How to choose a diet for your senior pet

A common question I get, is how to choose a diet for my senior pet? There’s alot of emphasis placed on puppies and kittens to give them the best start to life, but the information for choosing a diet in your pet’s senior years is hard to find. It’s equally as important that we find a diet that is supportive of our pets natural ageing process and addresses some of the key nutritional factors in their diet to extend their life and keep them as comfortable for as long as possible. Pets are generally considered senior when they reach age seven, or in giant breeds age five. A pet is considered geriatric or ‘super senior’ beyond age eleven.

So how important is a senior diet, and what should we be looking for when choosing one?

What is a senior diet?

The senior lifestage doesn’t actually have a defined AAFCO nutrient profile; what this means is they haven’t been able to establish the specific nutritional requirements that senior pets need. The reason for this is mostly due to difficulties in accurate sampling and studies; how can we be sure the pet as part of the study didn’t pass from natural causes or from a poor diet? The other problem with senior pets is they can have issues accepting new foods or various disease states at play which can make it difficult to find good candidates for these studies to be conducted on. So, diets that are labelled as a senior diet will actually have an AAFCO statement that reads it is complete and balanced for adult maintenance – no mention of seniors. Does that mean a seniors diet is just an adult food? Not quite. What entails a seniors diet is really up to the manufacturer and their philosophy around nutrition, so when choosing a diet it’s important to actually research the company and what they consider a senior diet first, rather than the food formulation itself; some companies will base their senior formulations on science and any studies they have available to formulate a nutrient profile that will be supportive of age-related conditions, whereas other companies will base their formulations on taste and marketing so as always, do your research on the company and manufacturer. Recent research even suggested that most senior diets were no different to adult foods, with some even exceeding the phosphorus levels that were unsafe even for adult pets so it’s very important we look for science based senior foods, or tailor our selection to the pet’s individual needs.

So if there isn’t an AAFCO life stage for seniors, where does that leave us with Key Nutritional Factors?
Unfortunately, these factors will vary depending on your pet and their needs or situation so when choosing a senior diet, it’s important to consider their individual situation and if a senior diet is right for them.

Is a senior diet right for my pet?

I usually only recommend a senior diet if your pet is generally healthy and doesn’t already have an age related disease that might be better controlled with a therapeutic diet. Senior diets can be a good preventative measure to slow down the progression or development of disease that regularly affects seniors. It’s not a requirement to move to a senior diet once your pet turns seven, but it can be beneficial in slowing down the aging process and provide some supportive care if using a diet that is scientifically formulated to do so.

What should I look for in a senior diet?

Below is a guide on some of the things I look for when choosing a senior diet for my clients. This is by no means an exhaustive list but really a few pointers.

1. Company philosophy:
As mentioned above, I look at what the company’s nutrition philosophy is. It’s important that the company conducts scientific research or trials their diets in pets to ensure it is safe, and effective in supporting senior pet’s health. This also includes what companies consider a senior diet; do they believe senior pets need high, low or moderate protein levels? Do they add supplements for certain disease states? Do they consider palatability a priority? Can they support their claims with science? These are all questions you should be looking for the company’s opinion on.

2. Joint support:
Arthritis is a common condition affecting senior pets and given they are usually needing to take a supplement or medication, having an inbuilt supplement in the diet can help reduce some of the stress of medicating the pet. I look for diets that contain glucosamine HCl and chondroitin in effective doses (see below for the amounts to look for in your pet’s diet). If your diet doesn’t contain it, you may opt to using an additional supplement so it’s obviously not a must-have but it is helpful to reduce how many different medications you are giving your pet.

Key Nutritional Factors for Osteoarthritis in pets (Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, Chapter 34)

3. Cognitive support:
Omega 3 fatty acids have long since been shown to improve cognitive function in pets and humans. I think it’s vitally important this is included in a senior diet as cognitive decline (also known as doggy dementure) affects approximately 15% of all senior dogs and can affect the quality of life quite significantly. A diet that is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, or contains a specific balance of omega 3 & 6 fatty acids is ideal for cognitive health.

4. Highly digestible protein
Note how I don’t say low protein – not all senior pets will need a diet low in protein. Protein is metabolised by the kidneys, and if the diet is excessively high in protein this can place undue stress on the kidneys, which may already be experiencing some level of insufficiency due to age. It’s generally only necessary however, to feed a low protein diet when the pet is in the final stages of kidney disease as pets still need a reasonable level of protein to maintain body condition (which is important in ageing pets). So, for a seniors diet, when your pet is not currently diagnosed with kidney disease or suffering from a significant impairment of kidney function, I recommend clients look for a source of highly digestible protein such as by-product meal, named meat meals, hydrolysed protein or some other description that provides protein in a readily available form for the pet to digest – some companies may label this as L.I.P which means low indigestible proteins which means it is highly digestible and low in protein that cannot be broken down by the body. If your pet has kidney disease already diagnosed, you should transition to a renal-specific food rather than a seniors diet, as your pet will benefit more from a kidney diet.

5. Prebiotic fibre (or probiotics):
As pets age, their immunity is reduced and they can become more susceptible to infections. Your pet’s microbiome and gut is home to 70% of their immune system, so maintaining gut health during old age is very important. For this reason, I like senior diets to contain a source of prebiotic fibre to feed the good bacteria in their gut to support their immune system and overall health. Some ingredients that are used as a source of prebiotic fibre are beet pulp, chicory root, FOS, MOS and inulin.

Alternatively, a diet that contains probiotics can help but I personally find prebiotic fibre is better when it comes to overall health and providing more targeted and personalised support to the pet’s gut Check out my posts on prebiotic and probiotics here.

6. Palatability and variety:
Finally, it’s important to consider variety within the range you are looking at purchasing because as pets age, their taste and texture perception of food can be affected. They may also lose their appetite due to dental or kidney disease, pain or other health concerns. I look for foods that have a number of flavours, textures and preparations within their senior range, so if we need to rotate between different diets (kibble, wet, cooked, frozen etc) within the same brand or company, we have a number of choices and are less likely to need to introduce a different brand all together.

Do you have a senior pet? Are you feeding them a senior diet? Tell us your top non-negotiables for a senior diet below!

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