As your pet ages, you may find that their eagerness to eat diminishes or if they develop an illness, you may be concerned if their diet is helping to manage the disease. However, deciding on the “best” diet for an older dog or cat can be a difficult decision; there is no one best diet for every older animal. The aging process depends on a variety of factors including breed, genetics, and health problems. Just because a food is marketed for older animals or because your pet reaches a certain age, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is time to switch to senior cat or dog food.
Although most pets are considered senior pets at age 7, not all pets will exhibit signs of aging like lower energy and the tendency to gain fat and lose muscle. Immune function and kidney function may also decline with age, although the degree to which this occurs will depend on the individual animal.
Although your pet may be considered an older pet, adjustment of his diet may or may not be necessary or even desirable in older animals. Many older dogs and cats can continue to eat a good quality commercial adult diet and do not need to be changed to a different diet, especially if they are still eating well and have no health problems.
Other aging dogs and cats, however, may benefit from a switch to a “senior” diet. It is important to understand that there is no legal definition for “senior” foods – diets marketed as senior diets need to follow the same legal guidelines as diets for adult pets. Some foods will meet the needs of an individual animal better than others.
Some of the nutrients that may need to be adjusted as a pet ages (but are not necessarily modified in individual senior diets) include the following:
- Protein: There is no evidence that a diet low in protein or high in protein is optimal for an aging pet. The subject is still quite controversial and unless your vet suggests otherwise, no adjustment to the amount of protein your pet gets is advised.
- Phosphorus: Lowering dietary phosphorus has been shown to be beneficial in pets with kidney disease, but it is not known whether low dietary phosphorus can reduce the risk of development of kidney disease. It is important to work with your veterinarian to determine how much phosphorus is recommended for your pet.
- Sodium: Sodium levels vary widely in senior diets. Restricting dietary sodium is unnecessary for the general population of older dogs and cats, but may be recommended if heart disease, high blood pressure, or kidney disease are present.
- Calories: Older pets may tend to gain weight as they age (although some lose weight) and calorie consumption may be a concern if either situation exists. Extra pounds around the middle can cause or worsen other diseases, such as diabetes or arthritis. The calories in commercial senior diets for dogs and cats vary widely so you should work with your veterinarian to carefully select the most appropriate diet for your senior pet to maintain his or her optimal body weight.
- Fiber: Increased fiber intake may be useful for dogs and cats that have certain intestinal issues, but high fiber foods are not right for all older animals. For example, many of the commercial high fiber diets would not be ideal for animals that have difficulty maintaining weight since these diets are typically low in calories. It is important to consult with your vet if your pet has difficulty maintaining weight.
- Supplemental vitamins and minerals: If you’re feeding your pet a good quality commercial food, supplementation is typically not unnecessary. While some supplements may be helpful if your pet has certain illnesses, it is important to note that supplements are regulated very differently from drugs and there may be concerns with safety, effectiveness and quality control. It is important to discuss any supplements you are considering for your pet with your vet because many have side effects and possible interactions with medications.
If your senior dog or cat is healthy, in good body condition, and eating a good quality nutritionally balanced diet, there is no reason to change foods. However, if your pet has developed arthritis, diabetes, cancer, dental problems, heart disease, or kidney disease, dietary adjustments may help improve symptoms or even slow progression of the disease.
There are many good quality commercial diets available today, and their variable nutrient content provides many choices for optimizing the health of your elderly dog and cat. We strongly encourage you to work with your pet’s vet to find the pet food that would be best for your dog or cat’s medical situation.