Are Life Stage Dog Foods Credible?

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Apr. 25, 2014

Recently, a reader posted a comment in response to an old post about life stage feeding. In part it said:

Life stage feeding is nothing but clever marketing. A quality food formulated for "all life stages" (in other words — a food which adheres to the more stringent "growth" nutrient profile set forth by AAFCO) is sufficient in most cases.

For those of you who are unaware of the minutiae of pet food labeling, manufacturers have to meet a set of standards published by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to be allowed to print statements like the following on their labels:

Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand A adult dog food provides complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of adult dogs.

Dog foods can be placed into one of three categories — adult maintenance, growth and reproduction, or all life stages.

Now, to get back to the aforementioned comment. The standards for growth and reproduction are not “more stringent” than are those for adult maintenance, inferring that the latter are somehow inferior. In fact, it could be said that the adult maintenance standards are more stringent in that for many nutrients, minimums and maximums are dictated while only minimums growth and reproduction foods only have to adhere to a set of minimums. All life stages foods have to meet both sets of parameters, which isn’t as hard as it might sound when you actually take a look at the table.

This is what it looks like, courtesy of the Merck Veterinary Manual.

(Click image for larger view)

At the beginning of the comment, the writer specifically brings up the topic of protein. In fact, I agree that with regards to this nutrient, feeding a growth and reproduction or all life stages food to a healthy, adult dog would be just fine. High-quality adult maintenance, growth and reproduction, and all life stages foods will all have more than the 22% minimum protein put forth by AAFCO for growth and reproduction.

AAFCO standards are simply a floor beneath which pet foods cannot fall if they are to carry a “complete and balanced” statement on their labels. Highly regarded manufacturers go much further, fine-tuning their diets to optimize nutrition for specific populations.

For example, the AAFCO minimum for a food’s calcium to phosphorous ratio is 1:1 with a maximum of 2:1 added for adult maintenance and all life stages foods. Research has shown that to help avoid developmental orthopedic diseases like hip dysplasia, the ideal ratio is 1:1 to 1.3:1 for large breed puppies. Large breed puppy foods are formulated to meet this more restrictive ratio, even though AAFCO has nothing to say on the matter at all.

This is one instance when life stage feeding is far more than “clever marketing.”

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: WilleeCole Photography / Shutterstock

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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