Sparky, he's the dog that started my addiction to agility and dog sports. He's the one that learned how to play flyball when he didn't even think balls were all that cool. He's my 13 year old Rat Terrier that moved with me from New Mexico, survived grad school, taught me how to train, saw me through a divorce, new career and a new marriage...he is my best friend. I am faced everyday with the fact that he's getting older and he's definitely now considered a "senior" dog, something I know many of you reading this also face daily.
This week I've been putting the final touches on an invited manuscript summarizing a symposia I chaired in July at a National conference. The symposia was about managing geriatric animals. I thought it was a good topic and one that many people often ask me about. What should I feed my senior animal?
The aging process can impact diet palatability and intake from physical changes that alter animal's senses, particularly taste and smell. In addition, as animals reach geriatric age, physiological changes occur that can alter nutrient requirements. Typically, energy requirements decrease; however, essential fatty acid and protein requirements often increase. This, coupled with reductions in digestive efficiency, result in seniors requiring bioavailable and digestible diets based with very high quality ingredients.
There are as many opinions about feeding seniors as there are diets. Some say feed more protein, some say less, some say more fat, some say less fat. As with humans, you must feed the animal and look at them each as individuals. Not all seniors should be treated the same. I suggest bloodwork annually to monitor kidney and liver function in senior animals. This can really help catch conditions early enough that specialized diets can truly support before needing prescription medications. If seniors are in great condition and there are no indications of health concerns, I am certainly not going to reduce or change the diet. The only thing I will do is add a digestive enzyme such as Prozyme or Prozyme Plus.
One of the other nutrients that I've spoken about extensively is water. Add water to all kibble! I'm even struggling at the zoo with the amount of water that is included (or not) in feeds we typically feed exotics. Take for example, herbivores such as giraffe, zebra, antelope, horses, and cows (only because I've mentioned this very issue in carnivores and I'm hopefully driving home a point). "Wild" diets consist of fresh plant materials that are 70% or more water. We have for decades focused animal husbandry on concentrating those nutrients into dried forages such as hay and dried pelleted grains and rations. I can almost with 100% certainty offer "browse" or fresh plant material to a sick or geriatric herbivore and have them eat. It certainly makes me wonder why we'd consider feeding and managing our animals on "dry" diets when so much of their natural diet contains much larger concentrations of water. So the bottomline here is that if you are using kibble diets, add water to them. If you are worried about dental health then provide abrasives such as bones to chew on and brush teeth. I have toy dogs that notoriously have crappy teeth so I feel I can have an opinion about this. I will tell you that feeding kibble did not change their teeth but brushing and bones did.
In conclusion, I feel that seniors need a high quality, very digestible food until biological markers indicate a concern that needs addressed nutritionally. In addition to the added water, Sparky also is supplemented with fish oil, Prozyme Plus and Dasuquin.