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When Does My Dog Need Senior Food?

When should I switch my adult dog to senior food and which senior food is the best? I’m especially concerned about the different protein levels in the two foods.
– SG

Dear SG,

We’ve all heard that dogs age seven years to our one year, so a two-year-old dog is like a 14-year-old kid, a seven-year-old dog is like a 49-year-old person, and a 15-year-old dog is like a 98-year-old person. But a better guideline for when to think about changing to a more age-appropriate diet might be that when a dog has reached half his normal life-span, he is considered “senior.” A small dog with a lifespan of 15 years might not be tagged “senior” until he is 7 or 8 years old. But a large or giant breed dog that is expected to live to 10 or so should be thought of as a senior when he is just 5 years of age.

What does “senior” mean? Owners of older dogs generally notice a decrease in activity, weight gain and the development of age-related physical and behavioral changes such as arthritis and senility. These changes happen because on the inside, metabolism has begun to slow down, food may not be digested and absorbed as efficiently, and other organs may not be functioning as well as they used to. The goal of changing from an adult maintenance food to a senior management food is to prolong both the length and quality of life as well as delay the onset of dysfunction and disease.

When choosing a senior food for your dog, look for a high-quality product with less energy (calories), less phosphorus and more fiber. These differences will help make up for changes in your dog’s aging body. There are two schools of thought on how much protein to feed seniors. One theory is that since older dogs are not as good at breaking down protein into amino acids and extracting these from the GI system, and because their bodies are using up protein at a faster rate, senior food should contain MORE protein than adult maintenance food. The other theory says just the opposite: because dogs are not as good at handling protein, don’t overwhelm their digestive tract and especially their kidneys with too high an amount. The important thing to remember is that the protein for senior dogs should be of high-quality. That means it should contain all the ten essential amino acids for dogs and should be a source that is easy for them to digest and absorb.

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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10 comments on “When Does My Dog Need Senior Food?
  1. Samantha says:

    I just switched my dog to a senior food a couple months ago. He is a medium size lab mix. I put him on purina one vibrant maturity. He seems to be doing well on it. He hasn’t had muscle spams since.

  2. Christine says:

    I have Labradors, and the seniors do not eat senior food. They eat regular adult food and add Glycoflex III and a fish oil tab to it. They are fine. I supplement with a beef bone, and that keeps their teeth nice. Coat is good. The 12 1/2 year old still does 3 hour pheasant hunts with my husband. The oldest dog ate the same ration as everyone else, until she succumbed to her age. Just because they are older does not mean they need a senior food.

  3. barbara colman says:

    my dog has a red with blackening belly rash not really itchy, but always licks paws
    i changed dog food but he had the rash before the change
    i am adding a dog enzyme to his food
    no results since using a week, a nurse said her dogs had the same thing changed to a lower protein dog food and it went away
    any ideas please help

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Barbara, thanks for your question! The first place I would recommend you start is by scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian. Unfortunately, there are numerous reasons why a dog might develop a rash, including environmental factors, food allergies and more. Your veterinarian is going to be essential in determining what is causing these signs in your dog, and once you know the reason, you’ll be much better able to tackle the problem! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  4. Everdeen says:

    I have a 13 year old female Teacup Yorkie. She’s right around 5lbs. I have her on Adult food for small breeds from Blue Buffalo and I’m wondering if it will be alright to make the switch to the Senior formula from the same brand. She isn’t as active as she was as a young adult dog, but I also worry that changing her food might bring on allergies. What is your advice?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Everdeen, thank you for asking! Considering your Yorkie’s age, it sounds like looking into senior dog good could make sense. Where every dog’s nutrition needs are unique, I would recommend having a conversation with your veterinarian before making any changes to your dog’s diet. Because generally protein sources are the culprit in uncommon food allergies, if the protein sources between the foods you’re considering are similar, there is unlikely a cause for concern. – Dr. Lydia Gray

  5. L. Smith says:

    I have a question about senior food, I have 2 senior Bostons 10 and 13 year old—also have a one year old Boston, I feed all three 1/2 can wet food each daily, I leave out a bowl of senior dry food (all three eat) at will– my question is if this ok for the one year old or does she need adult dry food….the can food is adult, I will add that I feed them Blue brand dry and can. they all like the food and eat well….thank you for you comments..

  6. Donna says:

    I now feed my 1 1/2 yr old black lab mix and my 7 yr old yellow lab the same Purina food. Both seem to be doing just fine.

  7. Shannon Thurgood says:

    I have a 12 yr old Siberian/Shepherd mix. She is losing weight. She eats a full bowl, probably a cup and a half of Nutrish by Rachel Ray mixed with about 1/4 cup of soft food. She never wants more. But she has started losing weight over the last year and her coat is dry. She had a Senior checkup at the vet and all was good including her blood work. She will still run and play when we get out. Any ideas on improving her weight and coat without hurting her kidneys?
    Thank you,
    Shannon

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Thanks for your question, Shannon. It sounds like you’re doing just the right thing by working closely with your veterinarian in your dog’s senior years. As dogs get older, it’s often a good idea to switch to more frequent wellness visits with your vet to help keep track of their health over time.

      There are many reasons that an older dog may start to lose weight, from their digestive system becoming less efficient, to quite a few other possible underlying conditions. In healthy senior dogs, providing digestive support may be beneficial to help maintain a normal weight, and omega 3s may generally be supportive of a healthy skin and coat. Senior dogs may also prefer to eat more frequent, smaller meals throughout the day. However, particularly when dealing with a change in health, the best thing to do will be to continue working with your veterinarian to determine the underlying cause. They’ll also be the best resource to verify what changes in your dog’s diet may be beneficial for her needs. For example, they may recommend a senior dog food with increased protein and fat, and a ration of minerals formulated specifically with older dogs in mind.

      – Dr. Lydia Gray

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