Aging pets can have health problems including weight gain, arthritis, and hip and elbow dysplasia—joint changes that can cause limping and pain. Some changes may not be so obvious, like a weakened immune system or decreased cognitive function. Evidence suggests that diet can help delay some of these age-related changes.
When choosing a food for mature pets, consider things like the quality of protein because older dogs may have more difficulty absorbing nutrients. Some dogs might need fewer calories because they are less active and gain weight when they are older; others lose weight and shouldn’t cut back on calories.
Here’s a look at some of the best foods for older dogs. Be sure to check with your vet before you switch.
Best Overall Dry: Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind Adult 7+ Chicken & Rice Formula Dry Dog Food
Chicken is the first ingredient
Supplements for mental, joint, and digestive health
Formulas for adult, large, and small breeds
Only two flavors
Many vets and pet owners are comfortable with the Purina brand. The company has been making pet food for 90 years and it has a large selection of products including several senior foods. This senior formula features chicken as the first ingredient and is packed with a variety of supplements for senior health. There are probiotics for digestion, glucosamine for mobility, omega-6 fatty acids for skin and coat, and antioxidants for a healthy immune system.
The formula contains fish oil, antioxidants, B vitamins, and arginine to target mental sharpness and cognitive health as dogs age. The food comes in adult, large, and small breed kibble formulas, and is available as canned food.
Best Overall Wet: Blue Buffalo Homestyle Recipe Senior Chicken Dinner with Garden Vegetables Canned Dog Food
Chicken is the main ingredient
Lots of added supplements including antioxidants, glucosamine, and omega fatty acids
No artificial flavors, preservatives, or byproducts
Only one flavor
Canned food can be tastier and easier to eat for aging dogs. Here, chicken is the main ingredient. It also features flaxseed, fish oil, blueberries, carrots, and sweet potatoes, as well as chicken broth, chicken liver, oatmeal, and brown rice. There’s no corn, wheat, or soy, no artificial flavors or preservatives, and no poultry byproduct meals.
Just like dry food counterparts, this senior meal is supplemented with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to promote a healthy skin and coat, antioxidants for the immune system, and glucosamine and chondroitin for mobility. You can feed it alone or mix it with dry kibble to make picky eaters happy.
Best Budget: Iams ProActive Health Mature Adult Dry Dog Food
Farm-raised chicken is the first ingredient
Contains fiber, glucosamine, and antioxidants
Only comes in one flavor
No small breed formula
This senior kibble is more affordable than many others, but it’s still made with farm-raised chicken as the first ingredient. It has the usual senior food supplementation including fiber and prebiotics for digestion, antioxidants to help the immune system, glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health, and other supplements to burn fat and work to keep metabolism going.
The food is available in formulas for regular and large breeds and is made with no artificial preservatives or flavors and no fillers. Other ingredients include whole grains, beet pulp, and carrots.
Best Premium: ORIJEN Senior Dry Dog Food
Main ingredients are chicken, turkey, and fish
Lots of supplements including chondroitin, glucosamine, and omega fatty acids
Just one flavor
More expensive than others
If you really want to splurge on your canine buddy, Orijen offers a senior formula that combines free-range chicken and turkey and wild-caught fish. The fish sources are Atlantic flounder, whole Atlantic mackerel, and whole Atlantic herring. The formula also includes turkey giblets, chicken liver, and eggs with a composition of 85 percent poultry and fish ingredients. Orijen products promise that the first five ingredients are always fresh or raw.
The food is supplemented by chondroitin and glucosamine for joints, omega fatty acids for skin and coat, and is very high in protein.
Best for Joints: Wellness Natural Pet Food Complete Health Natural Dry Senior Dog Food
Has glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health
Chicken is the main ingredient
No byproducts, fillers, or artificial preservatives
Only one flavor
No formulas for small dogs
Dogs often have arthritis and joint issues as they age, which is why so many senior foods add glucosamine and chondroitin to help with joint health. This food has high levels of both supplements (at least 800 milligrams of glucosamine and 700 milligrams of chondroitin per kilogram of food) which may protect the cartilage in the joints.
Deboned chicken is the main ingredient and the formula also includes barley, brown rice, peas, and oatmeal. It has the senior essentials like fiber for digestion, omega fatty acids for skin and coat, and calcium for teeth. There are no meat byproducts, fillers, or artificial preservatives and the food is made in the United States.
Best for Large Dogs: Hill's Diet Science Large Breed Adult 6+ Dry Dog Food
Made just for large and giant breeds
Has glucosamine and chondroitin, omega-6 fatty acids, and minerals
No artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors
Only chicken flavors
Bigger dogs have different nutritional needs, particularly for bone and joint health as they age. This food is formulated for large breed adult dogs six years and older who should weigh between 55 and 110 pounds and giant breeds five years and older with an ideal weight of 110 pounds or more. It has glucosamine and chondroitin for joints and mobility, omega-6 fatty acids for skin and coat, and minerals for heart and kidney health.
Hill’s offers three large breed senior food formulas featuring chicken, chicken meal, or lamb meal as the main ingredient. There are no artificial preservatives, no synthetic colors, and no artificial flavors.
Best for Small Dogs: Royal Canin
Several formulas for tiny and small dogs of all ages
Contains fiber, amino acids, and antioxidants
Main ingredients are corn and chicken byproduct meal
Have an itty-bitty buddy? There are so many senior dog formulas from Royal Canin based on dog size and age. You can choose from x-small and small and those are even further divided into dogs eight years and older or 12 and older. The x-small is for dogs weighing up to 8 pounds and the small is for dogs from 9 to 22 pounds.
