Senior animals & supplements

supplements for senior dogs

Along with an optimum diet, adequate exercise and lots of loving attention, the use of appropriate supplements makes it possible for us to enjoy the company of our animals for many happy, healthy years.

If there’s any drawback to companion animals, it’s that they don’t live as long as we’d like them to. One day, we realize the energetic little bundle of joy we brought home from the shelter or breeder isn’t quite as spry or bright-eyed as he used to be, and we wonder where the years have gone. Happily, although we can’t keep our animals alive forever, there’s a lot we can do to increase their longevity and enhance their quality of life during their senior years.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear of cats in their early 20s, and even large breed dogs can live well into their teens. A long and healthy life depends primarily on the care you give your animal right from the start, but one way you can ensure he enjoys his golden years to the full is by giving him supplements that meet the requirements of senior animals. Used in conjunction with a nutritious, well-balanced diet and a proper lifestyle, the right supplements can give your senior companion a new lease on life.

Good nutrition is a springboard to good health, so before considering extra supplements for your animal, make sure he’s eating right. A diet that contains as many raw, natural ingredients as possible is an important start, whether you feed a home prepared recipe or a high quality packaged product. Also keep in mind that as an animal gets older, he doesn’t eat as much as he did when he was younger. “Older animals don’t exercise as much, so you should probably cut food quantities from 20% to 30%,” says Dr. Mark Newkirk of the Margate Animal Hospital and Alternative Care Center in Margate, New Jersey. “Apart from that, the older animal’s diet shouldn’t change that much. It isn’t necessary to lower protein or fat levels, unless the animal is sick or obese.”

“There’s still a need for protein for bodily maintenance and repair, and good fats for cellular and nerve function, cognitive ability and ocular health,” adds Dr. Cynthia Harcourt, a holistic veterinarian based in Queensville, Ontario. “Fiber may need to be raised to accommodate reduced colon activity; it’s important to keep the bowel working properly as it’s key to immune function and waste elimination.”


Antioxidants are among the most important supplements for the senior animal because of their anti-aging and anti-inflammatory properties. “The aging process promotes oxidative stress reactions which lead to free radicals and damaged cells,” says Dr. Harcourt. “The constant production of free radicals requires a variety of antioxidants to mop up or neutralize the oxidative debris, which is then eliminated through the liver, kidneys and bowels.” The overall effectiveness of antioxidants depends on the health of these organs.

“There are different kinds of antioxidants,” adds Dr. Newkirk. “There are the vitamin antioxidants, which include vitamins C and E, enzyme-based antioxidants like super oxidase dismutase (SOD), and pycnogenols. All are beneficial and can be used together, although some are better for certain situations than others. The enzyme-based antioxidants are best for animals with arthritic problems, while pycnogenols work well when there is a blood vessel, brain or senility issue.”

Vitamin A

Bugs Bunny knew a good thing when he munched on raw carrots. Along with other orange-colored vegetables, as well as leafy greens and organ meats such as liver, carrots are full of vitamin A. “It’s very important for skin and liver health, so I will supplement with vitamin A when an animal presents with problems in those areas,” says Dr. Newkirk.

Among its other benefits, which include fighting infection, vitamin A possesses important cancer-fighting properties. It not only helps prevent blood vessel growth in malignant tumors, but it also encourages cells to move into their normal adult stage without becoming stuck in immature mode and growing out of control. “Vitamin A can become toxic if you go too high with it, although we do use extremely high does in cancer treatment,” says Dr. Newkirk. “This need to be done under the control of a vet.”

Vitamin C

Animals don’t always need vitamin C supplementation, since unlike humans their bodies manufacture it naturally. In some cases, however, extra vitamin C can be beneficial, especially if your companion is stressed or suffering from degenerative joint disease. Vitamin C can help strengthen the immune system and decrease the free radical damage that can lead to cancer. It also maintains healthy bones, teeth, skin and blood vessels, and is necessary for the formation of collagen, a protein that “glues” connective tissues together. As a result, vitamin C supplements are often used for animals with hip displasia and related conditions.

