In this article you will find:
Most dog owners are aware that puppies have different nutritional needs from adult dogs. Many people are also aware that senior dogs can have changes in their metabolism that mean they can benefit from a change in food. Toy/small dogs, large/giant dogs – they also have some special nutritional needs. As you might guess, dog food companies have been happy to formulate foods for different lifestages and nutritional requirements.
Nutritional adequacy statements
When you look at various dog foods you will note that they have lots of information on the labels: the brand and product name, the name of the species for which the food is intended (dog or cat), a quantity statement, a guaranteed analysis, a list of ingredients, feeding directions, and the name and address of the manufacturer or distributor. We’ll discuss these label items a bit later. The label should also include the AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement for the food. This statement indicates that the food is “complete and balanced” for a particular stage of a dog’s life such as growth and reproduction (often seen on puppy foods), adult maintenance, or all life stages. Some products may say they are intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only. These products are not “complete and balanced.” They may be toppings or a food that is mostly protein. Products that are obviously identified on their packaging as a treat, snack, or supplement are exempt and they don’t require a nutritional adequacy statement.
There are a couple of different ways that a food can earn a nutritional adequacy statement from AAFCO. One method is through feeding trials. An AAFCO feeding trial typically lasts a minimum of 26 weeks and includes eight healthy dogs eating one dog food formula. That food is the only source of nutrition except for water. One-fourth of the dogs (or two) can be removed from the trial because of non-nutritional reasons and their data doesn’t have to be included in the results. However, any dogs that die during a trial must have a necropsy and the findings have to be included.
The food consumed by the dogs in the trial is measured and recorded. The trial takes place in a testing facility or a test kennel. The dogs are weighed regularly and have regular bloodwork taken that measures hemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphatase, and serum albumin. Assuming all of these measurements are within normal ranges and six of the original eight dogs survive for six months on the food, the formula will be considered to be nutritionally complete. Dogs can lose up to 15 percent of their body weight during the trial, however, without it being considered a problem. There are some differences in feeding trials for puppy diets and gestation/lactation, especially in the length of time the trials last.
There are two other ways that a dog food can earn a nutritional adequacy statement. AAFCO allows companies to submit a nutrient profile that shows a complete nutritional analysis of the food. It’s rather rare for pet food companies to post their nutrient profiles online, though you can see a technical analysis of foods on the Fromm site. Our friends at TikiPets kindly provide lab analyses of their foods for people who may have pets that need to watch certain nutrients when they are ill.
Foods can also gain a nutritional adequacy statement if they are similar to another food or product that already has approval. This often occurs with foods that are in the same “family” of foods. For example, if X Brand has already gained approval for their chicken and rice formula, they should have no problem earning approval for a beef and rice and a lamb and rice food made in the same product line.
Some people feel that feeding trials do a better job than nutrient profiles of proving that a food is complete and balanced. However, most dog food manufacturers today do not use feeding trials. They are much more expensive for companies than providing a nutrient profile. In most cases, only large, established companies have the resources to spend money on food trials. Many smaller companies, especially companies that are just starting out, don’t have the money to spend on food trials. Many popular dog foods with very good quality ingredients fall into this category. This is an issue for you to keep in mind when you choose a dog food. Veterinarians are often advised that foods that have won approval through food trials are superior to foods that have used nutrient profiles which helps explain some of the feedback you may get from your vet about dog foods.
There are plenty of critics of the AAFCO approval process – for both the feeding trials and the other methods. The feeding trials are not very demanding and the other methods do not require that actual dogs eat the food before it is sold to the public. Even with the feeding trials it could be possible for a dog to survive 26 weeks on a food that has a nutritional excess or deficiency that might not show up until later in life. Foods that gain approval through nutrient profiles or because they are similar to other products might be unpalatable to dogs. They could be perfectly healthy on paper and taste terrible. The best food in the world is no good if dogs won’t eat it. You can also make a nutrient profile that looks great but it can contain ingredients that your dog can’t digest very well. However, at this time we don’t really have any other methods for assuring that dog foods meet some minimum level of nutritional adequacy. There is room for improvement.
Now that you know something about nutritional adequacy statements and how dog foods are labeled “complete and balanced,” we can discuss different lifestages and what kind of food your dog needs at different times in his life.
Newborn puppies depend entirely on their dams, or mothers, for their nutrition. This is true unless for some reason their mother is unable to nurse them or the puppy can’t nurse. A mother dog can have mastitis or another health issue before the puppies are old enough to be weaned, for example. In this case if falls on the breeder to provide nutrition for the puppies. This is usually done with a puppy formula that mimics the mother’s milk as closely as possible. There are commercial puppy formulas available. Some breeders prefer to make their own formulas using goat’s milk and other ingredients.
