Senior Pet Nutrition: What to Know

A nutritionally balanced diet is one of the keys to good health and longevity for our pets. A good diet is important at every stage of life, including the senior years.

Issues plaguing aging senior pets mirror the same issues that plague humans: both physically and mentally, things just don’t work like they used to! Healing takes longer, normal activity levels decrease, and bones and organs experience “wear and tear.” An appropriate diet isn’t a cure-all, but it can have benefits.

That Senior Metabolism

According to Nathan Elam, Ph.D., a consulting nutritionist for Nutrition Service Associates and Inline Nutrition, most senior pets have a reduced metabolism and reduced physical activity. That means their caloric needs are reduced by 15 to 20 percent.

“This reduction of calories can be achieved through intake restrictions,” he says. “Intake recommendations are typically suggested for life stage and the healthy weight based on the nutrient density of the particular diet. Most senior foods are lower in energy density through ingredient changes that reduce the calorie contributors–protein, fat, and carbohydrates.”

Gut Health

As pets age, their gut function decreases. An appropriate diet contains ingredients that are easily digested and promote good gut health. If necessary, your veterinarian may recommend a dietary supplement that helps to establish and maintain “good” microbial populations in the lower gut.

“The good bugs help to inhibit the establishment and growth of the bad bugs, which helps reduce the risk for gastrointestinal related disorders, as well as improving digestion and the nutrient utilization of the food,” Elam says. “And because gut function decreases in senior pets, it is also a good idea to feed a food that has a small increase in fiber to help the process of waste elimination. However, be sure to monitor your pet’s elimination in the litter box or on the lawn because increased fiber typically increases both the amount and looseness of fecal matter.”

Joint Health

Senior diets may also address joint health. They may be supplemented with glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate to aid joint function and stability. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to let your pet put on the pounds. Maintaining a healthy weight is important for joint health and mobility.

The Enjoyment Factor

Older pets frequently have dental issues. If kibble is hard for them to bite down on, consider adding a nutritional broth or gravy or even just a little warm water. Alternatively, feed a combination of canned and dry food.

Similarly, take both digestibility and dental issues into account when choosing treats. Rawhide chews, for example, are high in protein (75 to 80 percent) and can be particularly tough to chew and swallow. Treats made from muscle protein sources such as heart and lung are nutritious and a much better option with regard to both chewing and digestion. As the senior pet population increases nationwide, such treats are growing in popularity and are readily available. Some brands even highlight on the packaging that they are a good choice for senior pets.

Senior pets can also benefit both mentally and physically from toys and games before mealtimes. They may have done so throughout their lives, but now play probably happens at a slower pace.

Mental Health

It’s not just humans who can have “senior moments.” Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a neurobehavioral disorder affecting geriatric pets as a result of age-related decline in cognitive abilities. Both foods and supplements that contain MCTs — medium-chain triglycerides, a common nutrient sourced from vegetable oils such as coconut oil — have been found to have a positive effect on a senior pet’s mental wellbeing.

Supplements

If your pet has recently had surgery or has been going through a rough patch, ask your veterinarian if dietary supplements can help.

“Supplementing essential nutrients not synthesized or stored in the body is never a bad idea,” Elam says. “Most foods are nutritionally fortified with these nutrients to provide a complete, balanced diet, but it never hurts to discuss additional supplementation. The body will utilize what is needed and simply eliminate the rest.” Beware of supplementing vitamins that are stored in the body; toxic levels can build up.

Do your homework about senior pet nutrition by looking at the various food options on offer from different pet food companies. This way you will be better informed when having a diet discussion with your veterinarian to best customize your pet’s individual needs.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet lifestyle journalist and author of For the Love of Cats, Fabulous Felines: Health and Beauty Secrets for the Pampered Cat, The Original Cat Bible, and Making the Most of All Nine Lives: The Extraordinary Life of Buffy The Cat.