Feeding a Senior Dog: Do Older Dogs need Less Protein?

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Over the years, there has been a lot of confusion, or at least uncertainty, about proper diets for senior dogs.   In a 2011 study by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, researchers polled more than 1,300 people online about their perceptions about senior foods. According to the authors:

“The study illustrates a great deal of confusion in the marketplace, and it’s important for owners to be aware that every “senior diet” is different and so may or may not be appropriate for an individual dog, depending upon his or her body condition and health.”


It is important for pet owners to be able to understand the keys for feeding their senior pets, and to be able to cut through the marketing messages and old school thinking, to make better food choices that will keep their dogs living longer and healthier lives.

do older dogs need less protein

This article is the first in a series of articles that will discuss the key issues and key ingredients that are important for overall senior health.


Do Senior Dogs Require Less or More Protein?

One of the longstanding myths about senior diets is that they should be lower in protein than diets of younger pets. In fact, the average senior dog food is markedly higher in carb content and lower in protein and fat than non-senior formulations. The question remains, is this a valid and appropriate dietary change or not. I think not.


According to many leading veterinarians and veterinarian schools, the current thinking is that older pets will actually require MORE protein than younger pets (see below for references). One of the leaders in this change in thinking, Dr. Delmar Finco, a veterinary nutritionist, discovered protein requirements actually increase as pets’ age and that higher protein diets were associated with greater life spans. Indeed, senior dogs need ample amounts of high quality protein in order to maintain muscle mass and proper organ and immune function


One of the plausible explanations for how the myth of the appropriateness of low protein diets for seniors came about is due to the history of pet food. 50 or 60 years ago, the pet food industry was devoid of high quality products. Although the overall protein levels in pet foods might have been acceptable, the quality of the proteins was very low grade, either in the form of low digestible by-products or in the form of fillers and grains. Feeding a dog these lower quality foods over time could, indeed, cause health issues and the ‘solution’ was to lower the protein amounts to address the associated liver and kidney problems from feeding these foods. Thus, pet food companies created lower protein, higher carbohydrate, and (often) lower calorie foods that were meant for senior pets.


We now know that ample amounts of high quality, digestible proteins are exactly what senior dogs need. Unfortunately, most senior diet foods are still marketed as appropriate for seniors, yet are low in protein and fat and high in carbs.


In the next post in this series, we will share the statistics on senior dog foods and how their macronutirents stack up.


References and Further Reading






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  1. I’m sure most people do not know this, and still buy special foods for their seniors, not knowing that they are not getting the appropriate diet for them.
    I suppose it’s too much to ask that the pet food companies actually get on board with this? I’d be interested to know if some of the better companies already are.
    Jan K recently posted…It’s Always About the Dogs (& the Blog)My Profile

  2. It amazes me at the giant leaps we have taken in dog care and education over the last 30 years. My heart broke a little last week when we took Bentley to the vet. They labeled him “geriatric” because he is 7 years old. I think with our pets living to 13 – 14 years old, they should change 7 to middle aged!
    M. K. Clinton recently posted…Sojos is So Good! #Chewy.comMy Profile

  3. Count me in the clueless group here. Since high-performance diets are high in protein I would have guessed a high-protein diet in a less active senior dog might lead to unwanted weight gain. I guess it’s more a matter of realizing seniors may also need different portion sizes. Interested to learn more.

  4. We all eat the same food, Merrick BackCountry. It seems to agree with Katie, they don’t have senior food. Wonder if that is a good or bad thing?
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  5. Well this was interesting! I have to admit, I don’t know too much about special needs and non special needs for senior pups!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!
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  6. Great post! Right now both Boys are on the same meal plan. A dehydrated food from THK with my additions of fruits in at least one of their meals. Harley’s about to receive his coveted badge of Senior Dog this fall, I am very interested in all there is to know NOW in preparation.

  7. Fascinating info! I had no idea and now that Sam is ‘officially’ a senior chronologically (don’t tell him that), perhaps I should adjust his meals and provide some high protein treats to help with his recovery periods after we’ve spent time at hospice (such activity really takes the wind out of his sails and he naps for more than a few hours after our sessions). Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to the rest of the series. 🙂
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  8. I’m often times surprised by the people who I think should know this type of thing, that don’t. For instance, last year when Sampson was doing his ACL recovery, the physical therapist got very heated when telling me what a great product Purina made. Naturally, I kept my mouth shut. 😀
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  9. Interesting! I’d love to hear more, i’ve always thought protein was harder to digest and made the kidney’s work harder in older dogs…
    I’ve also heard that for large breeds you don’t want to feed to high of a protein diet. So I guess my question would be what are appropriate levels of protein for young dogs 2-3 years, highly athletic, and healthy? Then do you scale it back as they age? Or keep it about the same just smaller portions for slowing metabolisms?
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  10. Interesting. You do see a lot of the cheaper brands with options for “adult dogs” and “senior dogs.” But the higher-quality brands seem to have one line of food for all adults – different flavors and protein sources but the same food for all ages. I didn’t know seniors might actually need more protein. That makes sense, and they certainly don’t need more carbs as some of those “senior foods” are filled with. At least in general. Every dog has different needs.
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  11. This is really interesting! I would not think seniors would benefit from more protein! Thanks for sharing, I look forward to the rest of your serious.
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  12. Great article, can’t wait for the rest in the series. Have a great night.
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