Protein Requirements for the Senior Dog

Protein Requirements for Senior Dogs

Written by Hilary Wilkie

Hilary is a qualified canine nutritionist, who is passionate about educating dog parents on optimal ways to feed their dogs so they can thrive.

15 February 2024

As dog’s age their nutritional requirements change. One of the feeding goals to support your dog is to feed them optimal foods that will give their quality of life a boost and decrease the incidence of age related diseases. To meet this goal, providing the correct amount of protein, one of the three macronutrients that make up a dog’s diet,  at each stage of your dog’s life is crucial. 

Protein requirements are highest when weaned and then slowly decrease over the dog’s lifespan. However, there is debate in the veterinary industry as to how much protein a senior dog needs to thrive in their retirement years.

When is a Dog a Senior?

A dog’s life expectancy is six to twelve times shorter than a human’s. They age progressively over a series of stages that include puppy, junior, adult and senior stages. Dogs are considered senior in the last 25% of their predicted lifespan based on a few factors, including breed. It’s important to remember that age is relative – – relative to how your dog’s body functions, how well your dog is taken care of and how they act in the world.

Two Theories 

Two theories exist around the the protein requirements for aging dogs:

  1. Increase the amount of protein to avoid wasting of muscle mass
  2. Decrease the amount of protein due to the toll it may take on aging kidneys

Reasons to Reduce Protein

It is believed that protein overworks the kidneys and should automatically be reduced once a dog reaches a certain age, rather than treating the individual dog. Vets recommend decreasing protein intake for senior dogs due to research dating back to the 1940s that suggested excess dietary protein would cause kidney damage in rats. Further studies concluded an increased incidence of renal disease in dogs over 5 years presumed this was due to too much protein in their diet. There are instances when lower protein levels are recommended, but that will be on a case by case basis.

Reasons to Increase Protein

As dogs age their lean body mass tends to decrease. If there is a protein deficiency, proteins will be scavenged from the skin and muscle. There’s an age-related decrease in protein synthesis and an increased need for dietary protein. Without adequate daily supply of protein there will be a reduction, rather than the needed increase in protein turnover, which may lead to potential secondary complications like immunodeficiency and increaesd susceptibility to infections and injuries. A senior dog’s diet shoud have an increase of protein and a reduction of carbohydrates, rather than reducing protein to maintain a dog’s weight.

Protein restriction for healthy, older dogs is not only unneccessary it can be detrimental. Although their energy requirements tend to decrease, protein requirements actually increase by about 50% in older dogs. When insufficient protein is provided, it can aggravate the age-associated loss of lean body mass and may ctonribute to earlier mortality.

Dottie P. Laflamme

Veterinarian, 2008 Study - Pet Food Safety: Dietary Protein

Lean body mass decreases with aging, resulting in loss of protein reserves which are used in times of stress and illness. Older dogs are more inclined to higher rates of disease and physiological stress.

Studies have shown the following:

It is important that geriatric pets be provided with high-quality protein at a level that is sufficient to supply the essential amino acids needed for body maintenance needs and to minimise losses of lean body tissue.

LP Case, MG Hayek, L Daristotle, MF Raasch

Authors, Canine and Feline Nutrition - A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals

Feeding high quality protein may help minimise and slow the loss of protein reserves. Kidney issues are normal in aging humans, rats and to some extent dogs and cats. It is essential that healthy senior dogs receive adequate amounts of high-quality protein to minimise losses of body protein reserves. 

How Much Protein Does a Senior Dog Need?

Restricting protein levels for a healthy senior dog can harm their well-being. While energy requirements will decrease in older dogs, their protein requirements will increase. Protein requirements of the older dog increase by 50% while the energy requirements decrease.  A diet that provide at least 28-32% of its calories from protein will meet the increased protein needs. The quality of the protein is just as important as the quantity. Poorly sourced proteins may have incomplete amino acid profiles, which are essential for an older dog’s body ability to process and utilise the proteins consumed.

Best Proteins to Feed a Senior Dog

A fresh food diet that comprises high-quality sourced protein is the ideal diet for senior dogs. Based on your individual circumstances a fresh food diet may not work for you and your dog. 

However, boosting your dog’s diet, whatever they eat, with high-quality fresh protein will benefit your dog as they enjoy their golden years. A bit of lean beef mince, goat, venison, wallaby and possum are excellent sources of protein. They can be found at your local butcher or raw dog food stores. 

The next time you take your senior dog for their annual vet visit ask their vet if they recommend an increase in protein or a decrease. If they recommend a decrease in protein, challenge them on their reasoning and reference this article. Your vet may still be basing their recommendations on outdated information. 

For further guidance for incorporating more fresh protein in your senior dog’s diet reach out to us for a nutrition consult.

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