Newborn puppies need to nurse soon after being born in order to absorb the colostrum in their mother’s milk. Colostrum contains maternal antibodies to viruses and gives the puppies some temporary immunity to illnesses. However, these antibodies can only pass through the puppies’ intestinal walls for a limited time after birth. After about 24 hours or so (the time varies), the intestinal walls become too dense for the antibodies to pass through them. This is called “gut closure” and it is normal in all puppies. It means that after this time colostrum is no longer useful to puppies. It’s very important for puppies to nurse in this first 24 hour period. They should also show some weight gain during the first 24-48 hours. Their mother’s milk is not only the source of their nutrition, but it also keeps them hydrated. So, puppies should be allowed and encouraged to nurse as much as possible.
If you have a smaller puppy, you can encourage him to nurse first to make sure he is getting his share of the milk. A weaker puppy may need to be tube fed or require other support. Have your vet show you how to tube feed the puppy with milk replacer. Remember that newborn puppies are delicate. If you see signs of any problems, do not wait to get your vet or an experienced breeder involved. Time matters.
Puppies normally continue to nurse for about 3-4 weeks. Some dams will allow puppies to nurse longer but the puppies should be eating solid foods by the time they are about 3-4 weeks of age. Nursing after they are a month old can begin to take a physical toll on the mother, especially if there are a lot of puppies. Most mother dogs will start to wean the puppies themselves by avoiding them and limiting the time they can nurse. The puppies have very sharp teeth by this age and it starts to hurt when they nurse. Puppies should remain with their mother and siblings until they are 7-8 weeks old (in the case of large breeds) or 10-12 weeks for Toy breeds. These extra weeks past weaning age allow the mother to teach the puppies about being dogs and how they should behave. They learn lessons such as bite inhibition, how to socialize with each other, and reading the body language of other dogs. These are important early lessons for every dog.
By this time – 7 to 8 weeks – the temporary immunity the puppies had from the colostrum has begun to wear off. They should be receiving their first vaccinations. Immunity wears off at different times for different puppies depending on many factors such as how many antibodies were in the colostrum, which puppies drank the most, and so on. Take no chances and make sure you have your puppies vaccinated.
Feeding growing puppies
Breeders usually begin offering puppies food not long after their eyes open and they start toddling around. This is usually around 2-3 weeks of age. Puppies are still nursing at this age but they are beginning to be curious about things. They often taste things, including their mother’s food. Breeders have different philosophies about what to feed young puppies. Some breeders will grind up puppy food and mix it with a little goat’s milk to form a soft gruel for the puppies. Other breeders will use a mix of puppy food, canned food, and/or some cooked or raw meat. The food needs to be softer at first but puppies can quickly start eating a dry commercial puppy food. It’s important to provide them with water as they begin eating regular foods. Meals at this age are communal, with puppies often crawling over each other and diving head first into puppy pans. Sometimes they get more puppy food on their heads and faces than in their stomachs, but they soon learn the routine.
By the time a puppy is old enough to go to his new home, he has usually been eating a puppy food for several weeks unless the breeder feeds a homecooked or raw diet. (In that case you will need to talk to the breeder about the puppy’s individual diet and whether you intend to continue to feed the same food or change to a commercial diet.) These first few months of the puppy’s life are vital for his skeletal growth. Any nutritional deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in his diet during these months can affect his health years later. Your puppy’s bones are developing, he is gaining muscle mass, and his immune system is developing. In addition, his brain is developing and he’s learning about his surroundings and learning about good socialization. Good nutrition is essential while your puppy is growing.
During this growth phase your puppy needs a high quality diet that meets his specific nutritional requirements. Most breeders recommend a good quality puppy food, at least for a puppy’s first few months. Puppy foods usually carry nutritional adequacy statements that say they are complete and balanced for growth and reproduction or for gestation/lactation and growth. You can also feed a food with a nutritional adequacy statement that says it’s for All Life Stages. These foods have been approved to feed to dogs of all life stages, including young, growing puppies so they have the required nutrients in the correct balance. But … just to be on the safe side, you might want to feed a good puppy food until your puppy has achieved most of his adult size. This age varies for different breeds and types of dogs. Small, Toy dogs achieve their adult size much faster than large or giant breeds. If you have a Toy breed puppy, he can be as large as he’s going to get by the time he’s 6-8 months old. On the other hand, some giant breed dogs are still growing when they are 18 months old. So, we suggest feeding a good quality puppy food until your puppy has reached about 90 percent of his adult size.
