Jul 21, 2023

When to Switch to Senior Dog Food? Experts Say Age Isn't the Only Factor

Choosing a senior diet and deciding when to make the switch is a conversation best had with your vet.

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It seems there's always something new to learn about your beloved pooch, and that doesn't stop once she reaches her senior years and you're considering when (and if) to make the switch to senior dog food.

Senior dog foods aren't a marketing ploy, says Mary Gardner, DVM, veterinarian and co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice. They provide essential nutrition for aging dogs, with a few caveats: There's no one-diet-fits-all and when to make the switch isn't solely based on your dog's age. Here's what Gardner says to consider when considering a senior dog food diet.

Many senior diets contain fewer calories than other adult formulas, Gardner says. That's because dogs enjoying their golden years tend to take life a little easier. They burn fewer calories per day and their metabolism slows, too.

"Some senior diets contain additional fiber to support gastrointestinal health or to help with weight loss," she adds. "Other senior diets may contain slightly higher potassium and lower sodium and protein to help support a pet's aging kidneys."

Finally, senior diets might contain extra nutrients such as omega fatty acids to reduce inflammation, glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health, and antioxidants for their potential anti-aging properties.

As senior dogs age differently, a senior diet that benefits one pup may not benefit another. If your senior dog is overall healthy and eating a quality diet—that is, a diet for adult dogs meeting the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutritional recommendations—Gardner says they may not need to switch to a senior diet, regardless of their age.

For example, Gardner says if your senior dog's kidneys function normally, she may not need a low-protein diet. In fact, a low-protein diet could harm a senior pup with other age-related conditions. "No best senior diet exists for all senior pets, and not all senior pets will benefit from a senior diet," she says.

There's no one universal age at which dogs are considered seniors. Rather, veterinarians base senior status on life expectancy. Small breed dogs with expected lifespans well into their teens may reach senior when they're 10 or 11, whereas a giant pup may be senior as early as 6 years old.

The best approach to switching to a senior diet is to work with your veterinarian. They'll consider your dog's age and provide recommendations for the best diet based on signs of aging, such as a decrease in mobility, impaired cognitive ability, or loss of muscle mass. Or they may recommend sticking with the same adult diet.

AAFCO doesn't provide nutritional recommendations for senior diets. This means that beyond meeting the minimum nutritional needs for adult dogs, senior diets can vary drastically from bag to bag. Rather than sticking with the same brand you've always fed or choosing any senior diet off the shelf, Gardner says it's crucial to discuss your pet's needs with your veterinarian. Then examine the nutrient profile and ingredients in senior food recipes for a formula that's right for your pup.

As with any food transition, switching your dog from an adult formula to a senior one should be gradual. "This gives your pet's gut microbiome time to adapt and helps prevent vomiting and diarrhea that sometimes occur with sudden diet changes," she says.

To transition your pup to a senior diet (or any new food) follow Gardner's guide:

Day 1–4:Days 5–8: Days 9–12:Day 13 and on: