Clients need your advice about nutrition for their senior dogs

Clients need your advice about nutrition for their senior dogs

Mar 25, 2011
By staff

It’s a common perception that nutritional needs—both for humans and pets—change with aging. But the nutritional content of foods marketed for older dogs varies as widely as a pet owner’s perceptions about the food, according to a study published by veterinary nutritionists at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. The study’s findings underline the need for veterinarians to communicate with their clients about their pets’ food.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and National Research Council have not set official dietary requirements for aging dogs. Therefore, foods marketed for “longevity,” “maturity,” “senior,” “old,” or “mature” dogs don’t have to adhere to a standard nutrition profile beyond the AAFCO nutrient profile minimums for adult dogs. To gauge how pet owners view the food they’re feeding their older dogs, Tufts researchers polled more than 1,300 owners online about their perceptions of these foods. Their responses were correlated with the actual nutritional content of nearly 40 commercially available senior dog foods. Among the key findings:

> 43 percent of respondents fed their dogs a senior diet—but only one-third of them did so on the advice of a veterinarian.

> The vast majority of respondents—85 percent—believed senior dogs have different nutritional needs compared to adult dogs.

> Most survey respondents felt that senior dog foods likely contained fewer calories. However, calories in the senior foods researchers studied varied widely, ranging from 246 to 408 calories per cup. While some dogs gain weight as they age, others lose weight—making the large range in calories problematic for owners of older dogs, researchers say.

> Most respondents said that senior dog foods likely contained less fat, protein and sodium. Among the sample senior dog diets researchers surveyed, these also varied widely (protein 4.8 to 13.1 g/100 kcal, fat 2.4 to 6.3 g/100 kcal, sodium 33 to 412 mg/100 kcal).

Here’s why it’s critically important for you to communicate with your clients about their pets’ diet. Consider this scenario: A client has a senior dog with heart disease, so she’s inclined to feed it a senior food, thinking the food has less sodium. The client might actually be replacing a diet with a perfectly acceptable amount of sodium with a food that’s considerably higher in sodium.

The study also showed that 63 percent of pet owners think ingredients are the most important factor when selecting a food for a senior dog. But researchers argue that other factors are equally if not more important: The food should be made by a well-established company with at least one veterinary nutritionist or qualified nutritionist on staff. The manufacturer should also have established the food’s nutritional adequacy through AAFCO feeding trials and maintain rigorous quality control standards. Your clients need to understand this.

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