Many older adults dote on their dog or cat, but that doesn’t always mean the animal is getting the nutrition it needs.
Older adults love their pets, and an increasing number of seniors are pet owners. While a decade ago just 34 percent of those age 70 and over had a pet, this number rose to 40 percent in a recent report on pet ownership trends in the U.S. With so much changing information around pet care and the increasing tendency to treat our four-legged companions as family, it’s worth taking a look at what experts say about optimal feeding.
Dog and Cat Nutrition
We all want to feed our pets well, but sometimes the limited budgets of seniors can get in the way. Another common barrier is confusion regarding exactly what a good diet contains. There are so many confusing ingredients in pet food that it’s impossible to tell which is better than another. And how is it possible to know if your pet has an allergy?
Take an old leather belt, some used motor oil and a portion of sawdust. Grind them up, mix them together and let them dry. Send the result to a food testing laboratory for an analysis. It will be rejected, right? Wrong. This uninviting mix contains:
- 32 percent protein
- 18 percent fat
- 3 percent fiber
That’s comparable to the ratios listed on the bags of many pet foods. Leather contains protein, motor oil is a source of fat and the sawdust provides fiber. That illustrates how important it is to find the source of all those ingredients in your pet’s food. While we don’t know of any food that uses those ingredients, there is a big difference in sources that sound like similar products.
The very first thing to look for on a pet food label is the statement that the food it contains is “complete and balanced.” This is not meaningless jargon, but guarantees the food follows strict dietary requirements dictated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The food must contain all necessary nutrients in the guaranteed analysis, which lists minimum amounts of crude protein and fat, as well as maximum percentages of water and crude fiber. You can always call a specific company to ask about the food it makes. Here’s a list of questions to ask company representatives. The list, from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, contains a lot of helpful information on what answers you might expect.
Meat is a surprisingly confusing ingredient. Many dogs are allergic to beef. Whole meats have a high percentage of water weight, meaning that the percentage of meat can appear lower after processing. Meat meal may not sound very appetizing, but it contains no water to alter the calculation.
Take a look at the product name. You might think that “Beef,” “Beef Dinner” and “Beef Flavor” are roughly equivalent, but you’d be mistaken. If the name says “beef,” that ingredient must make up at least 70 percent of the product. Move to “beef entree,” “beef dinner” or “beef platter,” though, and the requirement is for a mere 10 percent of beef in the offering. If it says “with beef,” then beef may be as little as three percent of the total, and “beef flavor” only needs to be enough to make the product taste beefy. The same holds true for any other protein.
Cat owners should be aware that their pets are what is known as “obligate carnivores” because they must eat meat to live. They have lost the ability to make certain amino acids and vitamins in their bodies like herbivores and omnivores do. Even their digestive tracts are quite short compared to other mammals. Raw meat is highly digestible.
In fact, meat is highly digestible for dogs, too. It can be broken down into small particles and transported in the bloodstream quicker than other sources.
Protein requirements of pets can vary according to the stage of life and species. Cats need more protein than dogs do. Growing puppies and kittens need more than adults. Generally, adult dogs need a minimum of 18 percent, and adult cats require at least 26 percent protein, according to AAFCO. Higher levels may be needed for very active animals, or those which are ill.
The ingredient list that is mandatory on every cat or dog food label can do more to confuse owners than clarify matters. Fortunately, Skaer Veterinary Clinic offers this exhaustive list of pet food ingredients with descriptions for every entry. Consult it to learn about everything from animal digest to yucca schidegera.
The Top 7 Dog Nutrition Myths
Human Food for Pets
Finally, we all like to hand Scruffy the last bit of our peanut butter sandwich, or give Bitsy a piece of turkey drenched in drippings. They lick their chops and get so excited, who can resist? But where is the line between helpful and hurtful? Many veterinarians recommend no more than a quarter of your pet’s food comes from your own plate in order to maintain the proper ratios of ingredients, and a healthy amount of minerals and vitamins. It’s also important to familiarize yourself with people foods that can kill your pet. Tasty foods such as avocados may seem harmless, but they can be deadly for your best friend.
