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Important Facts About Weight Management in Senior Dogs

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

Is your dog's weight affecting his health?

Is your dog's weight affecting his health?

While you might think your dog putting on a few extra pounds or sleeping more are symptoms of growing older, these indicators could also be a warning sign of a serious health concern. In fact, some senior dogs lose weight or have poor appetites, which might be due to aging but could also be a symptom of a hidden medical condition.

Dr. Cathy Alinovi, owner of Healthy PAWsibilities and pet parent, answers 15 questions on the importance of weight monitoring and management in senior dogs.

1. At what age do you consider a dog to be a "senior"?

Just as humans are considered seniors at 65 years old, dogs are thought to be seniors at 9.5 years old. Some humans look fabulous at 70 and neither look nor act their ages, and some 12-year-old dogs are the same. However, as a group, dogs over 9 1/2 are senior citizens.

Being overweight makes your dog feel sluggish so he doesn't exercise as much. Lack of exercise causes more weight gain, a vicious cycle.

Being overweight makes your dog feel sluggish so he doesn't exercise as much. Lack of exercise causes more weight gain, a vicious cycle.

2. What are some common metabolic changes exhibited by aging dogs?

It depends on your perspective. Most dog owners expect their dogs to slow down as they age; however, this is often a sign of a problem. With slowing down comes the need for fewer calories, but most dogs continue to eat what they always have, so they begin to gain weight.

Other issues that come with aging are weaker immune systems, more frequent bladder infections, failing kidneys, and weakening organ systems. Many of these changes lead to symptoms of low thyroid function (hypothyroidism), but this may not be true thyroid disease.

3. How can owners distinguish between loss of appetite and being a picky eater?

If your dog has always been a good eater, he or she will be a good eater until the end of time; not eating well is definitely a sign of a problem in these dogs.

On the other hand, if your dog is always fussy about food, he or she will continue to be picky. Appetite is hard to evaluate in these picky eaters.

4. When should owners schedule a geriatric wellness exam?

Wellness exams should be done every six months because six months for a dog is equivalent to a checkup every three years for an adult. Can you imagine your 85-year-old grandma only going to the doctor every three years? Health checks should be done more frequently in the older years as a lot can change in six months' time.

5. How much weight loss is a warning sign?

This is measured by percent of body weight. Losing one pound is insignificant for a 130-pound Great Dane but very worrisome on an 8-pound Chihuahua. A 5 to 10% change in weight, especially if the dog owner is not trying to get weight off, is reason to worry.

6. How often should a dog's weight be checked?

You don't need to weigh your dog every day—that would be as silly for dogs as it is for humans! Weighing every week is a more reasonable amount of time to check. In addition, scales can have weight fluctuations and bath scales are often inaccurate at weights under 10 pounds. Therefore, better measures are on your dog's body. Does your dog have a waist, can you feel the ribs but not see the ribs, and can you find the hipbones? I recommend people check their dog's weight once a week.

Carrots are a healthy treat and will help your senior dog with weight management.

Carrots are a healthy treat and will help your senior dog with weight management.

7. How can pet parents prevent obesity in older dogs?

Just say no to carbohydrates! Carbs, more than fat, cause weight gain in everyone. If I ate rice and pasta at every meal, I would become quite plump, just as our dogs will.

Being carnivores at heart, dogs should eat protein - I liken it to a doggie version of the Atkins Diet (R). Here's the hard thing: any kibble, no matter what type, consists of a minimum of 30% carbohydrates. To make the little ball stay in a crunchy kibble, it has to contain a high amount of carbs. Even worse, those so-called senior formulas, the less-active blends, often remove fat and add more carbs! It is completely backwards! The result is our older dogs gain weight when they should be losing excess pounds.

Protein is the answer, lean high quality protein that prevents obesity. In addition, the obvious point is do not over feed. A Yorkie should only eat 1/8-1/4 cup of food twice a day. If you feed many treats, cut back on the meals.

Tips for Avoiding Canine Obesity

  • Limit carbs
  • Feed high quality, real foods
  • Focus on proteins
  • Limit or eliminate dry kibble
  • Practice portion control
  • Limit treats

8. What dietary changes do senior dogs need?

These three things really help: more moisture to help their kidneys, high quality protein since protein is the building block for muscles, and low carbohydrates so fat does not pack around their heart and waist. Feed them like younger dogs but perhaps in slightly smaller portions if they are slowing down a little energy wise. If your senior dog is not slowing down, there is no reason to cut back meal sizes.

