Many pet parents are confounded by conflicting advice on pet food in general, whether it’s commercial, grain-free, biologically appropriate and/or raw. This confusion can be compounded as your pet ages and is faced with medical conditions that require special consideration when it comes to diet. Many diseases that are common in older dogs and cats may be nutrient-sensitive, meaning that diet can play an important role in the management of the condition. As a general rule, dogs and cats 7 years of age or older are at risk of age-related diseases, though specific breed size, genetics, and physical condition influence the aging process.
Dr. Laurie Brush, founder of Heaven at Home Pet Hospice, says senior pet nutrition can be a complicated issue but that conscientious pet parents can help their senior pets enormously by dialing in their pet’s diet to prevent obesity.
“It’s important to work with your routine care veterinarian and adjust your feeding approach as your pet ages,” she said.
“Obesity aggravates many conditions, such as arthritis and diabetes, and accelerates the aging process. At the same time, if your pet is underfed or receives inadequate protein, waning muscle mass may reduce the effectiveness of your pet’s immune system. It can be a tricky balance,” she said.
In the course of the home visits that Dr. Brush and her staff make to provide palliative care for senior and terminally ill pets, she sees the product of both ends of the spectrum: overweight pets who suffer ailments and mobility issues exacerbated by overfeeding, and pets who’ve lost interest in the foods they once loved.
“Every senior pet can benefit from extra attention to nutrition,” she says. “It can make a real difference in the quality of life a senior pet enjoys.”
Understanding Energy Needs in Senior Pets
Just like humans, companion animals have individual and specific Resting and Maintenance Energy Requirements (RERs and MERs) that vary based on genetic potential, health status, and whether the animal is intact or neutered. RERs refers to the metabolic resting state; MERs refers to maintenance and is dependent on activity level. Research suggests that MERs decrease with age in dogs just as it does in humans. In one study of English Setters, Miniature Schnauzers and German Shepherds, the MERs of 11-year-old dogs were approximately 25% less than 3-year-old dogs.
Among the veterinarian community, it’s generally accepted that senior dogs require approximately 20% fewer calories than their younger peers due to this reduction in energy requirement coupled with lessened activity. To reduce weight in an overweight dog or cat, vets use a formula to calculate 80% of the calories required for RER.
On the other hand, some senior pets can suffer malnutrition and weight loss that aggravates their conditions. Veterinarians may prescribe appetite stimulants to improve nutritional intake. In this case, it is also helpful for pet parents to familiarize themselves with energy requirements to help ensure their senior pet is receiving adequate nutrition.
(See: How to Count Calories for Your Senior Pet)
The case of cats is more complex when it comes to senior energy needs. Short-term research suggested that aging cats did not experience the same kind of reduction in energy requirement, but long-term studies indicated a reduction of approximately 3% per year through age 11. From ages 12-15, however, the energy requirement per pound of weight actually increased in cats.
The Importance of Caloric Makeup –
Research on Protein
One belief that has long circulated in the pet food world is that senior dogs and cats need a low-protein diet to protect against kidney disease. The belief originated from rodent research performed in the 1940s that has since been disproved. Instead, numerous research studies have confirmed that protein does not adversely affect the kidneys in either healthy older dogs or cats.
In fact, research by veterinarian nutritionist Dr. Delmar Finco, among others, suggests that the need for dietary protein may actually increase in senior pets by as much as 50%. His research also showed that higher protein diets were associated with greater life spans.
One study comparing protein requirement in 2-year-old Beagles versus 13-year-old Beagles found that the senior dogs needed at least 50% more dietary protein.
Research also suggests that L-carnitine, a vitamin-like compound made from amino acids found in red meats, fish, chicken and dairy products, may help the body use fat for energy.
“High-quality protein with good amino acids should make up a healthy portion of a senior pet’s daily caloric intake, at least 25%. A pet parent’s veterinarian is the best resource for help ensuring this is the case,” Dr. Brush said.
Watch Fat Intake, Take Care with Carbohydrates
“Fewer of the pet’s calories should be from fat because fat leads to inflammation, which can be problematic for arthritic pets.” Dr. Brush said.
Carbohydrate percentage in pet food has been in the spotlight in recent years, with many consumers trending toward grain-free options. While Dr. Brush has heard anecdotal evidence from clients who’ve elected grain-free options, she cautions pet parents to fully discuss the implications with their veterinarians. Recently, the FDA launched an investigation into unusual cases of DCM – dilated cardiomyopathy – in pets who were fed boutique, grain-free foods high in legumes like lentils and peas. The current (and early) theory is that the legumes may interfere with the production of the vital amino acid, L-taurine. Some manufacturers have responded by supplementing taurine, which is essential to pet metabolic health, but there are still many unknowns.
“In general, it’s best to ensure that the high-quality protein is coming from meat, not protein-dense carbohydrates,” she said.
Other Nutrient Considerations:
Apart from avoiding high-fat foods and ensuring at least 25% of calories are coming from good protein sources, there are a number of supplements that are reasonably time-tested to improve health in aging companion animals, such as Fish Oil and Glucosamine. However, all supplements are not created equal, and are not tested by the FDA. Pet parents should discuss supplements and brands with their veterinarian, and consider using supplements formulated for veterinary use.
• Fish Oil – 1,000 mg twice daily for dogs < 50 lbs, 2,000 mg daily for dogs > 50 lbs.
• Glucosamine – Many veterinarians recommend approximately 500 mg of Glucosamine and 400 mg of Chondroitin per 25 pounds. For oral Glucosamine for dogs, a typical dose may be: Dogs 5-20 pounds: 250-500 mg. Dogs 20-45 pounds: 500 mg.
• Prescription Cat & Dog Food – Most veterinary clinics supply special formulations for pets with specific health conditions. For example, pets with renal (kidney) disease should avoid foods high in phosphorus and calcium, which can exacerbate their illness.If your pet does not find one particular brand of prescription pet food palatable, there are multiple others that can be tried. Work with your veterinarian to find a food that they like and that will make them feel better.
Senior Feeding Problems
Depending on the age-related disease or condition of your pet, you may find that Fido has lost interest in food, has trouble chewing, or difficulty with digestion. Here are some things pet parents can do to make feeding more palatable to their senior pets.
- Warm food slightly – it releases the aroma and heightens interest
- Supplement with soft foods for pets that have difficulty chewing
- Dental disease can sometimes be ameliorated with antibiotics if your pet is not healthy enough to undergo anesthesia for a dental procedure
- Elevate the food and water dishes to make it easier for your pet to access them
- Hand-feeding may work with some dogs
- Adding low-sodium broth to food can make it more palatable
Feeding your senior pet an ideal diet for his or her age and condition can be complex, but help is available. Heaven at Home Pet Hospice can work with your routine care veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to help you manage your senior pet’s nutrition and give your fur baby the highest quality of life possible for his or her final chapter.