Nutrition Symposium 2019: Aging Gracefully

Yes, I’m a nerd. Yes, I know. You don’t have to remind me. Yes, I spent half of my Saturday listening to people talk about animal nutrition. But what do you call a nerd after high school? Your boss…that’s what you call them.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a Nutrition Symposium hosted by
NC State Veterinary Nutrition Service and co-sponsored by the Tarheel Golden Retriever Club. I wanted to share some of the highlights with Part of the Pack in a series of posts.

All of this information was presented by Julie Nettifee, Dr. Korinn Saker, and Dr. Caitlyn Getty, so I wanted to make sure I give credit to these wonderful presenters. Please consider donating to the Red Bowl Fund to help the nutrition department train the next generation of veterinarians through research, education and outreach opportunities.

“Aging Gracefully” – Menus for Maturation

When does the age category of “senior” begin for a dog? For small and medium breed dogs, they are classified as seniors between 8-10 years of age. For large and giant breeds that classification falls around 5-7 years old.

Physical and psychological changes most commonly associated with aging:

  • loss of hearing, vision, and/or teeth
  • decreased activity, more sleeping, and reduced energy
  • weight gain
  • weakening of the immune system
  • skin, feet, and nail changes
  • joint problems
  • gastrointestinal upset
  • muscles and bone weakness
  • urinary issues
  • mammary cysts and tumors in females
  • personality changes
  • heart murmurs

These all sound pretty familiar, huh? These can all occur in humans as well. Please don’t let this conversation about aging get your spirits down. The trick is to manage the aging process and try to prevent some of these common issues. Managing aging starts with assessing the nutrient needs and developing a comprehensive feeding plan by: calculating the daily calorie needs, choosing a beneficial diet, and determining an appropriate food dose and feeding schedule.

Diet and feeding recommendations for a healthy senior include:

  • Senior, Mature, and some Adult maintenance life-stage diets are appropriate
  • Moist/canned diets: if your older dog is starting to loose teeth or become constipated
  • Home-prepared diets that are nutritionally complete and balanced are great for dogs with kidney disease or other health concerns
  • However, the most important thing is to ensure your senior dog is maintaining a body score condition (BCS) of 5 to 6 or “ideal to a titch over ideal” as they age.
Purina’s Body Condition System or BCS chart

Personally, my geriatric girl, Susie, has shown some serious signs of aging and was recently switched to a Senior Healthy Weight kibble, to help combat her severe osteoarthritis and gradual weight gain. Osteoarthritis is painful and therefore decreases mobility and activity, which is a chain reaction leading to obesity. Susie was getting a little chunky, which was causing more arthritis pain; it was a vicious cycle. We worked with our vet to formulate the best food choice, supplements, and pain medication to give her the best quality of life as possible and she is now thriving at 13 years old.

Most common diseases affecting senior dogs:

  • Obesity
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Periodontal Disease
  • Kidney Disease
  • Cancer
  • Cognitive Dysfunction

All of these can be scary when diagnosed, but all can be tied back to appropriate nutrition for daily management.


Point blank, obesity is a disease, but what is it exactly? Obesity is an excess number of fat cells (adipose) or abundantly full adipose cells. This excess or swollen adipose cells can be caused by altered satiety or appetite hormones in dogs, and is commonly inflammatory driven.

Did you know that if you overfeed your puppy during their early life stages and they get lots of excess fat cells at a young age, then you are potentially setting them up for a lifetime of weight problems. Yeah, me either! They will forever have a “more than average” amount of fat cells as they mature, so it’s important to keep their body condition score ideal.

Diet nutrient focus: lower the fat level, increase the protein level, increase insoluble fiber, and make sure they are getting Omega-3 fatty acids, L-carnitine, and antioxidants.


Osteoarthritis happens when degenerative joint changes occur and increased inflammation drivers cause pain and discomfort and decrease your dog’s mobility.

Diet nutrient focus: lower the fat level, increase the protein level, and make sure they are getting Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and Glucosamine/Chondroitin sulfate


I think we all have heard of Diabetes Mellitus as some point in our lives, but what does that mean for dogs. If their level of diabetes is severe enough, they can have insulin injection treatments just like humans. In short, diabetes is a lowered tolerance for dietary simple sugars and fat.

Diet nutrient focus: lots of WATER, increase complex carbohydrates (example: sweet potato), decrease simple sugars (fructose, glucose), lower foods to a moderate fat level, and make sure they are getting Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants (Vitamins E & C.) If you are giving your dog insulin injections, then be sure to time your feedings and injections together.

Periodontal Disease

Nutrition can contribute to preventing periodontal disease. The food’s texture and ingredients can affect the environment of the mouth. Historically, it was commonly recommended to feed dry dog food to prevent periodontal disease in dogs. The idea was that dry kibble would “scrape” away excess plaque. However, in clinical studies, dry food alone did not contribute to improved oral health. This points out the importance of choosing a nutrient profile that has been developed to enhance oral health and supplement with dental hygiene chews and regular brushing.

Kidney Disease

Kidney disease has many different variables but some key functional changes show a lowered tolerance for dietary phosphorus, low quality protein, and sodium.

Diet nutrient focus: increase water intake, lower phosphorus, adjust protein source level, adjust sodium, and make sure they are getting, vitamin D, B vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants (Vitamins E & C.)

Previously, I had a foster with end stage kidney disease, so we will go into this more in a future post, for those interested.


The dreaded “C” word. Many tumors get energy and grow from simple carbs (like glucose) but they cannot grow as well from fats. Omega-3 fatty acids inhibit cell growth and promotes healthy cell oxidant damage.

Diet nutrient focus: lower the fat level, increase the protein level, increase insoluble fiber, and make sure they are getting Omega-3 fatty acids, L-carnitine, and antioxidants.

Cognitive Dysfunction

Neural challenges associated with cognitive dysfunction include excess oxidants (the production of free radicals and lack of increase in compensatory antioxidant enzymes) and limited ATP (energy) sources.

Diet nutrient focus: Increase antioxidants (like Vitamin E & C, Selenium, L-carnitine, etc.) to combat the oxidative stress damage, add DHA (Omega-3 fatty acids), adjust sodium and protein levels, ensure tryptophan (specific amino acid) is included, as well as probiotics.

Remember! Create a Comprehensive feeding plan

  • Make sure you are calculating your dog’s daily calorie needs
  • Choose the most beneficial diet for your dog (mature, weight management, etc)
  • Make meal times fun with interactive feedings (slow feeders, Kongs, lunch with other friends/dogs) so your dog doesn’t become disinterested in meals as they age
  • Determine a food dose and feeding schedule. Older dogs do not always benefit from one or two meals per day as their are not able to absorb all the nutrients like they were once able to…if you are not physically available to feed multiple meals during the day, consider a automatic feeder for that mid-day meal.
    • Senior dogs: feed smaller meals, 2-3 times per day
    • Geriatrics dogs: feed multiple “snacks,” 3-6 times per day

As always, make sure you are working with your veterinarian or a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionistâ„¢ local to you to formula the perfect feeding plan for your aging dog.

4 thoughts on “Nutrition Symposium 2019: Aging Gracefully

  1. Such a fantastic post on the wide range of areas that nutrition can impact our canine companion. Thanks for sharing these details and your thoughtful suggestions!

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