Bone Appetit for Older Dogs

By Rick and Paula Gardner

The pup days of endlessly chasing balls and squirrels are long past. These days, when you move toward the kitchen, your graying canine companion looks to you expectantly between the little siestas on the couch as if to say, “So, what’s for dinner?”

If he could talk, he might say, “I’ll have what you’re having!” or “I’ll have the usual (same stuff I’ve been eating for seven years).”

But is this what you should be feeding your older dog?

“Every geriatric pet is different and unique,” says Dr. Stefanie Batts, DVM and Medical Director of VCA Apex in Apex, North Carolina. “The best food for your older dog is a recommendation based on a regular physical exam, blood work, and the pet and owner’s needs.” In general, a highly-digestible, high protein, nutrient-rich kibble made especially for older dogs is in order.

Dr. Korinn Saker, Associate Professor of Nutrition and Director of the Clinical Nutrition program at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine asserts it all has to do with what the dog is telling us. Changes are not usually dramatic, so careful observation is in order. “Older dogs need a nutritionally balanced and complete diet. Owners must take into consideration the physiological aspects such as a decline renal, liver, dental, joint and/or heart function; digestive enzymes not being as robust; and a slowing of metabolism.”

A regular veterinary checkup can assess any needed interventions. Some dogs age in a healthy manner while others develop cancer, disease or other debilitating problems. Many age-related problems, if identified early, can be mitigated by simple changes to diet and exercise.

Batts and Saker offer the following considerations for the owners of older dogs:

  • Use a measuring cup to control how much your dog is eating. If your dog is overweight, decrease the amount you are feeding. An overweight dog surely will have joint issues.

  • Portion control of treats and the type of treat need to be adjusted for size and weight. Consider splitting or quartering the treat/bone. Snacks and treats should not exceed more than 10% of the dog’s daily diet.
  • Pieces of plain, cooked chicken with no bones, cheese, and peanut butter are OK in moderation for administering medication.
  • Diets high in fish help decrease inflammation and mobility as well as provide a better quality of life. Ask your vet if omega-3 and/or glucosamine supplements can help as well.
  • Try fresh produce safe for dogs– carrots, green beans, broccoli– or ice cubes as healthy snack alternatives.
  • The problem with making your own food versus buying commercially prepared food is that there may be too much calcium or phosphorus in home cooking. This can be just as bad for a dog as fast food which is loaded with sodium. An older dog’s diet needs to be balanced. Vegetables and vital minor nutrients are essential. Talk to your vet if home cooking is important to you so that you can supplement appropriately.
  • Avoid chocolate, grapes, garlic, bacon, and chicken skin as well as anything fatty, greasy or spicy. All of these are unhealthy or dangerous for all canines.
  • Encourage exercise as this helps your dog maintain weight and overall muscle tone. Allow the older dog to walk on grass instead of pavement.
  • Make sure your dog gets plenty of water as it prevents constipation triggered by a slowing metabolism.
  • Older dogs sometime have bad dentition (teeth). They may have hard time chewing and need soft food. One sign may be food falling out the side of their mouth while eating. Consider moistening dry food with water or no-salt broth.
  • If your dog likes to graze on grass, do not be concerned that she has stomach problems– some dogs just like grass. Be careful to avoid any grass that has just been treated with fertilizers or weed control. Consider using pet-safe products on your lawn, or only treat half of the pet’s play area at a time so there is always “safe grass” to play and graze on.

A final consideration is to make any dietary changes slowly. Just as in humans, dogs can develop gas and other intestinal side effects from a sudden diet change. Batts tells the story of one of her clients who feeds her dog broccoli as a regular snack. The client said, “Oh my gosh! My dog will let one go and it will run me out of the room!” So remember to take things gradually, regardless of the dog’s enthusiasm for new diet or snack options.

With your help and attention to changing nutritional needs over his lifetime, your beloved dog can have many happy older dog days. Carrot or green bean, anyone?

Rick and Paula Gardner support great dog-friendly causes at, check them out!

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