—animals have four chambers in their stomachs, which act as a digestive marvel with enzymes, gastric juices, and amino acids omega 3 and omega 6, designed to break down the grasses they eat. Imagine what those digestive aides, which serve as nature’s immune system booster, can do for your senior dog’s digestion. The “green” in the name doesn’t refer to color, but rather to the fact that the tripe is unbleached and unprocessed to retain its benefits.

Ask the Vet

Dr. Coger reveals what she really wants to tell dog owners about feeding and caring for their senior dogs—including why the old-fashioned “hand test” wins every time.

  1. We’ve talked about quality dog food for seniors, now let’s talk about quantity. How do you know how much to feed your senior dog?

Do the “hand test.” It’s simple but it’s the best way to gauge how much to feed. I do it to my dogs every Friday, just reach down and feel their torso to gauge if I’m feeding them too much or too little. I’m looking for a few things here: I want to feel their ribs but not have them protrude, I don’t want to be able to fit my fingers in between the ribs, I don’t want to feel rolls, and I want muscle to be on those hindquarters.

  1. Why do we need all this raw stuff, anyway? Aren’t those senior dog kibble formulas just as good?

I have never been an advocate for commercial kibble. Think about what their senior dog food formulas are actually made of. The reason they are marketed as such is that they’ve dropped the protein and fat, increased the fiber and cut calories. So now you have this senior dog whose body is less efficient, to begin with, and you’re adding more fiber and robbing them of nutrients they actually need, like protein. It doesn’t make sense. When you switch from kibble to raw, though, now you’ve just taken the starch out of their diet and all those inflammatory fillers. It can mean a second life for your older dog.

  1. If you could tell a dog owner the most important thing about feeding your senior dog, what would it be?

Prevention. Instead of switching from kibble to raw once they start experiencing signs of aging, start them on a raw diet in the first place. You’d be amazed at the difference.

While it can be a shock to suddenly see your dog grow gray, there are plenty of things you can do to ensure a long, healthy life—and diet is a large part of it. Of course, as with any dietary changes, you’ll want to get a vet’s okay and specific recommendations based on your dog’s size, age, breed, health, and unique requirements.

Consider Darwin’s to be a one-stop shop for your senior pet, with our senior-friendly raw food line: Choose from duck, chicken, beef,  turkey or lamb, all offering the proper balance of highly digestive protein, moderate fat, high fiber, and essential fatty acids. Also, take a look at our grass-fed beef rib bones and beef marrow bones, both containing calcium and essential fatty acids and minerals. Can’t find green tripe at your local store? It can be hard to find, but you’re in luck: Darwin’s offers beef and bison green tripe, all in convenient 2-pound packages.