You asked, we answered! We’re continuing our #VirbacVetTalk aging pet series with different topics each month.

During today’s Q&A, learn more about best nutrition practices for your aging pet with Dr. Nancy Bathurst, VMD, PMP, Director of Clinical Development for Virbac Corporation.

1. Does my senior pet have special nutritional needs as they age?

Yes, dogs have different nutritional needs at each stage of their lives. Generally, the life stages of dogs are divided into puppy (growth), adult (maintenance) and older dogs (senior). A dog is often considered a senior after the age of 6 or 7, but the aging process varies and each individual dog ages differently. It is important to have your dog visit the veterinarian at least twice a year including a full health screen that contains a nutritional assessment. Early detection of age-related changes in the health status of your dog will allow you and your veterinarian to proactively manage the nutritional needs of your dog and may prevent or slow the progress of those changes or diseases. 

2. Is it normal for my senior pet to lose body mass even though they eat the same amount?

Weight loss in aging pets can occur in the absence of disease (this is called sarcopenia). Weight loss can also occur when there is disease present such as kidney disease, heart disease or cancer (this is called cachexia). It is important to consult your veterinarian if you notice your pet is losing weight. The reason for weight loss should be determined when possible, and a plan to manage the disease and/or the weight loss should be established. When the weight loss occurs without disease, this is due to a decreased ability to absorb nutrients, an increased loss of muscle cells and a decreased capacity to regenerate muscle cell, all associated with the aging process. It is important to provide balanced nutrition in foods that are easy to digest for your aging pet. Senior pets require a diet that provides sufficient protein, omega fatty acids, and anti-oxidants (such as vitamin E). 

3. My senior pet is recovering from an illness or surgery. What nutritional needs are imperative for their recovery during this stage?

The first step to recovery is to get nutrients into your pet. Many pets will not eat after surgery or while recovering from disease due to pain or discomfort. Some important considerations when trying to get your pet to eat include: eliminating or reducing pain, providing food that is easy to eat and digest (example: a liquid or pulverized diet for a pet that has had dental surgery), and potentially stimulating the appetite with medication or the appropriate food. Patience and persistence are required. You may need to identify the correct food or feeding regimen through trial-and-error, and it may require a good bit of coaxing. After your pet begins to eat again, it is important to slowly transition them back onto a diet that is suitable for their age and condition. Consult your veterinarian for recommendations on the best diet for your dog.

4. My aging pet seems to be gaining weight the older they get. How can I be sure to keep it at a healthy weight?

As your pet ages, their metabolism changes and they tend to become more sedentary. Both of these factors contribute to increased fat deposition. A protein rich diet that is low in fat will support healthy weight at any age, but it is critical in overweight senior pets. Obesity in senior pets is directly linked to the development and progression of arthritis and other diseases. Your veterinarian can help you calculate the energy needs of your pet and match this to the appropriate amount and type of food that you should feed.

5. As my pet ages, I'm considering adding supplements to his/her diet. What supplements are best for senior pets?

The nutritional needs of older pets include the same vitamins and minerals required in other life stages, just in different quantities or forms. It is generally accepted that it’s best to feed a complete diet containing vitamins and minerals at the optimum level, and there are many commercial diets formulated to meet the needs of senior pets. It is important to note that senior pets do not always need more nutrients, in fact excessive supplementation or feeding of certain minerals and nutrients can lead to problems. One example is the senior pet with kidney disease. This pet will need to have phosphorous restriction, otherwise they will accumulate excess phosphorous that the diseased kidneys cannot process. In addition to providing nutritional advice, your veterinarian can draw blood and have it analyzed to assess if your pet’s mineral levels are normal.  

6. Possible bonus question: There are so many "senior diet" pet food options in the market. How do I know what to choose for my pet?

I have said this several times throughout this blog, and it is worth mentioning again, your veterinarian is your best resource for nutritional advice. You are your pet’s best advocate and a strong partnership between you and your veterinarian will result in a nutritional program for your pet that not only keeps them healthy, but has the potential to help manage age-related health changes. 

The American Association of Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) has established guidelines for the manufacturers of pet food to follow when they make pet food. The list and quantity of nutrients in a pet food is called a Guaranteed Analysis. The AAFCO guidelines have established what the Guaranteed Analysis should look like for puppies and adult dogs, but not for senior pets. Therefore, pet foods that meet the standard for adult pets are considered to be sufficient for senior pets. This is not always the case due to individual needs and preferences, so it is important to carefully read the product labels and consult your veterinarian.