One of the most important things you can do is to feed your senior dog a diet formulated for his age featuring nutritional breakthroughs developed by the geriatric research team at The IAMS™ Company. As the years take their toll, a complete, well-balanced diet can help older dogs maintain health and ideal body weight, maximize their ability to stay healthy, and promote and maintain muscle tone and digestive health.
How Old Is Old?
To call a dog "old," one mustn't consider chronological age, but rather physiological condition. Aging begins when the body's systems start to slow down when cells deteriorate faster than the body can repair them. Though the process is different for every animal (large and giant breeds tend to age faster than smaller breeds), dogs are generally considered seniors beginning at around 7 years (5 years for large and giant breeds). If you feed your dog a diet designed to address the nutritional needs of his age, you can best maintain your dog's overall health and well-being. As your dog ages, detecting and addressing signs of wear and tear or disease early might help your dog adjust more readily to his condition.
How your dog ages has much to do with genetics and environment, but nutrition plays an equally important role. The quality of the food and its ability to maintain and nourish your dog's cells can slow or delay the effects of aging and help promote a long, healthy life. As your dog ages and his systems become less efficient, he relies increasingly on the food you provide to make up for his body's shortfalls. According to Michael Hayek, PhD, a research nutritionist at The IAMS Company who specializes in geriatric nutrition, "Aging dogs need the same nutrients as younger dogs; however, the quantity or the way the nutrients are provided may change."
Dr. Hayek advises not waiting until you see signs of aging in your dog to consider the proper diet. Feeding a high-quality, premium diet throughout your dog's life is the best way to help him age gracefully. When your dog reaches the golden years, choose IAMS for nutrition suited to this stage of life. "Good nutrition starts early," says Dr. Hayek. "It should be viewed as proactive health care because it may be a deterrent to aging later on."
If your dog already exhibits signs of aging, look for a high-quality, balanced maintenance food that caters to his changing metabolism. When you're shopping for a formula that's right for your older dog, look for and compare these important features:
High-quality animal protein. Just like us, as dogs grow older, they naturally tend to lose lean body mass (muscle). High-quality protein becomes increasingly significant by providing the essential amino acids your dog needs to minimize the loss of lean body tissue. By nature, dogs are carnivores, and they do best on high-quality, animal-based proteins from sources such as chicken or lamb. Some people believe that aging dogs should be fed less protein to prevent or minimize kidney disease. However, the evidence is just not there. Reduced protein has a significant effect only after a certain level of renal dysfunction occurs. Signs of renal dysfunction include an increase in water consumption and increased urination. If you're concerned about your dog's renal health, your veterinarian can run tests to assess the level of renal function and recommend appropriate treatments if they are needed.
"If your dog is generally in a state of good health," explains Dr. Hayek, "protein should not be restricted. Rather, it should be available for building those all-important muscle reserves." Some studies have shown that a diet of high-quality protein might actually help improve kidney function, and no research has indicated that low-protein diets slow the progression of renal damage in dogs.
Lower fat. Less-active, older dogs need fewer calories. Look for a food that's low in fat compared to our other adult formulas, but don't eliminate fat completely or feed a food that doesn't have enough fat. Pick a formula with at least 10% fat. Older dogs still need essential fatty acids. The inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids helps a senior dog maintain a proper fatty-acid balance as the body's fatty-acid synthesis naturally decreases.
Moderately fermentable fiber. The goal of fiber is to help maintain optimal intestinal health. "You want to aim for consistent stools," explains Dr. Hayek. The goal is to promote digestibility and the ability to process food and absorb nutrients. At the same time, fiber levels should promote and maintain a healthy intestinal tract, which often can be problematic for older dogs. A fiber level of no more than 5% is appropriate for seniors to maintain an optimal intestinal environment for a healthy gut, which helps result in excellent nutrient absorption and small, firm stools. IAMS includes dried beet pulp, a patented fiber source, in all of its foods to make elimination easier and regular. According to Dr. Hayek, if you've been feeding your dog properly all along, fiber requirements shouldn't change.
Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) are a unique fiber source. FOS is a moderately fermentable fiber which can help maintain a healthy intestinal environment.
