Senior dog food is marketed specifically towards senior dog parents…but just how nutritionally sound is it? That’s exactly what I want to talk about today!
Well-meaning dog parents of senior dogs everywhere are feeding their dogs “senior” life-stage formula foods. These pet parents believe that they are doing the best for their dog by providing them with a well-rounded diet. Is their trust in commercial pet food companies misplaced, though?
Nutritional Standards and Dog Food Labeling
It is up to the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) to set pet food standards in the United States. In order for any life stage food formula to be labeled as complete and balanced by the AAFCO, it must meet specific nutritional standards.
The Two AAFCO Food Profiles
Unfortunately, the AAFCO currently only recognizes two specific food profiles – food intended for adult maintenance and food for growth and reproduction.
Adult maintenance food is intended for dogs with “normal” activity levels that are not actively reproducing, working, or growing.
Growth and reproduction food is intended for actively reproducing, working or growing dogs.
To verify that a specific food meets these nutritional profiles, the recipe must meet specific nutritional requirements OR meet the nutritional requirements AND have feeding trial data to verify it’s nutritional adequacy.
But What About Other Food Profiles?
So if the AAFCO does not recognize a feeding profile for senior dogs, how is senior dog food regulated?
As mentioned above, ANY dog food must meet one of the two approved nutritional formulas meaning that they either meet thr nutritional requirements of adult maintenance foods or growth and reproduction foods.
…but what if they don’t?
Foods that don’t meet either of the approved nutritional profiles from the AAFCO are required to display a disclaimer that it is for supplemental or intermittent feeding only.
What does that mean? It means that your dog can’t feed on this food and this food alone.
So…What About That Senior Dog Food?
A senior dog food that is nutritionally rounded MUST have a statement of nutritional adequacy on the packaging. But that statement only tells you if the food contains the necessary nutrients for adult maintenance or growth and reproduction. Since senior dogs don’t fall in to the growth and reproduction classification for the most part, this means that senior foods must meet AAFCO the adult maintenance nutritional profile to be nutritionally sound for everyday feeding.
There is NO specific regulatory data from the AAFCO that establishes the appropriate nutritional profile for senior dog food. That does not stop commercial pet food companies from producing and promoting senior dog foods, however. So how does a pet food get to be labeled as “senior food”?
What Makes a Senior Dog Food Senior Dog Food?
While there is no set nutritional profile for senior dogs, various research organizations are pushing to develop one. The National Research Council (NRC) does, however, make broad recommendations for senior dogs.
According to their most recent statement, the NRC claims that senior dogs require 20% less calories due to decreased activity and have an increased prevalence to being overweight or obese. They also state that these dogs tend to have trouble with carbohydrate metabolism due to obesity.
It is this reference to lower levels of carbohydrates and calories that most “Senior dog food” formulas follow.
Some companies also make additions or substitutions in their foods based on other assumptions about senior dog populations. For example, there is one school of thought that promotes lower levels of protein for senior dogs. This concept is based on the idea that senior dogs suffer from renal impairment which is taxed by protein consumption.
…is anyone else beginning to see a problem here? The elements that make “Senior” dog food formulas different are based on assumptions…
The Problem With Senior Dog Food Formulas
As I mentioned before, in order to be nutritionally sound for regular feeding, most senior dog foods must meet the nutritional profile set out by the AAFCO for adult maintenance. Dr’s Foster & Smith have this nutrient profile information available on their website here.
This means that “Senior” dog foods are healthy then…right?
Not necessarily. This means that senior dog food formulas have nutrient, vitamin, and mineral levels that fall within the minimum and maximum recommended levels for adult dogs. So, while a senior dog food may fall within accepted nutrient values, a pet food company can make the assumption that old dogs require less calories and so, their foods fall on the low end of the scale. So long as those nutritional levels fall within the accepted minimum and maximum recommendations for regular feeding, companies can do as they please.
Why is this a problem? Well, your 8 year old Labrador may well have slowed down and gained weight requiring less calorie intake daily. But when my boy hit 14 he began losing weight. If I had fed him a senior food formula with lower caloric content , he would have lost even more weight and become very ill!
Life Stage Foods Have Limited Usefulness
There is certainly a usefulness for the classification of growth formula foods that can nourish a pregnant mother or a growing puppy. The existence of this group then requires that a second group classification exist as a catch-all for every other dog. This second group has minimum and maximum nutrient, vitamin, and mineral guidelines that cover a wide range and are available in varying combinations.
To further break down the adult maintenance category of food, however, is impractical. Why? Because like humans, dogs are individuals, their health is individual, their allergies are individual, and their overabundance or deficiency of specific elements is individual. That means that further classifications of foods cannot be made simply because there is no way to encompass an entire generation of dogs who don’t all share one nutritional need. Yes, all pregnant dogs require more calories and nutrients, yes all adult dogs have minimum and maximum nutrient requirements…but from there? It’s all individual.
So…If You Shouldn’t Feed Senior Dog Food, What Should You Feed?
Okay, first of all, hold on. Just because a dog food is labeled as a senior dog food does not mean that it is a “bad food”. In fact, it means nothing at all if we are going by AAFCO standards. Ignore the “Senior” wording on the dog food bag and instead look for the AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy. Once you find this, take a look at the individual levels of nutrients. Weigh these nutrient levels up against YOUR dog’s dietary needs.
What does that mean? Well, firstly, talk to your vet to find out what your individual dog needs from their diet. Are they underweight? Overweight? In need of more joint support? Suffering from diabetes? All of these things can help you to build a nutritional profile for your dog.
From here, take that profile and begin shopping AAFCO approved foods that meet that profile. You may find that a “senior food” meets your dog’s needs perfectly, you may find that it doesn’t. You may find that one senior food meets your dog’s needs and another one doesn’t. You may find that your senior dog needs exactly the same nutrient levels as they did when they were a young adult…
My point is, your dog’s diet should be based on your dog and not a generalization of a generation based on age limits.