Age is not a disease—certain changes are natural and expected. Aging pets often experience a variety of degenerative changes within their body systems; many of which can be improved or addressed through proper nutrition and dietary supplementation. Some of the most common aging changes are discussed here.
Basic nutritional needs of senior pets
Older pets have a reduced ability to digest and absorb nutrients due to changes in metabolism and intestinal function. Changes in dietary levels of protein, fat, carbohydrate, fiber, vitamins and minerals are often required to meet their needs. As in all life stages, the best "senior" diet is a meat-based natural food with high-quality whole meat, whole grain and vegetable ingredients and does not contain by-products, artificial flavorings, sweeteners, dyes, or synthetic preservatives as these ingredients are more commonly associated with adverse reactions.
It is important that you don't skimp on an older pet's protein intake (unless they are affected by kidney or liver failure), as older pets require protein to help combat muscle loss that occurs as they age. Unfortunately, many senior foods are formulated with lower protein levels and may contribute to loss of lean body mass in older pets.
Pet owners must also address that metabolism and activity levels decline with age and create a decreased need for calories. Older pets usually require 30-40% less calories than younger pets of the same breed and size. Weight gain is a common problem of aging pets—in fact, obesity is most prevalent in pets over 7 years of age because they are often over-fed. Ask your veterinarian if you need help determining your pet's calorie needs each day.
In the course of natural aging, there are many things (other than old age) that may cause a pet to slow down and your older pet should be evaluated by your veterinarian at least twice each year to identify more serious conditions. The most common aging complaints of owners include digestive and mobility issues, increased incidence of disease and infections and lethargy or other behavioral changes.
Although many digestive issues occur in older pets, decreased appetite and constipation are common complaints. Pets with dehydration, anal gland problems, arthritis, or conditions that cause pain during defecation frequently experience constipation. Constipated pets often benefit from a lower fat and higher fiber diet as well as increased water intake. Feeding canned food and offering unique watering devices can help increase water intake. The supplementation of prebiotics and probiotics may help aging pets with their digestive function and B vitamins often help improve appetite.
Arthritis is very common in aging pets and varies tremendously in severity. In addition to keeping excess weight off and providing gentle forms of exercise (e.g. swimming), supplements such as glucosamine, green lipped mussel extract and Omega 3 fatty acids can help keep the pain of arthritis under control. See Helping Arthritic Pets Through Diet for more information.
Pets have a decreased ability to fight off infections and disease as they age and older pets are more likely to experience serious infections (bladder or kidney infections, upper respiratory infections or pneumonia, etc.) and to develop cancer. Antioxidant supplements and certain vitamins can help support your pet's immune function. It is important to keep your older pet away from any animal exhibiting outward signs of illness or infection and talk to your veterinarian about the safety of vaccinations for your older pet.
Older pets often have decreased activity levels and varying degrees of senility. Senility is commonly called "cognitive dysfunction" and is related to degenerating brain and nerve cells in aging pets. It is estimated that 60% of pets 10 years and older experience some form of cognitive dysfunction. Antioxidant supplements, certain prescription medications (e.g. anipryl, etc.) and even acupuncture and other alternative therapies are often used to support brain function in aging pets.
Commonly recommended supplements for aging pets:
Many older pets on dietary supplements experience improved appearance of the skin and coat, improved appetite, improvements in muscle strength and mobility, and increased activity levels. While nothing can turn back the hands of time, certain nutritional considerations can make your pet's "Golden Years" shine—ask your veterinarian about dietary supplements that might be right for your pet.