Kibble vs. Canned Food
Both dry dog food and wet have their pros and cons. Canned foods usually contain less grain and carbohydrates. Kibble adds up to 50 percent of these so the food can go through the machinery needed to form it into pieces. As a result, canned foods typically have more fat and meat protein than kibble.
Canned food also offers a “cleaner” product that contains fewer chemical additives. The canning process acts to preserve the food without additives. You probably know that you can’t leave canned food out for long without it spoiling, and it has a short refrigerator life. However, you are less likely to find artificial flavors and colors in canned food.
The liquid content of canned food is high, around 75 to 82 percent. This makes it easier to digest and less of a strain on an animal’s kidneys. But it also means you have to feed more of it to achieve the same mass as a similar weight of kibble food.
Now the downsides of canned food. A number of thickening agents may be used, among them carrageenan, which has been associated with inflammatory bowel disease, acid reflux and intestinal ulcers. The cans are often lined with BPA, a substance that Canada, the E.U. and the U.S. have recently banned in baby bottles as a toxin.
Canned food is also more expensive than kibble, especially if you have a large dog. And the cans weigh a lot more and are more difficult to carry around than a bag of dry food. The answer for many people is to buy a higher quality kibble than is typically available in the grocery store. Here’s one list of the best dog foods of all types to consider for your pet. Feline Living offers this similar list of top cat foods. Although there is much debate, some sites provide list of the worst dog food and worst cat food. You might be startled to see familiar brands listed.
What About Freeze Dried?
Freeze-dried raw food is all the rage, and there are plenty of reasons to sing its praises. The low (three to five percent) moisture content makes it easy to store in an unopened package at room temperature. Dogs love the taste when rehydrated, whether it’s because of minimal processing or the delicious flavor. Many old or ill dogs will eat freeze-dried food when nothing else is appealing.
And the ingredients in most freeze-dried dog food are some of the best money can buy. Most companies are targeting the top end of the market and take care to source top-quality ingredients, such as organic, grass-fed beef and free range chicken. You are also going to pay a pretty penny, no, make that a LOT of pretty pennies, for top quality food. It may not matter if you have an unlimited budget, a small dog or a cat, or if you prefer to use freeze-dried food for convenience when traveling with your pet. Check here for more information on raw, freeze-dried dog food and recommended brands. Check here for raw, freeze-dried cat food recommendations.
We can’t be finished without addressing the unique needs of senior pets. After all, we are certainly aware that our own nutritional needs have changed, and we know how important good nutrition is for overall health. It’s no less critical for our furry family members who are aging with us.
What is an “older” pet? Here are a couple of handy charts to help you figure it out, one for cats and the other for dogs.
Age: Human equivalents for older pets
|Cat Years||Human Years|
|Dog Years||Human Years|
|7||Small - Medium: 44-47|
|Large - Very Large: 50-56|
|10||Small - Medium: 56-60|
|Large - Very Large: 66-78|
|15||Small - Medium: 76-83|
|Large - Very Large: 93-115|
|20||Small - Medium: 96-105|
|Large - Very Large: 120|
From the American Veterinary Medical Association, Senior Pet Care (FAQ)
Geriatric pets need foods that can be digested easily, and that may require a change of diet. It’s quite easy to overfeed them, and weight gain can make issues such as arthritis worse. Exercise is important to control excess weight. In cats, older individuals are more likely to become underweight. Consult your veterinarian to make sure your pet is getting the proper nutrition for their age.
Pets can keep us from feeling lonely, listen to our deepest secrets without telling a soul, and give us a reason for getting up in the morning. Having a pet to walk can improve our own health immensely, and give us back so much more than we give. Consider adopting a homeless shelter animal that is looking for stability and a new friend. The “seniors for seniors” pet adoption program is available all over the country, matching an older animal that is likely to be lower-energy with an older owner. Type the program into the search box along with your locality, or simply ask for an older animal at your local shelter. Wherever you find your new best friend, we wish you the best!
Click below for the other articles in the May 2019 Senior Spirit
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