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Does Your Dog Really Need Life Stage Food?

Foods designed for different ages mean better nutrition throughout a dog’s life. We walk you through how to pick the best for your pup.

Audrey Pavia  |  Nov 16th 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our October-November issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

Until recently, I served two types of dog food at my house: an adult recipe for Candy, who is 7 years old, and a puppy food for Mookie, who wasn’t 6 months yet. When Mookie reached his half-year birthday, he graduated to an adult diet. But the luxury of giving both my dogs food from the same life stage won’t last.

Changing foods

When did these choices in lifestage foods come about and why? Significant advancements in companion animal nutritional science have been made in the last 50 years, starting from when most dogs were still living and sleeping outdoors, according to Cathleen Enright, Ph.D., president and CEO of Pet Food Institute in Washington, D.C.

“The first pet food marketed for a specific life stage, puppies, was introduced in the early 1960s; in 2006, the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council updated the nutrient profiles for dogs and cats to include physical activity and multiple different life stages, such as pregnant mothers or active adults,” Dr. Enright said.

She added that more and more Americans consider their dog to be a family member. Continued investment and study in nutritional science means that pet food makers are now able to provide a number of options to help pet lovers feel confident in meeting their dog’s nutritional needs and offer pet food products to support a healthy life.

All this is good news for dogs because foods designed for different life stages mean better nutrition throughout a dog’s life.

“The main benefit is the ability to have targeted, appropriate nutrition and nutrients for dogs based on their age, development stage, and possibly breed or condition,” said Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry magazine. “This helps assure dog owners that they’re feeding their pets the most appropriate food for their needs, and it helps veterinarians and retailers know what foods to suggest or recommend to individual owners.”

Pet food by Shutterstock.

Pet food by Shutterstock.

Making choices

When Mookie was a young puppy, it was easy to figure out that he needed a diet made just for puppies. Picking just one from the many brands available proved to be a challenge. For advice, I went to the rescue where I got him and also consulted with his veterinarian. I initially settled on a premium lamb and rice kibble.

As Mookie got older and started to look and act more like an adult, I thought about switching him to an adult diet. I tried to put him on the same premium food Candy was eating, but it didn’t agree with his stomach. I again consulted with his vet as well as his puppy kindergarten trainer. I settled on a dehydrated diet for adult dogs.

If you’re like me, you probably find trying to choose a dog food daunting, given the number of brands on the market. With so many diets out there, including the many life-stage foods now available, how do you know which one to pick?

“Probably the best way to start is by asking your veterinarian — or perhaps the breeder if it’s a purebred puppy — if there are any particular types of nutrients your dog needs more or less of,” Debbie said. “For example, should an older dog be getting more or less protein? A veterinarian should also be able to recommend certain types of foods. And using the same example, perhaps a food for senior dogs. But not all foods in the same category are formulated or made the same, so it can help to learn how to read certain parts of a pet food label.”

Debbie admitted that it can be difficult to decipher dog food labels but added that by looking for the guaranteed analysis, which all pet foods sold in the U.S. are required to have, you can compare foods based on the amount of protein, fat, and fiber — especially if you have guidelines from your veterinarian as to the best ranges for those types of nutrients for your individual dog.

Dr. Enright also recommended reading the label to get as much information as possible before making a decision.

“Select a brand labeled for your dog’s life stage that is labeled ‘complete and balanced’ to ensure your dog’s nutritional requirements will be met,” she said. “Then it’s up to you. Choose a brand that your pet prefers.”

Making the change

Once you pick a brand that’s nutritionally complete, appropriate for your dog’s life stage, and appealing to you, go online and do some more research. Check pet food retailer websites for reviews of the food you’re considering. Talk to other dog owners who are giving this diet to their dogs, and see what they think.

If you decide to try the food, start by buying a small amount first. Introduce your dog to it gradually by adding a little more to his regular food at each meal. Take at least a week to make the complete transition — going too fast will upset his stomach. Make sure your dog likes the new food, it provides him with the energy he needs, and it agrees with his digestive system — and your wallet.

You can always switch your dog’s food in the future if you want to move him to a new life stage diet or try a different brand or type of food altogether. With all the many types of foods available to dog owners today, you can experiment with different diets until you find the one that best suits your dog.

Puppy by Shutterstock.

Puppy by Shutterstock.

AAFCO’S Guidelines: Growth/Adult Maintenance — by Deborah Linder, D.V.M., DACVN, I Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University

There are two life stages that have different nutritional requirements in dogs, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). One is “Growth,” which includes weaning until full skeletal maturity, and the other is “Adult/Maintenance,” which is full maturity through life span.

AAFCO guidelines allow for pet foods to be labeled as “growth,” “maintenance,” or “all life stages” (which means the food meets the nutrient needs of any pet). The AAFCO does not test or regulate pet foods (pet food is regulated on the state level); however, pet foods must meet AAFCO guidelines to be labeled as complete and balanced. This can be done by conducting feeding trials or by analyzing food and comparing to nutrient profiles.

GROWTH: All puppies should be fed a complete and balanced food that contains an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement for growth or for all life stages until the pet reaches full skeletal maturity. For small to medium breed dogs, this is typically 1 year of age. For large and giant-breed dogs, this could be up to 15 to 18 months of age. Of note, though, is large/giant breed dogs. AAFCO has specific provisions for large and giant breed puppy diets. These diets are more careful about calcium and phosphorus. Large or giant breed puppies are at highest risk for joint problems, so they should be fed a growth diet (formulated for large breed puppies) without any additional supplements until full skeletal maturity.

ADULT: After reaching full skeletal maturity, dogs can be fed a variety of diets that have AAFCO nutrient adequacy statements and follow guidelines to ensure high quality. For more help on how to select a high-quality food, there is a handout created for pet owners as a part of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Nutrition Toolkit “Selecting the Best Food for Your Pet.” (wsava.org/nutrition-toolkit) The term “senior diet” has no AAFCO definition. The age at which each pet becomes “senior” is not defined for all dogs or by breed. Senior diets have no restrictions other than what each pet food company thinks an older dog should receive. Pets may have the same adult food all their lives or may need adjustment based on changing needs as they age. Each pet owner should talk to his vet about his specific pet needs.

Top photo by Christian Vieler.