9. Are "senior diets" or "senior formulations" in commercial pet foods good?

In my opinion, these are pretty much a waste, as I discussed above. Correctly formulated senior diets should contain more moisture to help the kidneys and more high quality protein (which means it comes from meat, not corn and by-products) and fewer carbohydrates. I don't see this in the senior dog foods on the shelves.

Best Supplements for Senior Dog Health

  • CoQ10
  • Glucosamine, with or without condroitin sulfate and MSM
  • L-carnitine
  • Probiotics

10. What supplements should be included in a senior dog's diet?

There are many great ideas for supplementing diets for senior dogs. For the generally healthy dog that doesn't have other issues, there are just a few basics to start with.

Glucosamine furnishes great support for the joints and may include condroitin sulfate and MSM. CoQ10 and or L-carnitine are great for heart support. Probiotics are always a great idea for good intestinal health.

When these are included in dry dog foods, they are not at high enough levels to be therapeutic. Instead, the dog owner just pays more money thinking the food is helping the senior dog when it is not. The alternative is to feed high quality food and supplement for the condition your dog has with high quality products containing therapeutic levels of ingredients.

Doggie Treats for Weight Management

  • Bacon bits (real bacon, not processed)
  • Blueberries
  • Carrots

11. What kinds of treats are appropriate?

Because the theme is low-carb, any cookie/crunch treat is not going to help the senior dog in need of weight control. For the dog that is not finicky, feed carrots.

Use baby carrots for little dogs, whole carrots for big dogs. Blueberries are also great treats.

Some dogs are a bit more particular and insist on meat, so for these dogs bacon works well. Do not use whole slices of bacon; just feed a little corner of some sliced, cooked bacon. As an example, on the weekends fry up a whole pound of bacon, blot off the grease, store in the fridge and share little bits at a time. It's all protein, no carbs and your dog just wants a little taste to make him happy.

12. What role does hydration play in weight management for aging dogs?

Senior dogs are at risk of kidney failure so the more moisture in their foods, the better. It will keep their kidneys working better and help the whole body process food better. Real food is full of water whereas dry food has had over 95% of the moisture removed.

To digest dry food, the dog must add water back in. If the dog's kidneys are borderline, it is just more work on the body to try to digest dry food. Your senior dog will maintain a hydration better, longer with a real food diet.

13. What is the role of exercise in senior dog weight management?

Exercise helps us all, even as we age. With aging, vigorous exercise may not be our daily routine, but daily movement is great.

Exercise reduces arthritic pain, exercise stimulates the heart, which is a muscle itself, and exercise keeps the mind active; it is a very important part of senior dog health.

Exercise does not always have to mean a hike around the neighborhood. It can be as simple as playing fetch, chasing a laser light, or playing hide and seek with treats around the house. By thinking of things outside of the normal, the senior dog owner can find ways to keep his/her dog active without creating extra work on the family.

14. How does proper dental care contribute to weight management?

If your dog cannot eat her food, or is super picky because it hurts to eat, your dog may eat foods that lead to weight gain. The crazy thing is dry dog food is responsible for bad dental health because tartar caked on teeth often contains dry food.

By cleaning the teeth and starting fresh, your senior dog can maintains her weight on great, real food. Putting their senior dogs under anesthesia is a valid concern for owners of older dogs.

However, just as when we are 85 years old, we still expect surgical care, if needed, and expect our doctors will take extra precautions, we do the same thing for our senior dogs. Take extra precautions, make sure your senior dog does well through dental cleaning, clean those teeth and get your dog back to a healthy weight.

15. What else do pet parents need to know?

If your dog maintains a healthy weight through his or her whole life, then weight management will not be an issue as a senior dog.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2014 Donna Cosmato

What have been your successes or challenges with helping your dog maintain a healthy weight?

Donna Cosmato (author) from USA on June 25, 2014:

Thank you for the nice compliment on this hub on weight management for dogs. You're right - it's is vital to help our pets avoid excess weight so they can enjoy a better quality of life. Keeping ourselves fit and trim does the same for us.

torrilynn on June 24, 2014:

I feel that weight management is important as it is with humans in order to avoid heart disease and diabetes. nice hub overall. thanks.