Vet Reviewed

By The Farmer's Dog | December 28, 2023

Key points:

  • There’s no reason to change what your dog is eating, or how much, simply because they’ve reached a certain age
  • Senior dogs’ calorie needs may drop, especially if they become less active.
  • It’s important to keep a dog of any age in a healthy body condition, and precise portioning can help you do that.
  • In addition to food, dogs of all ages should have access to clean, fresh water at all times.
  • Health conditions, including some related to age, can change what food is best to feed your dog—and how much of it to give them.

Dogs change as they age, and their calorie requirements may be different at 15 than they were at 4. But not every dog changes in the same way, and making the right dietary choices for your senior dog will mean paying attention to and meeting their particular needs. Here are key points to keep in mind as you determine what, and how much, to feed an older dog.

Senior dogs’ calorie needs may change

Before we answer the question of how much a hypothetical senior dog should eat, we’ll have to tackle the issue of when a dog even becomes a senior. While one common answer is that a dog reaches “senior” status at seven years old, that milestone doesn’t tell you anything about an individual dog. According to the American Animal Hospital Association’s guidelines on life stages, the “senior” stage of life is from maturity to life expectancy (approximately the last 25% of expected lifespan). And a dog is considered “geriatric” if they’ve reached or exceeded their life expectancy. So: if your dog’s breed is predicted to live to 12–14 years old, they’re a senior at about age nine to ten-and-a-half.

As dogs get older, their calorie needs may change. For example, they may require less food if their activity levels drop—or more calories and protein if they suffer from a health condition causing muscle loss. It’s important to match the calories in any dog’s diet to their needs, because otherwise they can lose or gain too much weight—and maintaining a healthy body condition is linked to dogs’ well-being and longevity, with research showing that dogs who are at an ideal weight live an average of 2.5 years longer than those who aren’t.

You’ll find some more information about evaluating a dog’s body condition below, and your veterinarian is the person who’s most qualified to answer any questions about whether your dog is at a healthy weight.

Every dog is different

While it is more common for dogs’ energy requirements to diminish in their senior years, averages are no guarantee of the way your own dog may change. Some senior dogs remain as active as they ever were, while others may spend more time resting. The bottom line is that, if your dog is in good health and body condition, an age milestone is not a reason on its own to change the amount they’re eating. 

Staying in contact with your vet and observing your dog’s behavior—while also keeping track of their weight trends and body condition—are sensible ways to gauge whether they are eating the right number of calories and getting the nutrients they need. 

You can easily monitor your senior dog’s body condition at home by looking at and feeling their ribs and belly. If you’re new to the body condition scale, check out our guide to the subject. And, while dogs’ skeletal structures and “normal” weights vary a great deal, any unintentional weight gain or loss calls for a veterinary exam.

Seniors don’t necessarily need “senior diets”

As we noted when we went in-depth about the best food for older dogs, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the organization that sets nutritional standards for pet food, has no official nutrient profile for senior dogs. So while some foods are marketed as being for senior dogs, what’s in them depends on companies’ assumptions about what those dogs need, and what their people will want.

What food suits your senior dog may well change, especially if they develop certain health conditions—but there is no reason to switch what they’re eating based on their age alone. If you have questions about which foods and supplements are a fit for your dog, a conversation with their veterinarian is a good place to start.

Portioning is key

It’s critical to feed your dog the right amount of food—at any age. A dog’s caloric requirements can vary so much—based not only on age, but also other factors that can change over time—that it’s impossible to make a general recommendation based on age or weight alone. That’s why you should work with your vet to figure out your dog’s calorie requirements and feed them precise, consistent portions based on that number.

Signing up for a fresh-food plan from The Farmer’s Dog can also take the guesswork out of determining your dog’s correct daily caloric intake. The Farmer’s Dog pre-portions each dog’s food based on their individual needs, factoring in weight, activity level, spay/neuter status, and more. And, as your dog’s needs change—for reasons including but not limited to their age—it’s easy to make adjustments.

Remember, too, that treats count—healthy extras can be a wonderful reward and training motivator, but they should never make up more than 10% of any dog’s total caloric intake.

Don’t forget hydration

Every dog should have free access to fresh water, and this can be even more important for senior dogs. Make sure that their water bowl is filled and clean—and, if the amount they drink changes a lot, discuss that with their veterinarian. While the moisture in food cannot meet all of a dog’s water requirements, fresh food—including the kind made by The Farmer’s Dog—does help dogs stay hydrated.

By paying close attention to your dog’s needs and watching for changes in their body and behavior, you can give them the right nutrition and the best chance to stay happy and thriving into their later years. And—as always—if you have any specific questions about your dog’s health, give their veterinarian a call.