Q&A with Dr. Blake Hawley DVM: Petaluma's new senior dog food
Petaluma recently launched its second formula, Baked Pumpkin & Peanut Butter, formulated specifically for senior dogs. This formula is the very first plant-based diet for dogs that is optimized for your dog's "golden years" while also achieving the AAFCO profile for adult dogs.
Petaluma's lead formulator, Dr. Blake Hawley, answered some of the most common questions the team receives about the new diet and how to best care for a maturing pup.
What is a lifestage diet and why does it matter?
"A lifestage diet refers to a food that is formulated to meet the nutritional needs of dogs at a specific stage of their life. Just like humans, dogs have different nutritional needs depending on their age, activity level, and overall health.
AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) establishes guidelines for pet food in the U.S. by establishing nutrient profiles and minimum requirements for just two categories - “Adult Maintenance” and “Growth and Reproduction” (which includes puppies and pregnant/lactating females). There is no specific AAFCO nutrient profile for senior dogs, so these formulations use the Adult Maintenance profile as a reference. This means that senior-specific formulas are customized to meet the needs of mature dogs, but are also considered complete formulas for any healthy adult-aged dog.
As a veterinarian and pet food formulator, I know firsthand how critical nutrition is in the overall health and longevity of a dog. A proper diet can help prevent (and address) chronic illness as well as support healthy weight, mobility, and cognitive functioning. There are one-size-fits-all formulas (usually marketed as “All Life Stage” diets) on the market, however, lifestage-specific diets offer optimized nutrition based on your dog’s changing metabolic needs that come with age. While there are substantial macronutrient differences between Growth (puppy) and Adult Maintenance diets, the differences between senior and adult formulas are more nuanced.
For example, senior dogs have a lower baseline metabolic energy requirement and are often less active than their younger selves, which means they require fewer calories to maintain the same weight. However, senior dogs also need the same (or more) of many essential micronutrients. Eating 10% less of their previous food to avoid excessive calories would also result in fewer micronutrients, so many senior-specific diets have fewer calories per cup while maintaining high levels of the essential vitamins and minerals (i.e. higher vitamin density per calorie). We also add nutrients for age-related health concerns, such as plant-derived glucosamine which helps to slow the degradation of joints and preserve mobility."
When is my dog considered a senior?
"The lifestage of your dog is largely dependent on its breed and size. As a general rule of thumb, larger dogs tend to age more quickly than smaller dogs. Dogs can start using their AARP card at age 10 if under 20 lbs, age 9 if between 20-60 lbs, age 7 if 60-90lbs, and as early as age 5 for dogs over 90 lbs. Outside of numerical age, you should also be observant of your dog as they grow older and look for physical and mental indications of aging, such as a graying muzzle, eye cloudiness (nuclear sclerosis), reduced energy levels, or weight gain.
Some purebred dogs are genetically predisposed to develop specific issues as they age, and diet can be a critical preventative tool. For example, some short-legged breeds like corgis and dachshunds tend to be more susceptible to developing hip mobility issues as they age, which can be exacerbated if the dog becomes overweight. Caretakers of these breeds may want to have a conversation with their veterinarian about switching to a senior-tailored diet before the dog is a biological senior to benefit from the reduced calorie content and mobility supplementation."
Can I feed a senior diet to my adult dog?
"Yes, senior formulas that meet AAFCO criteria to be complete and balanced for adult maintenance offer all the nutrients that a healthy adult dog needs. Many senior formulas have reduced caloric content so be mindful of serving size to ensure your dog maintains their proper weight.
There are no significant downsides to feeding a healthy adult dog a senior-tailored diet. One consideration is immune system health, as nutrients with anti-inflammatory properties have some immune-suppressing qualities (as inflammation is a natural immune response). In a simplistic model, chronic inflammation is an over-active immune system that is inappropriately alerting to potential harm. There are two basic components of the immune system - detecting/alerting to harm (either pathogens or damage) and the protective response (i.e. killing pathogens and/or fixing damage). As dogs (and humans) age, the “alerting” system often becomes over-active to stimuli and leads to chronic inflammation, while the actual protective response system becomes less effective (i.e. lower ability to fight an infection). “Anti-inflammatory” nutrients can have different effects on this system. For example, DHA fat has been shown to reduce the immune system’s inflammatory markers (like cytokines) while also improving the protective cells (e.g. B lymphocytes). Curcumin has been shown to have a similar effect.
