If anything, reading a pet food label is even more confusing than trying to decipher what's in the food you buy for your family. According to Thixton, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees pet food safety, though just about all of the regulations, ingredient definitions and guidelines are developed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which is made up by representatives of individual state Departments of Agriculture. So, like so many other things, there are dual federal and state authorities. Most state Departments of Agriculture require pet food companies to register all of the products sold in their state and all of those offerings are supposed to be examined, though the sheer volume of pet food and treats makes that a daunting task [source: Thixton].
So what are some things to look for with dog food you buy for your senior? To start, Thixton says that any claims made on the front of the package stating special benefits for older dogs should be ignored because AAFCO has no guidelines around senior pet food. "There are guidelines for low fat, dental, even hairball claims," she says. "But no guidelines for senior pet food claims."
Still, there are some basic points to remember. First of all, if you know of a particular health condition your senior dog has, that can guide you toward the right ingredients to focus on -- for instance, glucosamine for dogs with arthritis [source: Benson]. More generally, though, it's helpful to know that pet food labels list proteins and fats as minimum percentages and not maximum levels. In other words, that means that a listing of 14 percent fat or protein could actually be 30 percent, which has real implications if you're trying to keep your dog's weight down [source: Thixton].
Also keep in mind that the order of ingredients listed is based on their pre-cooked weight. For some vets, the best approach is to make sure that chicken or some other meat is the first ingredient, while others insist on examining the first five ingredients because they constitute the majority of the food. For his part, Petplan's Benson says a good approach to finding the right food for your dog is to look for an AAFCO "complete and balanced" label. This label, combined with a list of quality ingredients will ensure that your senior dog is getting what it needs nutrient wise.
"Based on industry standards, a meal that has all of the required nutrients can be fabricated from things that we would consider inedible," he says. "While nutrients are very important, the ingredients that provide them are also important. Look for foods with quality ingredients backed up with an AAFCO statement."
Benson also says that when it comes to adding supplements or changing your dog's diet as it gets older, it's important to observe your pooch closely and use common sense. "If you have a senior dog with no health complaints that is doing well on his senior food, there is probably no need to change his diet," says Benson. "However, if your dog is slowing down mentally or physically or has other diseases associated with geriatric dogs, changing his diet to a senior diet or other therapeutic diet is probably your best bet."