8 Tips for Feeding Senior Pets

Our pets only get more adorable with age.
Keeping them in top shape isn’t always easy, though.

Your dog’s slower pace and white muzzle are obvious signs of his increasing age. Your cat’s stiffness in the morning and the increase in the time she spends asleep show the same thing. Although good nutrition is important throughout your pet’s life, as he grows older how and what you feed him may become increasingly important. As with all things, however, every senior dog and cat is an individual; changes must be based on your pet’s overall health. Here are some tips, however, that might work for your pet.

Raise the Bowls

If your pet is showing some stiffness in his neck, shoulders, elbows or spine or has been diagnosed with arthritis, raising his food and water bowls can make eating and drinking more comfortable. For a small dog or cat, just lifting the bowls a couple of inches could be enough. For a medium sized dog, the lower step of a step stool is good while the second step might work for a larger dog. There are also commercially available raised food stands of various heights. As a general rule, if the top of the bowl is at elbow height your pet should be able to eat with comfort.

Several Meals per Day

Feeding your pet several small meals per day rather than one or two larger ones will help his digestive tract process the food better. Just measure out his food for the day and then divide it into several smaller meals without increasing the overall amount of food. If your schedule will allow it, a small meal every four hours or so is great. Keep in mind that with a change in meals, he’ll probably have to relieve himself more often too, so give him the chance to go outside.

Commercial Foods for Senior Pets

There are a number of commercial foods available for older dogs and cats. However, neither the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nor the National Research Council (NRC) provide guidelines for senior foods. These two organizations are the primary groups overseeing pet foods so without guidelines, the recipes are left up to the manufacturers. Therefore, senior foods vary widely in calorie count, protein levels, and ingredients. A commercial senior diet is not necessarily a good choice for your pet just because it’s labeled for seniors. Instead, if you’re feeding a commercial food, look for one that is for all life stages.

©istockphoto/Atlantagreg

©istockphoto/Atlantagreg

Protein is Important

In years past, lower protein levels were recommended for senior pets. The theory was that because older pets sometimes have decreased kidney and liver function the decreased protein levels would ease the burden on those organs. However, research has shown the opposite is true. For good health your pet needs adequate amounts of protein (usually animal meats rather than plant proteins) to maintain healthy muscles and functioning organs so if the kidneys and liver are not functioning up to par, then even more protein is needed rather than less. If you’re feeding a homemade diet or a commercial food, make sure there are good sources of protein. Avoid by products and by product meals that can have variable ingredients. In addition, choose protein sources that are easier to digest, including chicken, turkey, lean fish, and eggs. Avoid fatty cuts of meat as too much fat can trigger pancreatitis, can slow digestion, or cause diarrhea.

Avoid Hard to Digest Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are needed in your aging pet’s diet but not all carbohydrates are created equal. Cereal grains such as wheat, corn, and barley can be tough for the older dog’s digestive tract and can cause allergies, intestinal gas and flatulence, and even diarrhea. Don’t give your older cat cereal grains at all. Some better carbohydrates that most older pets, even cats, can tolerate in small amounts include oats, oatmeal, ground flaxseed, and rice.

Vegetables are Better Carbohydrates

Vegetables can be a beneficial part of the diet for older dogs and cats. Not only do these provide needed vitamins and minerals, they also supply fiber that will help prevent constipation. To be used efficiently by the digestive system, vegetables should be cooked and if your pet has some dental issues, pureed. Some good choices include carrots, green beans, pumpkin, squash, and zucchini.

Fresh Fruits are a Good Treat

Rather than feeding your senior pet commercial treats made from cereal grains and a host of artificial ingredients, share a piece of fruit instead. If you’re having an apple or banana, give your dog a slice or your cat, a tiny pinch. Not only are these tasty, but they also supply vitamins, minerals and fiber. Many, including bananas, mangos, papayas, cranberries and raspberries, also have enzymes that aid digestion.

Yogurt is a Health Food

Yogurt that contains live active cultures (rather than yogurt that is heat treated) is a great food for aging dogs and cats. It’s good nutrition, a good source of protein and calcium, and those cultures (which are beneficial bacteria) help the digestive tract work better. A medium sized dog can have a heaping tablespoon per day while a small dog or a cat can have a teaspoon.

Keeping your older pet healthy on into his old age is every dog and cat owner’s goal. One of the best ways to do this is to provide the best nutrition you can while at the same time, keeping your pet lean. Obesity can lead to many health problems and bodily discomforts (primarily arthritis) as the animal ages. A strong, active lean dog or cat will move into old age with fewer problems.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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