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Weight Loss in Older Dogs: How To Keep Your Senior A Healthy Weight

weight loss in older dogs

Weight loss in old age is a common issue and is often a source of worry for pet parents who hate to see their golden oldies decline in their final chapters. Luckily there is hope and much can be done to prevent our older dogs from losing weight. 

Old dogs need plenty of B vitamins to synthesize the protein for their muscles, so making sure they get a good vitamin chew for dogs, as well as joint mobility supplements to help them move is essential. 

Looking at the latest research on nutrition for aging pets, let’s look at what we can do to prevent our old dogs getting skinny. Also, be sure to read our article on if eating raw meat makes dogs aggressive and if dogs know when they are dying

Is it normal for old dogs to get skinny?

It is very common for older dogs to lose weight. Senior dogs may experience muscle wastage and weight loss for various reasons, including a decrease in their metabolic rate, a decline in their ability to digest and absorb nutrients, and age-related changes in their hormones like ghrelin, which makes them less hungry.

As dogs age, their metabolic rate may slow down and they become less active, causing them to lose muscle. In addition, their digestive system may not function as efficiently, making it harder for them to absorb nutrients from their food. Hormonal changes that occur with aging may also contribute to muscle wastage and weight loss.

Old dogs are less sensitive to the hunger hormone, ghrelin, so they are often less hungry. They also struggle to synthesize the proteins they need to build and maintain muscle, causing muscle wastage.

Of course, painful health conditions can cause muscles to atrophy and waste away, as can serious health issues that may cause severe weight loss. So it’s always essential to take your senior to the vet to check for underlying health issues causing weight loss.

How can I get my older dog to gain weight?

To help an older dog gain weight, you may want to consider:

  1. A complete and balanced diet: Older dogs require a balanced and nutritious diet to maintain their health. We will discuss specific nutrition for old dogs below.
  2. Making tastier food, including raw meat: Old dogs (who are otherwise healthy) are less sensitive to their hunger hormones, so they need more enticing food to encourage them to eat. 
  3. Feeding smaller meals more frequently: Feeding smaller meals more often throughout the day can help older dogs digest their food more efficiently and absorb more nutrients.
  4. Adding supplements: Adding supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids or probiotics, to your dog’s diet can help improve their digestive health and support their immune system.
  5. Ensuring dental health: Poor dental health can make it difficult for dogs to eat, which can contribute to weight loss. Regular dental cleanings and dental care can help maintain your dog’s dental health.
  6. Exercise: Regular exercise can help maintain muscle mass and keep your dog healthy. However, it’s important to speak with your veterinarian to determine what type and amount of exercise is appropriate for your dog’s age and health condition.

It’s important to note that sudden weight loss in older dogs can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as kidney disease or cancer. If you notice sudden weight loss or muscle wastage in your dog, it’s important to consult with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying health issues.

Nutritional requirements for old dogs losing weight

 1. Adjusting the calories for your senior dog

Weight and activity levels are a primary concern when feeding senior dogs. Seniors who lose muscle mass need a high-calorie diet  to maintain their body weight, as muscle mass is key to their overall health.

Aside from struggling to synthesize proteins for muscle mass, older dogs also respond less to the hormone, ghrelin. Ghrelin is responsible for making a dog feel hungry. This means that tastier food with a strong smell is important to entice senior dogs who may be losing their appetite. Consider raw dog food to entice your older dog to eat.

In general, an older dog that is losing an unhealthy amount of weight, should look at  a food with over 400 kilocalories per cup

Carbohydrates for Senior Dogs

There is no reason to avoid quality carbohydrates in dog food, provided it is given in moderation, or up to about 45% of dry matter in the food. 

Healthy pre-cooked grains can have many of the same benefits as they do for humans. Grain allergies are extremely rare, and if an allergy does occur, it is a healthier choice to switch to a different grain rather than remove grains altogether. 

The primary reason to add moderate amounts of healthy carbohydrates to a senior dog’s food is because of the manner in which energy is used. Dogs and cats use between 50 & 80% of what they eat for energy alone. 

This means that most of what they eat will simply be used for fuel, and not for their nutritional needs for amino acids or essential fatty acids. By providing carbohydrates, senior dog’s bodies can burn through the carbs first to meet their daily energy requirements. 

This means the protein and fat in the food can then be better used by the body where needed. 

Carbohydrates are also easier to digest, so breaking down carbohydrates puts less pressure on organs like the pancreas, liver, and kidneys. Dogs that have issues with these organs will typically need to go on a high-carb, low-protein diet to relieve the pressure of digesting protein.

Protein for Senior Dogs

Older  dogs need more protein unless they have a renal or liver problem. Always have your vet check your dog’s health status before putting them on a high-protein diet, as liver or kidney  issues specifically need low protein diets. 

