We all want to make sure we’re supporting our senior pets as they get older, but there are a few myths that persist about what is nutritionally appropriate for senior dogs.
Myth #1: Seniors need lower protein diets
It’s true that we used to be instructed to lower protein when dogs get older, but current research shows that older dogs actually need significantly higher protein than their younger counterparts. Their bodies become less efficient at metabolizing proteins as they age, so increasing the amount (and the digestibility) of proteins is key to supporting them and helping to prevent muscle wasting.
Pro Tip: Raw foods have the most bioavailable proteins, but if you feed a kibble diet, mixing in a nugget or two of prepared raw diets from our freezers can be a delicious, affordable, and super nutritious way to get whole food vitamins, minerals and important amino acids that haven’t been damaged by high heat cooking. Senior dogs need these tools to thrive as they age, and this easy solution is better and cheaper than any commercial supplement or food in a can!
Myth #2: But couldn’t too much protein hurt their kidneys?
This idea was based on studies done on rats, not dogs. Rats have evolved with different nutritional requirements than dogs have, so when they did study this question in dogs, it was determined that no amount of protein can hurt a healthy kidney. Mary Straus of dogaware.com says , “In fact, senior dogs fed high protein diets live longer and are healthier than those that are fed low protein diets, even when one kidney has been removed. Studies conducted at the University of Georgia in the 1990s demonstrated that feeding protein levels of 34 percent (on a dry matter basis) to older dogs with chronic kidney failure and dogs with only one kidney caused no ill effects. The mortality rate was greater for the dogs fed 18 percent protein than for the dogs fed 34 percent protein. Another study done on dogs with only one kidney showed that protein levels up to 44 percent of the diet had no harmful effect on the remaining kidney.” For a more comprehensive discussion of protein in dog diets, see this link
Myth #3: If my dog is getting fatter, shouldn’t I switch to feeding something with more sweet potatoes or other carbohydrates to fill her up more?
As Seniors age, reduced activity can result in weight gain. When you couple senior dogs with higher carb foods, you have a few problems. Though they may make a dog feel temporarily full for a short time, feeding too many carbs and fiber can can block absorption of necessary nutrients into the small intestine; a chronic deficiency of nutrients on a cellular level can result in feelings of constant hunger.
Dogs and cats have no metabolic need for carbohydrates in their diet, and feeding carbs to carnivores more often results in weight gain. Studies have shown that dogs fed a higher percentage of protein retain more lean muscle mass and a lower percentage of body fat. Another study showed that the addition of soluble or insoluble fiber had no beneficial effects on satiety (feeling full), nor did they increase weight loss. Very low fat is also problematic, as fat helps with satiation and palatability. Pets need fats to metabolize certain fat soluble vitamins, as well as to support both their immune system and their healthy skin and coat.
Carbs also metabolize into sugars, which can contribute to inflammation, increase arthritis pain, dental disease, blood sugar fluctuations (especially in cats), and potentially worsen problems such as yeast and chronic digestive issues. Don’t forget that cancers are fed by sugars and starved by proteins and fats – as about 50% of all dogs are now dealing with some sort of cancer in their lives, it’s important to feed a diet that makes your pet’s body less hospitable to tumor growth.
Proteins and carbohydrates each supply the exact same number of calories – 4 calories per gram, while fat contributes 9 calories per gram. So, a better strategy is to supply more of their calories in the form of proteins, which can be efficiently converted to energy and muscle mass by dogs, as opposed to carbs which are more likely to be converted to fat. Moderately reducing the fat content and also reducing carbs while maintaining daily activity is your recipe for success!
How Do I Know if My Kibble is High in Carbohydrates?
Many commercial kibbles (even grain free) can have very high carbohydrate content – some dry foods are 50% or more starchy carbs that metabolize into sugars (even premium brands and prescription foods)! Here’s a quick way to get a good idea of how much of your food is essentially sugar: Look at the Guaranteed Analysis on the bag. Add up the numbers listed for protein, fat, fiber, moisture, and if it’s there, the Ash content. If there is no ash content listed, estimate 6%. If the food doesn’t have a synthetic vitamin and mineral section (like Nature’s Logic and Acana/Orijen), don’t add the 6%. The total will be everything in the food besides the starchy carbs. 100 minus the number you got will be the percentage of the food that is metabolized as sugars. You might be surprised!
Check out this amazing video made by Dr. Karen Becker and Rodney Habib that use this method to illustrate how much sugar is in many commercial foods.
This is another benefit to a fresh raw food diet, as these fresh whole food diets do not need starches to hold it together in order to make the little kibbles (we should call them cookies!).
Looking for lower carb kibbles? Orijen/Acana, Nature’s Logic, Nature’s Variety Instinct, and Stella and Chewy’s new baked kibbles are great places to start.
Myth #4: My bag of dog food should say Senior on the label.
Some “senior” dog foods (like Orijen Senior) are doing a good job keeping up with what we currently know about the nutritional needs of seniors, but many are not. The bigger truths are:
– All dry dog food is highly processed food
– Every dog is different – some become less active and start to put on weight, and some stay active but start to lose muscle mass and get skinny. Tailoring their diet to their needs is important.
Considering switching to (or integrating some of) a minimally processed, commercially made, balanced whole food diet will generally be the most supportive thing you can do to maintain their health.
Check out these posts for how to integrate some whole foods into your dog’s diet: