THE BLOG
10/17/2011 05:18 pm ET | Updated Dec 17, 2011

What You Need to Know About Feeding Your Aging Pet

We know dietary requirements change for humans as they age. And while there are very few studies proving the same is true for companion animals, it's generally assumed dogs and cats also have special nutritional needs as they grow older.

However, as is the case with people, your dog's diet should meet his individual nutritional requirements, which may or may not be similar to other dogs his age. Your dog's body condition and any underlying disease are more important considerations than his age.

The majority of commercial dog foods have a few things in common, including:

• Reduced calories
• Reduced protein
• Decreased levels of phosphorus and sodium
• Increased fiber
• Addition of supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, joint supplements and antioxidants

Let's take a closer look at these senior dog food formula themes.

Not Every Older Dog is Fat

A reduced calorie senior dog food is obviously not a good choice for a pet that is either at a good weight or is too thin. Many older dogs experience signs of aging such as:

• A decrease in appetite
• Difficulty getting food into their mouths or chewing
• Reduction in the sense of smell or taste
• An underlying condition that increases their metabolic rate and muscle atrophy

Any one of these or a combination can cause your pet to experience weight loss in his senior years, and yet the majority of diets marketed for older dogs have fewer calories than adult maintenance formulas.

If your senior dog is overweight or obese, portion control and regular aerobic exercise are the keys to helping your furry friend lose those extra pounds and maintain a lean, fit body condition.

Protein Requirements Do NOT Decrease as Your Dog Ages

In fact, studies point to an increased need for protein as your pet ages.

The reason senior dog food formulas have reduced protein content is based on flawed logic.

The exceptionally poor quality protein used in most commercial pet foods is difficult for the bodies of even young, healthy pets to process. Rendered protein sources put chronic strain on your dog's kidneys and liver as her body attempts to digest and assimilate food that is not biologically suitable.

Years of a diet based on terrible quality, rendered protein compromises kidney and liver function, which is why commercial "senior" dog foods contain less protein than adult maintenance formulas.

Once your pet's organs start to fail from years of a diet of low-grade protein, if you to continue to feed the same quality diet, you should select a "senior" formula with reduced protein content.

It's an unfortunate situation, because your dog actually needs more protein as she ages -- not less -- in order to maintain healthy lean muscle mass and good organ and immune function. But the type of protein most dogs thrive on is whole, unprocessed, and preferably raw.

Added Fiber is Not Biologically Appropriate for Dogs

While it's true some senior dogs have problems with constipation, the fiber added to commercial pet foods isn't the answer.

A senior formula with increased fiber may make your dog poop more, but it will also block absorption of healthy nutrients. Too much fiber can create a barrier in your dog's small intestine which prevents antioxidants, vitamins and minerals from being assimilated.

To prevent constipation in dogs of any age, rather than buy a commercial formula with increased fiber, I recommend feeding a balanced, moisture rich, species-appropriate diet, and supplement with digestive enzymes and probiotics. Also make sure your pet gets plenty of exercise.

If additional fiber is necessary for your dog's individual needs, try these healthier alternatives to a high-fiber commercial formula:

• Psyllium husk powder
• Ground dark green leafy veggies
• Coconut fiber
• Canned 100 percent pumpkin

Don't Count on ANY Food to Supply Adequate Omega-3 Fatty Acids or Joint Supplements

Omega-3's are very sensitive to heat and light. The processing of commercial pet food renders omega-3 fatty acids useless. Technically they are still in the food, but they're no longer active or helpful to your pet's body.

Chances are, no matter what you're feeding your dog, unless you're supplementing omega-3 fatty acids daily, he's probably not getting the amount he needs.

I recommend supplementing with krill oil, another fish-body oil or Algal DHA to supply your dog with a good source of omega-3's.

Joint supplements are another area where I wouldn't count on additives to commercial dog food to be either good quality or beneficial. The amounts added to foods do not provide therapeutic levels of support. If your older dog needs help for sore joints or additional antioxidants, I recommend consulting your holistic vet about appropriate supplements.

Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at: MercolaHealthyPets.com.

Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.

By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.

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