Senior dogs do not have a problem digesting protein, but they do have a problem with protein synthesis. Therefore, the crude protein in the diet should be about 30%, possibly going up to 45% as needed.

Fat for Senior Dogs

For an underweight senior dog, fat can be moved up to 20% of the diet, keeping an eye on possible issues like pancreatitis or bloat. To avoid bloat for a larger senior dog, feed a varied diet at least twice a day and make sure that fat is not within the first five ingredients of dog food.

The type of fat is also important. EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is most abundant in fish oils or krill oil. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory and essential for a healthy gut. Likewise, DHA is another Omega-3 fatty acid found most readily in fish oils. DHA is particularly vital for older dogs as it is essential for brain function.  So senior dogs have an increased need for more DHA in their diets than normal adult dogs.

One last fat that can help the brain and heart health of senior dogs is purified MCT oil. Keep in mind, MCT oil should not be confused with coconut oil that is high in saturated fats. In fact, dog food that uses beef fat or pork fat is also best avoided because saturated fats are not great for dogs in general.

2. Making sure your older dog gets the right vitamins

When it comes to senior dogs, one of the key points is that they start to lose the ability to synthesize proteins. This is where B vitamins come in, since B vitamins are crucial for this process. They also help brain function, keep cells running, and break down nutrients for the body. 

Therefore, looking for a complete range of B vitamins is  vital for your older dog’s health.The most important one for old dogs are:

  • Vitamin B1 or Thiamine
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
  • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)

Other essential nutrients for senior dogs:

Another good rule of thumb for senior dogs is to look for diets that specifically contain the following nutrients:

  • Taurine —essential for heart, eye, and immune system. As older dogs begin to lose white blood cells, where taurine is particularly abundant, added taurine is critical for senior dogs in their diet.
  • L-carnitine — essential for heart and brain function, as well as using fat for energy.
  • CoEnzyme Q10 — a powerful antioxidant that protects the heart.
  • Alpha-lipoic Acid — another antioxidant that can protect against cognitive decline.
  • Lactic Acid or lactates — a preservative not to be confused with lactose from milk, that the dog’s aging brain can use as an alternative source of fuel. This is helpful as they struggle to get enough glucose to the brain.
  • Casein —  for senior dogs that are growing more anxious, casein seems to have some natural benzodiazepine effects to help them calm down.

Why can I feel my old dog’s spine?

If you start to feel your old dog’s spine, you are likely dealing with weight loss and muscle wastage. Muscle wastage in old dogs refers to the gradual loss of muscle mass and strength that can occur as a dog ages. As dogs get older, their body’s ability to maintain and repair muscle tissue decreases, leading to muscle loss.

Common health conditions that cause old dogs to lose weight

Common health conditions that cause old dogs to lose weight

An old dog losing weight and suddenly drinking more water can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, and it’s important to consult with a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause. Some possible reasons for these symptoms include:

  1. Kidney disease: One of the most common reasons for weight loss and increased thirst in older dogs is kidney disease. This condition can cause the kidneys to lose their ability to filter waste and fluids from the body, leading to increased thirst and weight loss.
  2. Diabetes: Diabetes is a condition in which the body cannot properly regulate blood sugar levels. This can cause increased thirst and weight loss.
  3. Hyperthyroidism: This is a condition in which the thyroid gland produces too much thyroid hormone, which can cause weight loss, increased appetite, and increased thirst.
  4. Cancer: Cancer can cause weight loss in older dogs, as well as increased thirst due to the body’s need to flush out toxins.
  5. Liver disease: Liver disease can cause weight loss, as well as increased thirst due to dehydration.
  6. Infection: Certain infections can cause weight loss and increased thirst in older dogs.
  7. Heart disease: Chronic Heart Failure can also cause a dog to lose weight rapidly.

It’s important to note that sudden weight loss and increased thirst in older dogs should not be ignored. These symptoms can be signs of serious underlying medical conditions that require prompt attention. A veterinarian can perform a physical exam, run diagnostic tests, and recommend a course of treatment to address the underlying cause of the symptoms.

Older dog losing weight in hips? The most likely cause

If your older dog is losing weight primarily in the hips, you may be seeing advanced hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is a condition in which the ball and socket joint of the hip do not fit together correctly, resulting in abnormal wear and tear, pain, and inflammation in the joint. As a dog ages, this can lead to muscle atrophy in the hips due to a decrease in activity levels and the pain and discomfort associated with the condition.

Final Thoughts

Seeing severe weight loss in older dogs is always distressing. The key is to immediately test them for an underlying health issue that may need treatment. If your dog is otherwise healthy, increase the healthy fats in their diet as well as the protein. Make food as tasty as possible to entice them to eat.


Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.

Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

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