Protein and Senior Dogs by Diana Laverdure-Dunetz

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protein and senior dogs

Diana Laverdure-Dunetz is my co-author for Canine Nutrigenomics: The
New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health
and The Canine Thyroid
Epidemic: Answers You Need for Your Dog
. I am pleased to share with you an excerpt from her two-part article covering preventative measures on canine aging. Her original
article is very comprehensive and covers topics I have discussed previously but with a slightly different angle. I chose to highlight protein and seniors, and encourage you to read both articles. Enjoy! – Jean Dodds, DVM

I dedicate this article to the main man of my life, Chase. (Don’t worry; my husband knows and is quite comfortable with his place!) Any of you who are familiar with my story know that Chase is the reason I have committed my life to helping dogs live as long and healthy as possible through nutrition. As I write this, it’s hard to believe that January 2016 marked 14 years that Chase and I have been together. I don’t know Chase’s exact age because he is adopted and was not a puppy at the time. I do know that he is at least 15, and for a Shepherd mix, I count our blessings that while he has some arthritis, he is still healthy, happy, alert and has an amazing zest for life (and food!).

After all, while we all want our dogs to enjoy a long life, we also want that life to have quality. Quantity + quality = the best of both worlds for the relatively short time we get to spend with our best friends.

A Background of Aging and Disease

Some changes associated with aging in dogs are normal and expected physiologic changes, such as a decrease in metabolism, eyesight or hearing function. Other changes, however, are pathologic, such as cancer.

Like many older people, senior dogs are falling victim to an increasing number of chronic lifestyle-related diseases. Are these diseases the result of many years of eating a diet that is not species-appropriate? While no studies I am aware of have been conducted on this issue, research has drawn a clear relationship between diet and chronic disease, and so I think it is reasonable to question whether many of the illnesses manifesting in older dogs are the result of a lifetime of improper nutrition “catching up” with them.

The good news is that both physiologic and pathologic age-related changes in senior dogs can benefit from nutritional intervention. Chronic renal disease, diabetes mellitus and heart failure are just three examples of age-related conditions responsive to diet.

As we discuss nutrition for dogs, it’s important to remember that there is no clear-cut age at which a dog becomes a “senior.” Unlike people, the expected lifespan of dogs varies widely depending on factors such as breed and size.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association’s (AAHA) Senior Care Guidelines Task Force, companion animals should be classified as seniors when they are in the last 25% of their predicted lifespan based on their species and breed. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to determine when your dog officially joins the ranks of the senior population.

Protein: Essential to a Healthy Senior Dog

Protein is a key nutrient for senior dogs. Protein is essential to life and just about every chemical reaction that takes place in the cells. Protein provides essential amino acids and is responsible for building and repairing muscles and tissues. Protein provides the structure for skin, hair, nails, bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and muscle
fibers. Proteins also help keep the immune system strong by protecting it from foreign “attackers” such as viruses, bacteria and toxins. These are just a few of the vital functions that proteins carry out every day.

Protein is also the subject of a lot of misinformation – misinformation that could prove detrimental or fatal to your senior dog. 

Many people mistakenly believe that protein requirements decrease in older dogs, when in fact the opposite is true.

Healthy older dogs need more protein – about 50% more protein – due to an age-related decline in protein synthesis and an increase in protein turnover.

When the diet does not contain adequate protein, the body “steals” protein from the dog’s lean body mass (LBM) to support essential protein synthesis. Aging dogs already have less LBM than younger dogs, and inadequate protein intake accelerates this loss. Even if the dog looks healthy, he will have less ability to respond to environmental assaults, including infections and toxins. Loss of LBM is a predictor of morbidity and mortality in older dogs. On the other hand, abundant dietary protein slows the loss of LBM. 

Healthy older dogs should receive at least 25% of their calories from high-quality protein, from a diet containing at least 7 g protein/100 Kcal ME.What is high-quality protein? The highest quality proteins for dogs are derived from animal sources – not inferior plant-based sources, such as corn, wheat or soy. Certain dogs, such as those with late-stage kidney disease, may benefit from restricted protein diets, however such special diets should be formulated by an expert in canine nutrition who has received a post-graduate degree from an accredited university.

In cases where older dogs must receive fewer calories to manage their weight, the proportion of energy in the diet provided by protein should be increased.

Gluten is a poor quality protein that impairs brain health

In people, gluten sensitivity has been linked with impaired brain function, including learning disabilities, ADHD and memory problems. Gluten sensitivity may even manifest exclusively as a neurological disease, without any GI symptoms. According to David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, ABIHM, a board certified neurologist and fellow of the American College of Nutrition and author of Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers, gliadin, a protein in gluten, triggers an antibody response in the body that results in elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines. These cytokines are present in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and autism.

In 2006, researchers from the Mayo Clinic found an association between patients with both Celiac Disease and progressive cognitive impairment, further supporting the link between the damaging effects of gluten and impaired brain health.

The last thing your aging dog needs is a cascade of brain-related inflammation, so removing gluten from his diet makes perfect sense.

Unless your older dog suffers from an illness that necessitates protein restriction, don’t skimp on feeding him lots of high-quality protein. He’ll thank you for it!

W. Jean Dodds, DVM
Hemopet / NutriScan
11561 Salinaz Avenue
Garden Grove, CA 92843


Epstein M, Kuehn NF, Landsberg G, et al.(2005) AAHA senior care guidelines for dogs and cats. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, vol. 41, pp. 81–91. 

Hu WT, Murray JA, Greenaway MC, Parisi JE & Josephs KA. (2006). Cognitive impairment and celiac disease. Archives of Neurology (now JAMA Neurology), 63(10).

Laflamme DP.(2012). Nutritional Care for Aging Cats and Dogs. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, vol. 42, pp.769 –791.

Laflamme DP.(2008).Pet Food Safety:Dietary Protein. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, 23 August, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 154-157, Retrieved from

Larsen JA and Farcas A.(2014). Nutrition of Aging Dogs.Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, vol. 44, pp.741-759.

Perlmutter D. (n.d.). New Study Links Gluten Sensitivity to Brain Failure, Retrieved from 

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