The food features small kibble which is easier for tiny mouths to eat. It has a blend of fiber for digestion support, L-carnitine amino acid for healthy metabolism, and antioxidants. The main ingredient, however, is corn, and chicken byproduct meal is the primary protein.
Best for Overweight Dogs: Nutro Natural Choice Senior Dog Dry Food
Main ingredient is chicken or lamb
No artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives
Also available in large and small breed sizes
Only comes in two flavors
Many senior dog foods have fewer calories because dogs are often less active as they age. This formula has only 319 calories per cup which is about 100 calories fewer than several other options on this list. Like the others, it has extra calcium to support strong bones and joints, fiber for digestion, and antioxidants for a healthy immune system. The main ingredient is either chicken or lamb, depending on the recipe.
The food is made without corn, wheat, soy protein, or GMOs. It’s also available in small breed senior and large breed senior for special formulas tailored to the needs of small and large aging dogs.
What to Look for in Dog Food for Older Dogs
AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement
Make sure any food you choose has an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement that indicates the food is nutritionally complete and balanced. Foods with an AAFCO statement have had laboratory testing and feeding trials to make sure they offer complete and balanced nutrition for the life stage of a dog.
Senior foods often contain fewer calories than other adult dog foods because most senior dogs aren’t as active as they were before. Other dogs have trouble keeping weight on as they age so they don’t need to cut back on calories. Ask your vet what is right for your dog.
Senior formulas often have up to 50 percent more protein than other adult diets to help maintain muscle mass, says veterinarian Megan McCarthy, DVM, with Best Friends Animal Society in Salt Lake City. Older dogs usually lose muscle as they age. But some older dogs have medical issues that require a low-protein diet, so check the nutrition that is right for your pet.
Many senior foods advertise that they include fiber for easier digestion, glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health, and omega-3 fatty acids for a healthy skin and coat. Read the label and consult with your vet to see which ingredients might be helpful.
When should you start feeding your dog senior food?
Small dogs are generally considered to be “mature” or “senior” when they are about seven years old, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Because large breed dogs typically have shorter lives, they are often considered senior by the time they are five or six years old.
But it absolutely depends on your pet and their activity level, lifestyle, and any medical conditions, says veterinarian Barbara Hodges, DVM, program director of advocacy and outreach for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
“Many older pets do have mobility limitations and keeping them lean can be helpful in that regard, so a lower-calorie diet may be appropriate for them if they are wrestling with weight issues,” she says. “Your senior pet may also have medical challenges such as kidney insufficiency, in which case he/she may need a special renal diet with fairly significant protein restriction. It is therefore important to involve your veterinary healthcare provider in discussions about your senior pet’s evolving dietary needs.”
However, not all dogs should be switched to senior foods, cautions McCarthy. “If your dog is already on a special or prescription diet, or has a sensitive stomach, you may want to continue feeding the same ‘adult' dog food instead of a senior dog food to prevent any issues by switching diets,” she suggests.
Is wet food better for older dogs?
Dry and wet food have to meet the same nutritional standards, but dry food is popular because it’s easy to feed and less expensive than canned. Some vets recommend dry food because of the benefits it provides for dental health, but unless you are feeding a specific tartar-control food, those benefits can be minor, according to the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University.
But some people feed canned food because their dogs are more interested in eating it, or because of certain health conditions.
“Wet food is not necessarily better for older dogs if they are healthy and maintaining their body weight well on a dry diet,” says McCarthy.
“Dogs with dental disease or missing teeth may benefit from a canned diet for ease of chewing. Certain health conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease may benefit from wet food, but it is best to consult with your veterinarian.”
Hodges believes that wet food is better for all dogs, including older ones, because it’s closer than kibble to fresh food, and also offers hydration.
“Wet food is easier to digest and seems to be generally more palatable—and thus, more enthusiastically accepted—by older dogs,” she says. “As dogs age, many also become ‘pickier,’ seeking more novelty in their diets. For this reason, I sometimes suggest rotating among a number of high-quality wet/canned foods.”
Is high protein food better for older dogs?
Every dog is an individual and nutrition should be tailored to each pet, says Hodges. “The optimal levels of protein, fat and calories in older dogs’ diets is dependent on their overall health, their body condition/weight, their lifestyle, exercise level and any specific medical conditions,” she says.
That said, moderate to high protein is believed to be best for older dogs, McCarthy says. “Older dogs are prone to losing muscle mass as they age, so feeding a low protein diet may be detrimental. However, if your dog has a condition such as kidney disease, a low protein or protein-restricted diet is best for maintaining kidney health.”
Should you wet dry food for older dogs?
Again, this depends on your dog. If your dog has trouble chewing because of dental disease or missing teeth, feeding canned food or wetting dry kibble can make dinnertime easier. It also provides hydration so you can make sure your pet is getting water.
While Hodges prefers feeding canned food because it’s more easily digested and palatable for many older dogs, she understands that many dogs and their owners prefer dry food.
“If, for whatever reason, dry kibble is the only option, I recommend adding low/no-sodium broth or water, making a low-fat ‘gravy’ for the dry food,” she says.
Why Trust The Spruce Pets?
For this roundup, we interviewed scoured information from veterinary and canine reference sources and interviewed several vets to talk about senior foods. We read dozens of senior dog food labels, read reviews, and talked to pet owners about the foods they give to their pets.
This article was researched and written by Mary Jo DiLonardo who has covered animals and pets for several decades. Mary Jo has fostered more than three dozen puppies and dogs and is always searching for the healthiest and most effective products for them.