One of the greatest gifts of pet ownership is the privilege of watching your 4-legged pal enter their senior years. As your beloved friend ages, their nutritional needs will change as well, necessitating adjustment in both the amount and the formulation of their diet.
With aging comes lower energy requirements. It is just a fact – the body is no longer investing its energy in building. Instead, its focus is on repair and repair does not require the same number of calories as active growth. Even if your pet is as active, energetic or youthful as they have always been, they simply don’t need as many calories to fuel their system. Excess calories are deposited as fat; that is why there is a tendency to gain fat and lose muscle as the body ages. While much of this is natural, an optimal senior diet can mitigate this muscle loss and fat acquisition. We need to be smart about our calorie sources and ensure that the sources your pet consumes are high quality and appropriately balanced.
In addition to decreased caloric requirements, kidney and immune system function also decline with advancing age. For years, nutritional thinking has centered on decreasing dietary protein as a means to lessen the load on aging kidneys. While this seems to make sense in theory, in reality, an animal eating a protein-restricted diet will end up breaking down its own muscle for energy. This leads to muscle wasting, decreased strength and stamina, and decreased body condition. Therefore, an optimal senior diet should focus on supplying high-quality animal-source protein to help maintain lean muscle mass. Some animals, such as those with advanced kidney failure or liver disease, do require dietary protein restriction, so a conversation with your veterinarian about your pet’s unique nutritional needs is always in order.
In addition to lower-calorie and optimal protein levels, a senior diet also needs to offer healthy fats as a source of energy, as well as key elements for support and repair. Antioxidants and omega fatty acids help the body continue self-repair and provide excellent natural anti-inflammatory benefits. L-carnitine helps the body use fat for energy, instead of depositing it for reserves. Glucosamine and chondroitin are nutraceuticals that help improve joint fluid, which lubricates creaky joints (like WD-40 for arthritic hips).
Changes in digestion also occur with age. You may notice some of your pets’ senses like sight and hearing attenuate with age. Taste and smell are no different. Add that to wearing or altogether loss of teeth and you may find an animal who has difficulty chewing and swallowing as well. Enhancing the palatability of their diet with the addition of more aromatic ingredients and textures (like pouch or canned food diets) can improve their olfactory experience and provide a softer mouthful for them to chew. Additionally, pouch and canned food diets have a higher moisture content than kibble; hydration is key in supporting kidney and organ health. Ensuring sufficient water consumption can also help mitigate intermittent constipation that many older animals experience. Dietary fiber, as well as the addition of pre- and probiotics, are also important in keeping the GI tract moving.
Age IS just a number, but there are anticipated changes in the body’s metabolism and function as an animal grows older. Feeding a diet that matches these changes is your best defense to help your sweet friend to continue to live her best life.