diet for optimal health

Good health and quality of life ensure your dog’s golden years are the best they can be. In the second part of this article, we look at the crucial roles played by diet, supplements and exercise.

Our dogs are living longer than they used to. What steps can we take to keep them happy and healthy through their senior years? In Part 1 of this article (AW V18I4), we looked at pain management, making changes at home to ensure your dog’s safety and comfort, and avoiding over-vaccination. Now we’re going to focus on the importance of diet, supplements and exercise.

Dietary changes

Make protein more bio-available

Geriatric-conscious nutrition is key to keeping old dogs young. The older dog’s ability to digest protein and synthesize vitamins from food is decreased, and his intestinal absorption can also be impaired, which means normal food rations are not being utilized for their necessary nutrients. The net effect is a loss of weight and muscle. Therefore, keeping the geriatric dog eating and adjusting for his deficiencies is important. The diet he has eaten and thrived on up until now may no longer be viable.

There are some important nutritional facts we need to know as our dogs age. Proteins need to be digestible and easily absorbed from the digestive tract, which means feeding smaller meals and cooking meat beforehand may make the protein more accessible. Many premium food brands have a nice base mix to which you can add a proper amount of fresh cooked protein. If you are feeding packaged foods, stick to the highest quality products possible, and ensure they’re made with named whole meats.

Give him antioxidant-rich foods

As we and our dogs age, our tissues start to oxidize; you can think of it as “rusting”. Antioxidants counteract the damaging effects of tissue oxidation, and are present in many foods, primarily the colorful pigments of vegetables and fruits. The brighter the color, the higher the antioxidant value of the vegetable or fruit.

Adding fresh colorful fruits and veggies to your dog’s food on a daily basis gives him lots of antioxidants. Sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, beets, blueberries, carrots, green beans, and more can enhance the antioxidant quality of each meal you feed your dog. Keep in mind, however, that some dogs, especially geriatric pets, may not be able to digest raw vegetables, so slight steaming or blanching, along with finely chopping or pureeing, is advised. One tablespoon of fresh, chopped, colorful veggies and fruit in each meal is advisable.

Two key supplements for seniors

1. Probiotics are all the rage, and for good reason. Amazing studies have been done on the human gut biome, with some researchers concluding that it can be considered a second brain. The same probably holds true for dogs, though we don’t have the same research as we do for humans.

Intestinal flora (bacteria) is vital to digestion and the absorption of vitamins such as B12. Some guidelines to follow are to always use a probiotic during the entirety of an antibiotic regime, and for an additional seven days afterwards. However, day-to-day administration of probiotics is also a good thing to do. There are many probiotic sources on the market and rotation of products is a good idea. Buy a quality product, and place it in the refrigerator after opening as the bacteria are very heat sensitive.

2. Fatty acids are important for aging dogs because they provide a source of anti-inflammatory agents. There are three main types of fatty acid — Omega 3, Omega 6 and Omega 9. Omegas 3 and 6 are essential fatty acids and mammals must ingest them for health because the body is not able to make them and can only derive them from food. Omega 6 can contribute to inflammation in the body, and is abundantly present in almost all food sources. 

Omega 3s are the anti-inflammatory fatty acids and these are the ones we want to boost in the diet. The ratio of Omega 6 to 3 is very important. In the average American diet, the ratio is 30:1 — the ideal ratio should be ≥10:1. The good fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA) is the fatty acid derived from plant/nut sources (e.g. flaxseed, chia seeds, vegetable oils). ALA must first be converted by the body into EPA before it can be utilized. Unfortunately, dogs have very few of the enzymes necessary for the conversion process, so only 5% to 15% of the ALA they ingest is turned into a usable form.

Marine sources supply the best EPA and DHA. Vegetarian fish such as sardines and anchovies have the highest levels of Omega 3s.

Adding fatty acids to the daily ration of all dogs, young and old, is advisable. The older the dog, the more important the role fatty acids play. Studies have shown that in geriatric humans, increases in dietary fatty acids improved dementia and mental capacity. A basic recommended dose for all dogs is 675 mg of EPA and DHA per 50 pounds. The older the dog, the higher the dose. In the clinic, when dealing with patients with cancer and inflammatory conditions, we will slowly increase the dose to three times the normal to provide the anti-inflammatory effects of the fatty acid. Recent research in human and animal fields has shown that fatty acids have also improved cardiovascular health, gingival disease, and macular degeneration.

Read product labels, as not all fatty acids are the same. The front of the bottle may say 1,500 mg of fish oil, but the back may reveal that that the product contains only 200 to 300 mg total EPA and DHA. Also check the dosage size. The 200 to 300 mg total EPA and DHA might be found in one capsule, but depending on the “serving size” listed on the bottle, that dose might be divided between two or more capsules.

In conclusion, remember that “old” is not a diagnosis. Give more thought to the changing dietary needs of your senior canine and consider adding the necessary supplements to help maintain health. Make every day a physical therapy day to keep him fit and strong. Love your dog every day and give them quality of life!