Calories & Nutrients
Longtime clients recently checked in with me to make sure they're on track with their dogs' nutrition and health goals now that their dogs are seniors. By the way, how much do I love seniors dogs!
The dogs are a little less active than they used to be and are now at the top of their healthy weight range. Excess weight is not ideal for health. I typically see pet parents reduce their dog's food in order to keep weight manageable - and that's what happened with my clients' dogs.
An audit of the diet showed that while the caloric totals were appropriate, feeding a lower amount of their commercial raw dog food meant that the diet was now low in a number of nutrients (nutrients are things like vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fats). Fortunately we were able to correct the diet with some modifications and supplements.
And so while careful attention to calories is important and we know that maintaining a lean body weight reduces the risk factor for many chronic diseases, we absolutely must keep nutrient requirements in mind when adjusting food and calorie totals for our dogs.
As an example, an 85 lb. golden retriever who only needs 1400 kcal a day to maintain his weight has the same requirements for vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids as my 8 year old, 85 lb. intact golden retriever who requires about 1700 kcal each day.
Each day both dogs need 15.5 mg of iron; 31 mg of zinc; 279 iu of vitamin D3, and so on, regardless of the amount of calories they require to maintain a healthy weight. A diet that meets all of the dog's nutrients on fewer calories does not have a lot of wiggle room to lower calories further and still provide optimal levels of nutrients.
Nutrition really is that individual.
Let's suppose the pet parent of our fictional 85 lb. golden who needs 1400 kcal diet decides to reduce their dog's daily calories by 5% - 70 kcal a day. Reducing their particular brand of food by 70 kcal also means a reduction in the following nutrients: iron decreases by almost 2 mg; zinc decreases by 2 mg; vitamin D3 decreases by over 9 ius, and so on.
Depending on the nutrient levels in the diet, this decrease could mean that the diet no longer meets the dog's requirements.
Likewise, kibble-fed dogs who eat below the manufacturer's minimum guidelines may also be getting fewer nutrients than they need. Studies show that nutrient deficiencies contribute to chronic disease by impairing immune function, and so I believe it's important that the diet meets the needs - on both a caloric and nutrient level - for the individual dog.
There are a number of things that might alter an adult dog's caloric requirements:
Spaying and neutering changes the metabolism. Most dogs who get the same level of activity as pre-neuter status will typically require fewer calories.
Change in exercise or activity. Perhaps walks or opportunities to run have declined, or the weather is not co-operative with lots of outdoor exercise.
Joint or mobility issues such as arthritis or torn ligaments significantly affect a dog's ability to exercise which in turn means that caloric requirements decrease.
Senior dogs typically experience a slowing of metabolism and require fewer calories. Seniors are extra special in that they need optimal level of protein and nutrients to support their aging bodies.
Some health conditions may affect weight and/or caloric requirements. Hypothyroidism is a not uncommon reason for increased weight, and careful monitor of diet is needed.
Again, even though your dog may need fewer calories, his nutrient requirements do not change, unless there is a clinical reason.
A diet audit with a professional can be very helpful in making sure that your dog's food is providing him with the amount of calories and nutrients he needs to thrive, and a professional can adjust macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) to provide an optimal diet.
Before reducing your dog's main source of food, here are a few things to consider as you control calories while maintaining nutrients:
Carefully weigh and measure your dog's food using a scale, measuring cups and spoons.
Watch the treats. No surprises here, but the calories from little bits of this and that - perhaps on top of training treats can add up fast. Don't let treats compromise your dog's health and nutrition by displacing the amount of food that goes into his bowl. If your family agrees, measure out your dog's treats for the day, keep them in a container on the counter and only offer those.
Watch the "healthy toppers". Things like goat's milk, coconut oil, and calorie dense veggies such as sweet potato can add a good amount of calories to a diet that is already nutritionally complete and maxed out for calories. I rarely worry about calories from low glycemic vegetables.
Be aware of the calories in chew items such as bully sticks (100 calories for a 6 inch stick), DentaStix (70 calories in a regular size - and you probably shouldn't be feeding those anyway), Himalayan yak chews (a large chew can contain as much as 300 calories.)
Compare the nutritional analysis on dog food labels and see if you can use lower calorie or lower fat foods. For example, rabbit and bison are generally leaner and have fewer calories than high fat beef, lamb or pork. Be aware that while commercial raw chicken diets will be lower calorie than some other proteins - chicken is low in copper, iron and zinc and unless the product has been properly formulated it will be a deficient diet for your dog.
Check with your veterinarian, and if your dog is healthy, increase his exercise little by little - you shouldn't take an out of shape, over-weight dog for a jog. The same guidelines for increasing exercise for people also apply to our pets.
Mealtime is a huge highlight of the day for many dogs and their people; we love feeding our dogs.
Volume of food matters to the dog. While that 3/4 cup of kibble may meet the caloric and nutrient requirements for that individual dog, how satisfying is it to the dog - is he feeling satiated or still hungry after eating? (Well, within reason... and I'm looking at you, my bottomless pit dogs.)
There needs to be a convergence where diet meets caloric and nutrient requirements, leaves the dog feeling satisfied, and the pet parent free of guilt that they maybe haven't fed their dog enough food.
This article is for information and education purposes only, and is intended as guidance for healthy adult dogs. Check with your veterinarian or a qualified canine nutritionist if you have questions about your dog's nutrition status.