Healthy Diets for Senior Pets

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on April 01, 2018
3 min read

Maybe your dog’s nose fur has gone a little gray or your cat doesn’t seem quite so interested in everyday play. Whatever signs of age your pets might show, they still have plenty of great days ahead. You can help them feel their best with the right nutrition.

Ask your vet to help you figure out which food is right for your older pet. “If they’re doing really well, they may not need any change at all,” says Julie Churchill, DVM, PhD, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

Don’t expect to mark the day your pet officially becomes a senior on the calendar. There’s no specific age when cats and dogs hit this life stage.

“I tend to think of cats between the ages of 9-13 as senior and those 14 and older as geriatric,” said Angela Witzel, DVM, PhD. She is an assistant clinical professor of nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

Large dogs age faster and can be seniors as early as age 5 or 6. Smaller dogs typically live longer, so they might not reach that milestone until age 8 or 9. 

When your pet approaches his senior days, visit your vet for a thorough exam. She might do bloodwork and look for signs of diseases common in older pets.

A healthy weight is crucial, no matter how old your pet is, but it becomes especially important for senior animals. Heavier pets have higher odds of heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, some types of cancer, arthritis, and high blood pressure.

As they age, pets often put on weight as their metabolism slows down. That affects the kind of food they should eat. Older pets may need as much as two times the protein they did when they were younger because they start to lose lean mass, Churchill says. “I might pick a product that’s lower in calories and higher in protein to help spare the lean and trim the fat.”

Weight loss can also be a concern. “If your pet is losing weight unintentionally or you feel their bones are becoming more prominent, you should speak to your veterinarian,” Witzel says.

If your thin pet doesn’t have other health issues, you might switch to an easy-to-digest and calorie-dense diet that’s high in protein, Witzel says. Canned food might be a good choice.

You also might have to change how often you feed your dog or cat, based on their needs. If your pet is having trouble keeping on weight, you might try giving him smaller meals more often. Witzel says that can help his body absorb more nutrients from the food.

And don’t forget about water. Older pets may not feel the urge to drink as often, so you can add water to kibble or buy food that includes more moisture, like canned varieties, Churchill says.

When you shop for a different dog or cat food for your senior pet, keep a few basic guidelines in mind:

If your pet is overweight, look for a food that’s low in calories but high in protein. If you cut down on his usual portions, but don’t change the kind of food, he might not get the nutrition he needs.

Scan the label for the AAFCO statement. The Association of American Feed Control Officials has set standards for pet nutrition for puppies and kittens, pregnant or nursing animals, and adult pets. If you see “all life stages” on the package, it means the food is OK for pets in any of those categories.

You can often ignore the words “senior” and “mature” on the package. “There is no established AAFCO nutrient profile for what a senior product is. That’s a marketing term,” Churchill says.

Figure out your budget. You should be able to find a food that meets the nutritional needs of your senior pet for the price that’s right for you.

If you can’t afford the most expensive food, don’t feel guilty. “That’s a common misperception, that expensive is better. Some of the more economical foods can be really, really great quality,” Churchill says.