Most young, healthy adult dogs have a balanced immune system that does not “overreact” to illness or injury and is already able to quickly fight infection or heal physical damage. While our senior diet does not provide immune-modulating nutrients in amounts that should cause acute changes, stimulating an immune response through dietary supplements is not necessary with healthy adult dogs. An argument can be made that a healthy immune system should not be tinkered with - i.e. “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” - which is why we include lower amounts of DHA and turmeric in our adult diet. Both nutrients have other benefits to different systems - including cognitive function - that are useful for all lifestages."
What are some of the functional benefits of Petaluma’s senior formula?
"Petaluma’s senior formula is plant-based and has optimized levels of vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, and fiber for senior dogs.
Plant-based diets have two main advantages compared with conventional animal protein diets. First, they naturally offer rich sources of dietary fiber and antioxidants, and second, the avoidance of highly-processed animal proteins limits exposure to advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) and other possible carcinogens.
- Gut & Digestion: Many dogs have increased stomach sensitivity as they age and experience digestive issues. Plant-based ingredients like pumpkin and apple provide rich sources of prebiotic fiber that feed beneficial gut bacteria and support a healthy biome. Dietary fiber is only present in plant-based foods.
- Mobility: Antioxidant-rich foods also lower inflammation in aging dogs, relieving discomfort associated with increased age-related inflammation and enabling longer walks and extended playtime. We also add a plant-derived glucosamine that offers joint support for aging dogs and can help delay the onset and progression of osteoarthritis, allowing them to stay active and playful well into their golden years.
- Cognition: Just like humans, dogs often experience declining mental function as they age. Diets rich in antioxidants, which are only found in significant quantities in plants, have been demonstrated to support brain function and memory in senior dogs by reducing free radical content in the body. (Read more here: VCA))
- Weight management: High-fiber diets like Petaluma offer aging dogs a feeling of fullness and satisfaction at mealtime with reduced calorie content, helping them maintain a healthy weight and stay active."
What should I look for in a senior-specific diet?
"Healthy senior dogs will do best on a diet with slightly reduced calorie content, increased omega-3 fat content, higher fiber content, and optimized levels of calcium, phosphorous, and sodium. Any diet you select should be formulated to meet the AAFCO guidelines for adult dogs.
As a note, some dogs develop chronic conditions like kidney disease as they age. Dogs with serious health conditions are best served on a diet tailored specifically to address those concerns. Formulas that address a health condition are called therapeutic diets and typically are prescribed by a veterinarian. "
What are some of the primary differences between Petaluma’s adult and senior formulas?
"Relative to the adult formula, Petaluma’s senior formula has 200% more DHA omega-3 fat, ~15% more grams of fiber, and ~10% fewer calories per cup with a similar micronutrient density. The senior formula has increased antioxidant content from ingredients like turmeric that reduce inflammation, with ~100 mg of curcumin per cup. Each cup contains ~150mg of plant-derived glucosamine and is boosted with breath-freshening herbs like rosemary and parsley."
What are some of the similarities between Petaluma’s adult and senior formulas?
"Both of Petaluma’s formulas are oven baked rather than extruded like traditional kibble. Baking preserves flavor and locks in nutritional value without using excessive heat. Baked foods absorb water more readily than kibble, and can be softened easily by adding 1/3 cup of water for dogs that need a softer food as they age or have limited dentition.
Petaluma’s adult and senior diets are both designed to offer appropriate levels of phosphorous for metabolic function while avoiding excess. Excessive phosphorous can place an unnecessary burden on their kidneys, which is more harmful to older dogs. Processed meats are generally very high in phosphorus, so the use of animal protein as a primary ingredient (and particularly meat meals) usually results in excessive phosphorus consumption."