We know how unique our animal companions are, especially those we’ve loved and lived with for many years. As our dear friends age, we pay a little more attention to their mobility, vision and hearing, and rightfully begin to consider whether dietary changes are in order . . . which they usually are. While dietary needs indeed change with age, what is best for one animal won’t necessarily be what another pet needs.
“You run the risk of stereotyping; of taking an age level and saying, ‘here’s your senior,’ and putting them on a senior formula,” says Joe Aschoff, owner of Whole Pet NW Distributing (formerly Solid Gold NW) based in Vancouver, WA. “Dietary needs should be assessed dog by dog.”
Heather Macfarlane, animal nutritionist and owner of Portland-based Balanced By Nature, agrees. “There is not one perfect food for all dogs or all cats.” McFarlane points out that “Most ‘senior’ pet foods are a reduced-calorie formula. This isn’t necessarily what most senior pets need since not all seniors are overweight. It’s best to calculate the daily requirements for each individual and feed accordingly. It is also important to examine the ingredients and make sure the calories are coming from biologically appropriate sources.” Macfarlane says this should include fresh foods such as meats (including organs), vegetables and fruits, and exclude things like grains, which not only do dogs and cats not require but can be detrimental to their health.
Macfarlane recommends regular veterinary exams and once-yearly senior blood panels to watch out for common imbalances such as kidney disease and so your veterinarian or nutritionist can create an informed dietary plan.
Both Aschoff and Macfarlane believe that helping dogs nutritionally before they reach their golden years is the best way to stave off ill health. An important part of that is feeding a diet free of unnecessary additives.
“There is so much junk food out there,” says Aschoff, “dog food that’s filled with fillers like corn, wheat, soy and animal by-products that their poor little bodies are processing. If you really focus on superior nutrition it will help their overall health throughout their life.”
Macfarlane also cautions that feeding a pet a lifetime diet of dry food can cause many health issues. “One of the major problems with dry pet food is that it lacks the appropriate moisture levels vital for good health. Correct moisture content is so important for dogs and cats to be able to assimilate nutrients without robbing their other systems.”
When it comes to making dietary recommendations, Macfarlane focuses on ingredients specific for each individual pet and rotates proteins and nutrients, since feeding the same foods, day after day, can lead to food allergies.
But even older pets getting a balanced diet can use a boost, she says. Like humans, senior animals can benefit from certain supplements such as high quality fish body oil for maintaining a healthy heart, joint support for inflammation, and digestive enzymes to aid in the absorption of vitamins and minerals. She stresses the importance of discussing supplements you’re considering with your vet or nutritionist since it can be difficult to wade through the products available.
Ultimately, when it comes to nutrition for seniors, it’s important to treat each elder in the pack as the individual she is and continue to fill the bowl with healthful food that is specific to her dietary needs.
Aschoff sums it up this way: “The bottom line is, don’t just buy something because it says ‘senior’ on it. Flip over the bag and take a look at the ingredients you are going to feed your best friend.”