One drawback of vitamin C is that it can be hard on the stomach. Ester C® is a more digestible form of the vitamin. Because it’s non-acidic, it’s easier on the stomach than regular ascorbic acid; it also contains metabolites that enhance the uptake of the vitamin. Natural Life Pet Product’s C-Flex is one example of an Ester C® supplement formulated for animals with hip displasia and similar degenerative diseases, as well as those undergoing any form of stress.

Vitamin E

The king of the vitamin-based antioxidant family, vitamin E may help prevent and treat a variety of conditions frequently seen in senior animals, including arthritis, heart disease, liver and kidney problems, allergies and cancer. Evidence suggests it can even be helpful for diabetes, a disease in which the blood thickens due to high sugar levels. Vitamin E increases circulation, speeds up the elimination of toxins, and can also reduce inflammation in the pancreas.

Dogs and cats need vitamin E to maintain health and vitality as well as to help increase longevity. Available products include Vite-E-Pet by Nickers International, which is a concentrated supplement that you can add to your animal’s food.

Coenzyme Q-10

A powerful enzyme-based antioxidant, Coenzyme Q-10 is found in every cell of the body and serves several functions. “It’s very good for older animals whose energy levels are running down, because it works on the energy systems of the body,” says Dr. Newkirk. Co Q-10 aids in the control of oxygen flow within cells while helping them extract energy from food and protecting them from free radical damage. It gives the immune system a boost and can be useful in the treatment of allergies, periodontal disease and cancer. Co Q-10 also helps protect the heart from oxidation: studies have shown that animals with heart disease tend to have lower than normal levels of Co Q-10 in their bodies.

Essential fatty acids

Dogs and cats both need essential fatty acids in their diet, especially as they get older. “EFAs are important because the food supply in most cases is not really providing them,” says Dr. Newkirk. “We use Omega-3 oils, which are anti-inflammatory and good for arthritis patients as well as those with allergies and immune-system issues. Omega 6 oils are more for conditions like dry skin and dandruff as well as allergies, although we do use combinations of both.”  EFAs help boost immunity and energy levels, and may also strengthen the heart and reduce the risk of blood clots. They also have antioxidant properties, and assist the liver and immune system in eliminating carcinogenic toxins from the body.

Omega 3s come from cold water fish or flaxseed oils, while Omega 6 oils are derived from vegetable sources such as evening primrose, safflower and sunflower.

Digestive enzymes

“Because the intestines get older along with the animal, every pet would benefit from digestive enzymes,” advises Dr. Newkirk. Enzymes enhance digestion and intestinal health by improving the absorption of nutrients from food. They may also help reduce the risk of cancer by maximizing the body’s ability to eliminate waste materials that might otherwise accumulate or become toxic. In fact, a lack of digestive enzymes can lead to or exacerbate a range of complaints, all of which can become worse as the animal gets older.

Supplemental digestive enzymes for pets include Prozyme, a natural, plant-derived powdered product that is added to food to increase nutrient absorption. It is especially helpful for senior animals with conditions ranging from digestive disorders and skin and coat problems, to joint difficulties, allergies and lethargy.  Shake ‘N’ Zyme by Natural Products for Pets is a cheese-flavored enzyme supplement that you sprinkle on your animal’s food. Also containing probiotics and dulse, which catalyzes enzyme activity, the product enhances digestion and assimilation of nutrients and is useful for allergies and bowel disorders.

Glucosamine and chondroitin

Arthritis and other degenerative joint diseases are among the most common complaints seen in senior animals, while hip displasia is a concern in many large breed dogs. “All animals, sooner or later, are going to have some degree of arthritis,” says Dr. Newkirk. Among the supplements that can help ease these conditions, the most important are glucosamine and chondroitin.

Arthritis occurs when the cartilage that pads the end of a bone begins to break down, causing pain, stiffness and inflammation. Glucosamine and chondroitin are both naturally occurring components of cartilage, so supplementing with these substances helps relieve the condition by replacing the raw materials essential for healing and repairing the cartilage and surrounding tissues and fluids. They often appear together in one supplement. Glucosamine sulfate and hydrochloride are most effective because they are more rapidly taken up by cartilage cells and also inhibit the enzymes that destroy cartilage. Chondroitin sulfate serves a similar purpose. “Every older animal could use a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement,” advises Dr. Newkirk.

MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) is a form of organic sulfur. “There are those who believe sulfur is extremely important for all areas of the body, most notably in the joints, for its anti-inflammatory qualities,” says Dr. Newkirk. “I don’t routinely use it but I know there are proponents for it.” MSM is useful for the health and formation of connective tissues, cartilage and joint fluid, and can help relieve pain.

Supplements for joint health that contain glucosamine, chondroitin and/or MSM are offered by a number of companies including NaturVet, Natural Products for Pets, Integricare and Devonshire Ltd.


As an animal gets older, his glands and organs don’t work as well as they used to. And because the thyroid, pancreas, pituitary, adrenals and other glands help regulate many body systems, including metabolism, declining function may give rise to a range of health problems. Hypothyroidism, diabetes and Cushings syndrome are just a few examples of diseases that can be triggered by poorly-functioning glands. Although conditions like these can appear in animals of any age, they are frequently a concern with seniors.

One way to help stabilize and restore damaged glands is to give the animal supplements that contain processed glandular tissue. Derived mainly from sterilized bovine sources, glandulars come in powdered, capsule or liquid form. “We use Standard Process glandulars a lot,” says Dr. Newkirk. “Blood analysis helps us define which ones.” The Standard Process product line includes glandulars that support the heart, kidneys and liver as well as the thyroid, adrenal and other glands.


“Herbs aren’t my primary therapy but I do use them,” says Dr. Newkirk. “The main concern is making sure you get pure, high quality products. For western herbs, I’ll use Animal Apawthecary.”


Alfalfa is rich in vitamins A, E and K as well as protein and trace minerals. “It’s also a source of fiber as well as a good cleanser,” says Dr. Newkirk.  Powdered alfalfa is helpful for the digestive system because it enhances the assimilation and absorption of nutrients and may stimulate the appetite in finicky animals. It also contains chlorophyll, which has a detoxifying effect on the body. Alfalfa’s vitamin K content may remedy bleeding problems that sometimes arise from the long-term use of antibiotics or anticoagulants.

Ginkgo biloba

As animals reach their senior years, their minds and memories can get a bit fuzzy. Some dogs and cats may even develop Alzheimer’s-like symptoms that can result in unusual or puzzling behavior. Referred to as cognitive disorder, this condition may respond to supplementation with ginkgo biloba. This herb has long been popular among people who wish to improve their memory and sharpen mental function, although the jury is still out on just how effective it is for animals. “It has been purported for senility issues although I can’t say I’ve seen a whole lot of change when I’ve used it on my patients,” says Dr. Newkirk.


A good supplemental herb for allergies, dandelion supports the liver and improves blood health. “It helps the liver and gallbladder systems to cleanse,” says Dr. Newkirk. Dandelion is also a diuretic that enhances the elimination of waste materials in the urine.

Diagnosis and dosage

“Each patient is an individual,” says Dr. Harcourt, so it’s a good idea to have your older animal assessed by a holistic vet before you start supplementing. “There is now a way through blood test analysis for us to determine exactly what your animal is deficient in,” says Dr. Newkirk. “This metabolic nutrition analysis would be the best way to see which supplements the animal needs and how much.”

There are, however, some supplements you can give your animal on your own. “These include digestive enzymes, antioxidants, glucosamine and EFAs,” says Dr. Newkirk. “In general, the dose for small dogs would be about 1/8 of a human dose. For medium, large and extra large dogs, it would be ¼, ½ and one human dose respectively.” Cats, meanwhile, are a slightly different story.  “They are not small dogs, and the things you can give a dog you may not be able to give a cat. You definitely need to talk to a vet about that.”

Dr. Harcourt stresses that ‘aging’ and ‘getting old’ aren’t the same thing. “All living creatures get old and eventually die, but aging refers to premature malfunction, deterioration and degeneration. It is not inevitable and is a function of how we care for our animals. This aging process can be slowed, resulting in more vitality and less disease.” Along with an optimum diet, adequate exercise and lots of loving attention, appropriate supplementation makes it possible for us to enjoy the company of our animals for many happy, healthy years.