It is commonly believed that geriatric dogs should be fed less protein. Actually the opposite is true. Geriatric dogs need more protein.
Aging brings with it the loss of muscle tissue. Some loss is related to less activity due to arthritis or back problems. Other geriatric conditions (heart disease, kidney disease and gastrointestinal disease) decrease appetite. Refusal to eat a sufficient diet quickly causes muscle wasting. Also, studies indicate that protein digestion and absorption from the intestines may decreases with age.
Much muscle loss is a natural aging change called sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is common among all mammals, including humans. Inadequate protein intake can speed this process.
The increasing fragility of bones with aging is also related to protein losses. Osteoporosis can be influenced by protein loss. The calcium and phosphorus that characterizes bone strength is due in major part to the protein framework that contains these minerals. Protein losses with age weaken this boney framework.
The immune system is also dependent on adequate levels of protein and amino acids. The vulnerability of the geriatric to infectious disease is well documented. Protein losses can contribute to this lack of disease protection.
Studies show that feeding higher protein diets to geriatric dogs can slow and even reverse muscle loss. Bone and immune strength also benefit from higher protein diets. Even dogs with kidney disease that are often treated with low protein diets also benefit from higher protein diets. The preservation of muscle in these patients provides a better quality of life. Kidney patients typically only need severe protein restrictions in the advanced or terminal stages of kidney failure.
So how much protein should senior dogs get? Studies suggest that diets containing a minimum of 24% protein are appropriate for the aging dog. Because we don’t know exactly how inefficient protein digestion and absorption is in older dogs, 24% protein may still be inadequate. A diet with 30% or more protein provides a greater safety margin. These protein levels may be too high for dogs with advance kidney disease so owners should consult their veterinarian for individual recommendations.
~Dr. Ken Tudor
THE DOG DIETITIAN