Q&A with Dr. Leilani Alvarez, DVM on the Best Foods and Supplements for Senior Dogs

If your dog is getting older and starting to slow down, it might be time to take a look at his diet.

A well-balanced diet (and sometimes some added supplements) can hugely impact how well a senior dog can move, play and thrive.

We talked to Dr. Leilani Alvarez, DVM, DACVSMR, staff doctor and head of Integrative & Rehabilitative Medicine at the Animal Medical Center of New York about the challenges of feeding a senior dog.

THK: At what point is a dog considered a senior dog? Is it the same for every dog?

DR. LEILANI ALVAREZ: We consider dogs “senior” when they reach the last 25% of their expected life span. A dog’s lifespan is variable according to age, breed and individual circumstances, such as illness, level of nutrition and other factors.

In general, smaller breeds live longer than larger breeds. Dogs that weigh 20 lbs. or less (like Chihuahuas) would be considered seniors at 10 years old, whereas giant breed dogs (such as a Saint Bernard) are considered seniors at age 7-8 years old.

THK: Do senior dogs have different nutritional needs than adult dogs or puppies?

DR. ALVAREZ: Senior dogs have a slower metabolism than younger dogs and are more prone to obesity. For this reason, we generally recommend less calorically dense foods for senior dogs. Senior dogs, however, are also prone to losing lean body mass and should be fed diets that are more digestible with higher quality and quantity of protein. The trouble with “senior” diets is no one is regulating what a senior dog food should or should not have. One company selling a “senior diet” may have an increased amount of protein, while another company’s senior diet may be reduced in protein. For this reason, it’s important to consult with your veterinarian to determine which diet is best for your senior dog.

Because most senior dogs are less active, in general, this means they have less need for readily available energy in the form of carbohydrates. It’s less about portion size and more about how calorically dense the food is. Some senior dog food brands are extremely rich, while others are very calorically restricted. What is best for your pet is to keep an ideal body condition despite their growing age. I recommend keeping senior dogs at BCS 4-5/9.

senior dog

©istockphoto/gollykim

THK: Do senior dogs need supplements?

DR. ALVAREZ: If your dog has evidence of arthritis, they may benefit from joint supplements; however, if there is no evidence of joint disease, this is not necessary. Other supplements that can be beneficial in older dogs include anti-oxidants and omega 3 fatty acids. Aging dogs have increased oxidative stress. This means there are more free radicals in the body that can damage healthy cells. Younger dogs have natural anti-oxidant defense systems in their body to combat free radicals, but these systems are less efficient in older dogs. For this reason, many senior dogs can benefit from anti-oxidants.

There is no need to fortify with other vitamins. In fact, if you are feeding a complete and balanced diet, you could harm your dog by feeding additional supplements. In particular, fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, K should be avoided as these can be toxic if fed above recommended guidelines.

I’m a big fan of probiotics as a healthy gut will translate to overall body health. Healthy gut bacteria play an important role in the body’s immune defense. Senior dogs are particularly vulnerable to cancer and other immune deficiencies. More so than probiotics, however, eating the right kinds of foods provide PREbiotics (fermentable food sources that feed the bacteria) that can vastly improve gut health and promote healthy gut flora.

THK: What are some common ailments for senior dogs? Does nutrition play a part?

DR. ALVAREZ: By far the most common health problem in senior dogs is obesity. We estimate that approximately 70-80% of the dog population is overweight. Along with being overweight comes joint problems (arthritis) and diabetes. Senior dogs can also have decreased kidney function, cognitive disorders (like Alzheimer’s) and many types of cancer.

Nutrition is for sure a vital component to keeping a senior dog healthy. In particular, quality protein can help maintain strong muscles, tendons and ligaments to help keep your dog mobile. In addition, rich sources of antioxidants and healthy vitamins can support healthy brain function and other vital organ functions (such as kidneys and liver). Also, foods with the right balance of fiber can promote healthy gut flora to help maintain healthy digestion and immune function.

senior dog

©istockphoto/doug4537

THK: Is there a natural way to help an older dog with aches and pains in their joints?

DR. ALVAREZ: The best way to avoid aches and pains is to keep your dog nice and lean! Daily exercise of at least 60 min per day will also help to improve musculoskeletal health.

The latest research in both humans and dogs on arthritis has shown poor clinical efficacy for glucosamine. More effective joint supplements include green-lipped muscle, diets fortified with omega 3 fatty acids, Boswellia Serrata, and curcumin.

I love CBD; however, it can be tricky to prescribe. CBD is considered a Schedule V drug by the DEA. The laws vary by state on how veterinarians can legally recommend these products. The other complicating factor is we don’t the right dose for most conditions. There is only one clinical study to-date in dogs that reported the pharmacokinetics (absorption of CBD) in dogs and clinical efficacy for arthritis. The results of this study indicated that the formulation used helped reduce pain and increase levels of activity in dogs with osteoarthritis. It’s important to remember that CBD products vary widely on the market and the results of this study should only be applied to the particular CBD formulation used in the study.

The Honest Kitchen offers six complete, well-balanced recipes that provide all necessary nutrients to keep your dog healthy and lean throughout his golden years. If you have questions not covered above, please feel free to reach out to us at questions@thehonestkitchen.com

Meet the Author: Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia, snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at www.dianabocco.com

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