What Should You Feed Your Small Senior Dog?

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Before getting into what to feed your small senior dog, we should clarify what we mean by a small senior dog. Small dog breeds tend to be those that weigh no more than around 12-15kg as adults. Exactly when a dog is considered senior depends a little on their size. Small dogs, in general, live longer than their larger and giant canine counterparts. So while a Labrador, for example, might be considered senior at age seven, a small dog like a Jack Russell terrier probably wouldn’t be considered senior until nine to ten years of age.

If you want to know all about feeding small dogs in general and how they differ from larger breeds, you can read all about it here. In summary, small breeds:

  • Have faster metabolisms, so they need more calories per kilo of body weight.

  • Mature faster than large breeds, so they need a slightly different mineral balance.

  • Have smaller mouths, so they need smaller kibble.

  • May be more easily stressed than larger breeds, so they may benefit from a food with anxiety-lowering natural ingredients.

  • Live longer, so they benefit from extra antioxidants to help fight wear and tear and cell ageing.

Why do senior dogs need to be fed differently from adults?

As dogs age, just like us humans, things start to change. They gradually become less active, body systems may start to function less efficiently, and degenerative problems such as arthritis may begin, reducing their mobility. One of the reasons that dogs are living longer and longer nowadays is excellent nutrition, and switching to a senior food when the time is right will help keep all the optimum benefits of great nutrition going throughout your dog’s life. Senior dog foods tend to have these benefits for older dogs:

  • Reduced calories. Older dogs, because they are less active and may have mobility issues, tend to put on weight. Being overweight is never good, but with joint issues it’s even worse, so keeping your dog slim is really important. Senior foods will still help your dog feel full but with fewer calories. The opposite can also be true, however, as dental problems and other health issues can cause pain and a lack of motivation to eat. Also, with very advanced age, dogs tend to naturally start to lose muscle mass and therefore weight. It’s important to retain a healthy weight and muscle mass, so speak to your vet about advanced nutrition to support your senior dog.

  • Controlled protein and minerals. Older dogs are more prone to things like heart and kidney problems because organs may start to function less efficiently. Having controlled protein and mineral levels can help take some of the workload off these organs. The protein must be high-quality and highly digestible to help maintain muscle mass.

  • Increased antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids. Antioxidants help to combat cell wear and tear, while omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and have many other benefits. Increased levels of both can also help with signs of brain ageing and cognitive dysfunction.

So, what should you feed your small senior dog?

Before you think about switching your dog’s food, always speak to your vet first and remember to make any changes to diet gradually over five to seven days. This will avoid stomach upsets caused by a sudden change. 

You’ll want a food that meets the needs of both small and senior dogs. It also needs to be complete and balanced, meaning that it contains all the nutrients your dog needs in the right proportions. You can feed wet food, dry or a combination of the two, depending on your dog’s taste and your preferences. Older dogs may have diminished appetite, so you may find that feeding wet food helps stimulate their appetite. 

You might also want to consider raising the food and water bowls, either by placing them on a stair or a special stand. Think about non-slip flooring, especially where your dog will be eating, as slipping can be very painful for older dogs. These changes can help dogs with arthritis eat more comfortably. Smaller, more frequent meals may also suit some senior dogs.

The good news is that there are lots of foods formulated specifically for small senior dogs so you’ll have plenty of choice and a nice variety for your senior friend. Talk to your vet about which might suit your individual dog best so that you and your dog can enjoy as many of those golden years as possible.

Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA