Dietary Considerations for Geriatric Dogs and Cats
As our companions age, our goal as guardians is to maximize their quality of life. We want the best for our pets; to see them live to a ripe, old age without undue suffering or pain. We can work to achieve this by managing their weight, optimizing their nutrition and regularly checking their blood work in to order to catch diseases in their early stages.
Defining a dog or cat as a ‘senior’ really depends on the animal. Many nutritional companies will use a particular age such as 7 or 8+ years to slot dogs into the geriatric category. The truth is that breed, size and health will all play important roles in aging. In general, large breed dogs have a shorter lifespan than small breed dogs. My rule is to always be proactive in the pursuit of health, regardless of age, thereby supporting the immune system and preventing disease. Senior dogs are at a greater risk for cataracts, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, renal & liver disease, bladder stones, diabetes, obesity and cancer. Below are some simple tips to consider when choosing a diet or supplements for your aging dog.
Studies show that senior cats and dogs have higher protein requirements than younger animals. Protein minimizes lean muscle tissue losses, boosts the immune system and supports the central nervous system. A diet that is low in protein will cause muscle breakdown within the body to meet protein requirements. This process stresses the kidneys and liver, increasing the risk of disease or inflammation. To avoid this, aim to meet or exceed protein requirements using protein sources which contain a high biologic value. Proteins of high biological value are efficiently used by the body, therefore causing less stress on the organ systems. Foods of high biological value include eggs, dairy, fish, meat (beef, lamb, chicken & turkey) and organ meats.
The key to aging well is to reduce sources or causes of inflammation within the body. Arthritis, pancreatitis, cancer and many other diseases are caused by low grade inflammation within the body tissues. Your pet’s diet can contribute to inflammation. To major considerations are fatty acids and night shade vegetables.
When fatty acids are broken down by the body they produce eicosanoids which perform hormone-like actions around the body. The eicosanoids from arachidonic and linoleic acid (omega 6 fatty acids) contribute to inflammation. When their levels are high they can compromise kidney and liver function. We can reduce the inflammatory effects of omega 6s by adding omega 3 fatty acids to the diet. The eicosanoids from omega 3’s have less of an inflammatory effect, as well as compete for cell receptor sites with omega 6s. EPA and DHA are best utilized by the canine body in the form of fish, krill or liver oils. EPA and DHA are also beneficial for geriatric dogs as they support brain function, skin health and the cardiovascular system.
Night shade vegetables should be avoided when feeding a senior dog or cat. Night shade vegetables include bell peppers, tomatoes, white potatoes and eggplant. Potatoes are a common night shade ingredient as they are an alternative carbohydrate source used in “grain free” diets. Nightshade vegetables contain solanine which is a glycoalkaloid. This chemical compound contributes to inflammation within the body and is best avoided.
Senior dogs and cats require approximately 20% less calories in their diet. This is typically the result of a slower paced lifestyle. When considering diet options, you have two choices to make; feed less of the high quality you are already feeding, or choose a commercial senior formula. Senior formulas will typically add glucosamine/chondroitin, reduce calories and depending on the company, increase or decrease protein levels. When deciding, look past the marketing and read the nutritional analyses as well as the ingredient lists. Many companies will advertise high glucosamine levels, however the amount your pet receives are typically much lower than therapeutic levels. Likewise, food companies may reduce the calories by increasing the amount of dietary fiber. Fiber, while an important dietary consideration, can compromise nutrient absorption as well as decrease palatability. Digestion, smell and taste are often compromised in senior pets which is why a geriatric diet should be highly palatable and digestible. For this reason, high fiber may not be the ideal solution for your pet. Instead, search for a diet that contains high levels of quality proteins, moderate levels of fiber and fat including EPA and DHA. Follow the instructions and reduce the portions as your pet needs. Remember that every animal is different and therefore portion control according to your pet.
Antioxidants & Supplements
Antioxidants remove free radicals from the body therefore protecting against cancer and disease. Antioxidants are best sourced from fresh, whole foods as such fruits and vegetables. It is for this reason that I ALWAYS recommend feeding a fresh food diet or supplementing a processed diet with fresh foods, whether they are fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs or canned fish. Processed foods may claim to contain antioxidants, however fresh foods contain a much higher potency.
Vitamin and mineral rich foods are full of antioxidants. Nutrients to look for include vitamin C, A and E and minerals selenium, manganese and zinc.
Antioxidants that are often available in pill form include:
Pycnogenol: a group compound found in the bark of pine trees that inhibits inflammation and enhances vitamin C activity.
Quercetin: a bioflavonoid found in red wine, grapefruit, apples and leafy green vegetables protects against free radical damage and stabilizes collagen.
Coenzyme Q10: protects the body during times of stress (particularly the cardiovascular system).
Glucosamine and chondroitin should be considered for senior cats and dogs. They nourish the articular cartilage and increase joint health. Glucosamine and chondroitin (often supplemented as glucosamine HCl, glucosamine sulfate and chrondroitin sulfate) are absorbed into the articular cartilage where they are made into GAGs and finally into proteoglycans. Proteoglycans help to heal articular cartilage and keep the joint lubricated. Glucosamine and chrondroitin are produced naturally in the body, however times of stress or damage (such as geriatrics) require supplementation to maintain cartilage health.
Supporting our pets while they age is our way of giving back. Pets are our friends, our protectors and our comfort. Helping them to age gracefully is a rewarding endeavour for all involved.