Antioxidants. These help maintain balance within the body by ridding it of harmful compounds called free radicals, which increase as a dog ages. Antioxidants fend off free radicals and help protect cell membranes and DNA. To maintain your older dog's immune-system response, feed a formula with important antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin E and beta-carotene.
Vitamins and minerals. A high-quality, nutritionally balanced dog food should include all of the essential nutrients in the proper proportions. Some say that vitamin and mineral supplements are necessary as a dog's systems age. The fact is that, unless your veterinarian specifically identifies a deficiency, vitamin and mineral supplements are unnecessary and, in some cases, might do more harm than good by creating an unhealthy imbalance.
The Golden Years
Balanced feeding is vital as a dog ages, but it's just as essential throughout his life. The longer and more consistently you feed him a healthy diet for his life stage, such as IAMS ProActive Health™ Senior Plus, the greater his chances of living a long, healthy life. As your dog reaches the senior years for his breed or size, remember these tips:
- Minimize stress and change. Avoid big moves or changes in your dog's schedule. If you must disturb a routine, give him some added attention to ease the adjustment.
- Provide regular exercise. Two 15-minute walks each day will help maintain muscle tone, enhance circulation, promote digestion, and prevent weight gain.
- Feed smaller, more frequent meals. Instead of one large portion a day, try two or three smaller meals, which will also help increase your dog's metabolism, burn calories, and provide all of the needed nourishment.
- Schedule routine veterinary checkups and immunizations. Regular dental care and thorough physicals will help you identify subtle changes in your dog's health. At home, take a few minutes each month to closely examine your dog for odd-shaped bumps or lumps. If you discover something unusual on the body, and it seems to be growing rapidly, call your veterinarian. Early detection and preventive treatment can go a long way toward extending life expectancy.
- Buy palatable, high-quality premium pet food. As your dog ages, he might become less interested in eating. Offer palatable, nutrient-dense food to encourage productive, efficient digestion and to maintain essential bodily functions.
Finally, Dr. Hayek points out that there's still much to learn about canine geriatric nutrition. For now, realize that every animal ages at a different rate and in different ways. Monitor your dog and especially watch for changes after 7 years of age (5 years for large and giant breeds). With the help of your veterinarian and responsible pet food manufacturers, your pet can live to a comfortable, healthy old age.
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Keeping Your Senior Dog Healthy and Active
It depends on the breed of dog, but your pet's senior years generally begin at age 7. Louise Murray, DVM, director of the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City and author of Vet Confidential (Ballantine, 2008), tells you what you need to know to keep your older dog spry and happy.
Senior Dog Health: Preventive Health
At this stage, Murray recommends taking your dog to the vet twice a year. "So much can happen to an elderly dog," she says. Your veterinarian can take blood annually to test liver and kidney functions. "Discovering problems early is extremely important," she says. Your vet can be on the lookout for conditions that often affect older dogs, such as anemia and arthritis.
Senior Dog Health: Urination, Bowel Movements, and Appetite
Pay attention to what might be subtle changes in your dog's habits: Is she drinking more water or urinating larger amounts? These behaviors might indicate a liver or kidney problem. Have your dog's bowel movements shifted? This could indicate a digestive issue. Diabetes or digestive problems might cause your dog to eat more but still lose weight. Knowing the dog's patterns can help the veterinarian determine a course of treatment.
Senior Dog Health: Flea, Tick, and Heartworm Medicines
Continue to use preventive medicines.
Senior Dog Health: Dental Health
Clean your dog's teeth daily. If she has tartar buildup, you might need to have her teeth professionally cleaned at your vet's office, which requires sedating your pet.
Senior Dog Health: Exercise
Your dog is probably less active, so steady, moderate exercise is best for her now. Don't turn her into a "weekend warrior" who, after lying around on weekdays, accompanies you on a 10-mile hike on Saturdays. This is especially hard on an older dog's joints.
Senior Dog Health: Diet
Your veterinarian might wish to put your dog on a senior diet, such as IAMS™ ProActive Health™ Senior Plus. These formulations contain nutrients specifically geared toward older-dog health.
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