Choosing food for your senior dog

Helping your aging dog thrive

The advice about what to feed your dog can be conflicting, and much of the available information is fueled by company marketing. How do we know if our older dog should be on a specialized senior diet?

“There is no true reason to feed a senior diet to our aging dog unless there are noted problems, such as lean body wasting, arthritis or obesity,” says Joseph J. Wakshlag, Ph.D. '05, D.V.M. '98, professor of clinical nutrition and sports medicine and rehabilitation. “These conditions all require different approaches to nutrition — so there is no one-size-fits-all for senior dogs — making this something to discuss with your veterinarian. It can be complex.”

He continues, “Typically, we like to see slightly higher protein diets; however, many of the senior diets on the market are lower protein. We like to see more long chain omega-3 fatty acids using marine oils, but in the end, this increases fat, so we have to be careful of the fats we use.” 

Protein is a priority

Lean body mass comprises everything in your dog except fat.

“If the dog is losing lean body mass then a diet higher in protein may be necessary,” says Wakshlag. Protein is necessary to build and maintain muscles, and as dogs age, they often stop synthesizing as much protein on their own — increasing the need for it in their diet. Decreasing lean body mass is associated with increased risk of illness and death.

However, it is possible for both an overweight and an underweight dog to have the same lean body mass. The overweight dog may look healthier at first glance because the extra fat fills out their body, but both dogs are lacking muscle tissue. The easiest parts of the body to evaluate muscle mass and tone are the dog’s thighs and shoulders. Loss of muscle mass can be a normal part of aging, or can be indicative of an underlying disease such as cancer, heart disease or kidney disease.

Fatty acids

Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may be beneficial for dogs with arthritis or related mobility challenges, but high doses are necessary to see improvement.

If you want to ensure your dog gets enough EPA/DHA, you can use a 1,000 mg fish-oil supplement capsule, which usually has about 300 mg of EPA/DHA. The dosage is 1-2 capsules per 10 pounds of body weight, says Dr. John Loftus, assistant professor of small animal medicine.

For example, a 50-pound dog could receive 5-10 capsules a day to help with lameness due to arthritis.

Caloric needs

Most dogs become less active as they age, which means they have lower energy requirements. This makes them at a higher risk of developing obesity if they continue to be fed the same amount as during their prime.

Monitor your dog’s body condition and weigh them on a regular basis to be aware of any significant changes. It’s difficult to see slow weight gain on your own dog, which is why regular weighing can help. If your dog is still going for long hikes and is otherwise active every day, there is no need to decrease portions. But if your dog is spending more time lounging at home and starting to gain weight, then it is time to decrease portions or switch to a lower-calorie food.

Palatability counts

Your dog’s senses may diminish as they age too.

Scent plays a huge role in canine appetite, so if your dog can’t smell their food, then they may not want to eat. Your dog may start by turning down standard kibble but happily eat canned food (which is more palatable and has a stronger scent).

Appetite stimulants such as Entyce (capromorelin oral solution) can be used for dogs who are not eating. (But Entyce is only available with a prescription from your veterinarian).

Prescription diets

Prescription diets can be beneficial for specific needs.

Purina JM and Royal Canin Mobility both help dogs struggling with arthritis. Purina NeuroCare is an option for dogs experiencing canine cognitive disorder. Purina Bright Mind is an over-the-counter diet designed to support brain function.

You will need to talk with your veterinarian about these options to determine if they’re right for your dog.


Glucosamine and chondroitin help support your dog's joints, and other options include "avocado and soybean unsaponifiables" and curcumin. SAMe (S-adenosyl methionine) supports liver health, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can be beneficial for brain function.

When considering a supplement, choose your product carefully, as supplements for animals are not always well-regulated. Purchase products through your veterinarian or another reputable source to avoid any counterfeit products, which are more common online.

Products bearing a quality seal from the National Animal Supplement Council have undergone quality control procedures to ensure what’s on the label is in the jar. Other products from Nutramax, like Cosequin, have scientific studies supporting their efficacy.

What you should know

Loftus recommends:

  • Consider getting an individualized diet assessment
  • Remember that optimal nutrition for aging starts early
  • Diet recommendations should be customized to the dog

Fill out an online form to schedule a nutrition consultation with Loftus' team.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.