One of the most important breakthroughs in canine nutrition came when veterinary nutritionists recognized the different nutritional needs that dogs have as they mature. This may seem fairly self-evident now, but dog owners and veterinarians used to have more of "a dog is a dog is a dog" mentality when it came to feeding our canine friends.
What are a Dog’s Life Stages, and What Foods are Available to Meet Them?
The first life stage is puppy. During this period a dog food rated for “growth” is needed because it is specifically designed for puppies and kittens according to the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials, which sets standards for pet foods in the United States). These foods have higher levels of protein, fat, calcium, phosphorous, sodium, and chloride, in comparison to adult dog foods, to support a young dog’s rapid growth, metabolism, and development.
Most veterinarians recommend that puppies eat dog foods rated for growth until they are around twelve months of age, but talk to your vet to determine what is best in your dog’s individual situation. Once a puppy has reached about 90 percent of its adult size, its growth rate slows and it can be switched to a dog food rated for "adult maintenance."
Large breed dogs are at high risk for developmental orthopedic diseases (e.g., hip dysplasia), and feeding a food that maintains a relatively slow and steady growth rate can help prevent these potentially devastating conditions. In comparison to "regular" puppy formulations, large breed puppy foods have lower energy content and fat, slightly lower levels of calcium and phosphorous, and a very carefully balanced calcium:phosphorous ratio to maintain a healthy rate of growth. Don’t worry; dogs fed a large breed puppy food when they are growing still end up at their expected size, it just takes them a little longer to get there.
"Adult maintenance" dog foods are the appropriate choice for most adult dogs. Exceptions to the adult foods for adult dogs rule do exist, however. If your dog is pregnant or nursing or has other lifestyle or health conditions that change his or her nutritional needs, consult with your veterinarian.
There is no hard and fast rule as to when to make the switch to a "mature adult" food, but many veterinarians recommend that small dogs make the change at eight years of age, medium-sized dogs at around seven years, large breeds at six years, and giant breeds at about five years of age. The differences between an adult and senior food within the same product line are oftentimes not very great but are important. They may contain lower levels of fat to help prevent obesity, increased levels of anti-oxidants, or moderate levels of protein aimed at maintaining muscle mass while not overworking the kidneys. Mature foods should contain decreased levels of phosphorus for kidney health.
Feeding a diet that is appropriate for a dog’s life stage — that is made from superior ingredients and that provides balanced nutrition — can go a long way towards keeping him strong and healthy. Consult your veterinarian for the best food to feed your dog at each stage of his life
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Eric Isselee / via Shutterstock