Teaching an old dog new tricks: Best food for senior dogs

Whether you’ve had your dog for years, or you’ve recently adopted an OAD (that’s old-aged-dog to me and you) by providing the best nutrition, environmental enrichment and exercise, you can ensure your pet has one heck of a retirement!

Moderate exercise

Exercise is an essential part of keeping your dog healthy and happy. Dogs need exercise everyday though you may see your older dog slowing down. You may notice your dog spends more time sniffing around. He may pant and seem tired quicker and you may see some stiffness after longer walks.

If this is the case do not just put it down to old age and ignore it. Have your dog checked out by a veterinarian. There are many conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and degenerative joint disease which can slow your dog down. Once properly diagnosed your vet can help you to develop a suitable exercise programme your dog will enjoy without exacerbating any conditions.

Physiotherapy or swimming are both excellent options for keeping the muscles working whilst ‘resting’ those sensitive joints. These should be done by trained professionals in a controlled environment.

Diet

Just like us as dogs get older they have a decreased ability to adapt to change. I know I definitely cant eat like I used too as a child!  Senior dogs are much more vulnerable to nutritional excess, deficiency or poor quality. So it is really important that we have them on the right diet.

What a lot of people don’t realise is that ‘senior diets’ are a marketing term. What makes up a good senior food is down to the interpretation of the food company, not regulation. This means that senior diets vary considerably. We’ve conveniently put together what to look for in the best dog food for mature dogs.

Water – this is the most important nutrient for any dog but particularly seniors. Their body water levels are naturally lower and they are less efficient at regulating their water intake and losses (they are not very good at feeling thirst). Dry food can be better for their teeth but adding a little water to their food can increase their water intake without losing all the crunchy integrity of the biscuit. Fresh clean water should be easily accessible at all times.

Energy – energy needs decrease with age so your golden oldie will benefit from a less energy dense food (lower calories). Some may suppose you could just feed less of an adult diet but the problem lies in their appetite. Older dogs do not have a decreased appetite, in fact appetite can increase. This leave older dogs at risk of becoming overweight which puts more strain on their joints and other body systems. A lower calorie senior food gives them the freedom to graze or have smaller more frequent meals without risking weight gain.

It is really important that you monitor your dogs weight. That is best done using a Body condition score:

Your dog should be in the ideal category. If they become either thin or overweight then you should bring this up with your veterinarian.

Protein – A healthy older dog does not need decreased levels of protein. As they age there is an increase in protein turnover and a decrease in protein synthesis so if anything they need more protein to keep them healthy. High quality single source proteins are more easily digested which is preferable.

High protein can be a problem if they are suffering from certain diseases such as kidney failure. Veterinary diet advice should always be sought if there is a current health problem.

Added extras

There are a number of specialist ingredients or components which are added into senior food to help with common ailments and conditions. Here are some you may see:

Joint support –  Commonly you will see added Glucosamine, Chondroitin and MSM to build cartilage, ligaments, tendons and synovial fluid. High levels of Omega 3 fatty acids such as DHA have an anti-inflammetry action which can ease joint discomfort.

Anti-oxidants – Natural anti-oxidants like Vitamin EVitamin C (citric acid), Vitamin Acarotenoids, and selenium slow the ageing process and boost the immune system by fighting free radical damage in the body.

Brain support – There are new studies coming out on how some specialist diets and supplements are being formulated with ingredients which help to fuel the brain. Ageing dogs are at risk of developing canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) very similar to dementia. In order to be diagnosed with this condition you need to spot specific changes in behaviour. This tool can help identify these behaviours:

If you think you can recognise these behaviours in your senior dog then please discuss this with your veterinarian.

Veterinary visits

We can’t stress enough the importance of consulting your vet when discussing your senior dog’s health. By scheduling health checks every 6 months you are provided with expert knowledge when it comes to identifying and monitoring your pet’s health. Whilst you might believe that your pet is still a pup deep down, it is important that once they reach a ‘certain age’ (on average 7-9 years old) to get them examined by the experts.

Environmental Enrichment

Environmental enrichment is the process of making your dog’s living space interesting and stimulating. This decreases boredom at any age but for seniors can be vital in reducing age-related changes to the brain whilst also encouraging moderate physical activity.

Environmental enrichment does not have to be hard you just need to vary what you do and be creative!

Here are some simple and easily implemented ideas:

  1. Activity feeding – activity balls, snuffle matts or simply scattering the feed instead of putting in a bowl, makes mealtimes more stimulating
  2. Exposure to stimulating environments – your older dog may not be as mobile as he once was but he will still appreciate the opportunity to sniff new smells and meet other people and dogs. Swimming is an excellent low strain exercise for older dogs (providing they like it).
  3. Play – make a list of the games your dog used to enjoy. Some may be beyond his physical ability now but others may be adaptable to a senior e.g seek out a biscuit
  4. Socialising – as dogs age they become less demanding and can become socially isolated. Spend more quality time with your dog and arrange play dates with other dogs that he has got on with before.
Beautiful brown dog and pug hugging

5. Training- You absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks but you can also retrain lost behaviours. One of the signs of CCD is the loss of previously learned behaviours, but often there is a residue of the original learning that just needs re-activating. Have patience and keep training positive so that you and your dog can enjoy the time spent together.

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