Puppies benefit from eating on a regular schedule. This can make it easier to house train them, it prevents them from over-eating, and it discourages them from being too picky about their food. You can put their food down for about 20 to 30 minutes and then take it away until it’s time to feed the next meal. Most puppies should have about three meals per day when they are very young. You can decrease this to two meals per day as they become adult dogs. If you have a very small puppy, he may need to have four meals per day in the beginning to help avoid any problems with hypoglycemia. Chihuahuas, Yorkies and some other very small dogs need to keep their blood sugar levels steady with small regular meals as puppies.
While roly-poly puppies may be cute, being overweight is unhealthy for a puppy. Try to keep your puppy slim. Don’t overfeed him and don’t get carried away with giving him treats. It’s much better for his long-term health if he stays lean and active at this age. This is especially true with large and giant breeds since they are more prone to joint and bone diseases if they grow too fast or become overweight. Many health problems such as osteochondrosis, arthritis, and hip dysplasia can be avoided later in life by watching your puppy’s weight when he’s young. Large/giant breed puppy foods will typically have slightly fewer calories than other puppy foods and the calcium to phosphorus ratio may be slightly lower than other puppy foods. This is done to try to keep these puppies lean, encourage slow growth, and ward off future bone and joint problems as adults.
As you might expect, puppies have different nutrition needs from adult dogs. They need more calories than adult dogs, more arginine, and their amino acid needs are different. Vitamin and mineral imbalances at this age can spell disaster for a puppy. Not enough vitamin E can lead to muscle degeneration. A choline deficiency can cause problems with the puppy’s liver function. The puppy’s growth rate can be slowed if there is a pantothenic acid deficiency. Without enough vitamin D puppies can develop osteoporosis and if the puppy does not have enough vitamin A in his diet he can experience abnormal bone development, problems with his eyes and skin, and be more susceptible to infections. By providing a good quality puppy food, all of these nutrients should be provided in the proper amounts and correct ratios.
You can see the NRC nutrient requirements for puppies after weaning in the Appendix.
One thing you should not do, if you are feeding your puppy a commercial diet, is supplement his food with added protein, vitamins, or minerals, such as calcium. There are lots of supplements sold today and dog lovers sometimes think they are improving a dog’s diet by adding them to the dog’s food. They may or may not be true in the case of an adult dog’s food. However, if you add supplements to a puppy’s commercial diet it can have dire consequences. Supplements that affect a puppy’s calcium, phosphorus, or vitamin D can cause imbalances in the puppy’s diet and lead to skeletal abnormalities. The ideal ratio of calcium to phosphorus for puppies is around 1.2:1 (with some variation at different times during the puppy’s growth). Even if you could maintain the proper calcium to phosphorus ratio, adding more of these minerals to your puppy’s diet can be harmful, especially in large and giant breed puppies.
If you are determined to add supplements to your puppy’s diet then limit the supplements to small amounts of water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C and B vitamins. Avoid supplements that contain minerals or fat-soluble vitamins. The only fat-soluble vitamin that you might give your dog is vitamin E.
In many ways, feeding the adult dog is the easiest time for most dog owners. Commercial dog food was originally developed with the idea of feeding adult dogs and even today the majority of dog foods are still geared toward the adult diet. There are far more adult foods from which to select than for other lifestages. The primary difficulty most people have with selecting an adult dog food is trying to narrow down their choices.
For the purposes of feeding an adult dog food, “adult” is usually considered to be 1-6 years of age for most foods, though this is only a generalization. Dogs are usually considered to be in their prime years during this time. Many companies offer dog foods for senior dogs with a suggestion to start feeding the food when dogs are around 7 years old. These are only suggested ages, however, since a lot depends on your dog’s size and other factors. Small/Toy breeds often have longer lifespans than bigger dogs so they may not begin to require a senior dog food until they are several years older. Large/giant breeds, on the other hand, can have shorter lifespans. A giant breed may not live past 9 years in some cases, so it might be appropriate to start feeding a senior dog food when the dog is 5-6 years old. As usual, it’s best to make individual choices for your dog based on his health and condition. Some dogs can do well on an All Life Stage food for their entire lifetime, though you may want to talk to your veterinarian about some supplements for your dog as he ages.
Adult dogs can eat an All Life Stage food or a Maintenance diet after they have completed their puppy growth stage. The growth formulas used in puppy foods have more calories and more protein than adult dogs require. If you continue to feed your adult dog a puppy food he can easily become overweight or obese. An All Life Stage or Maintenance diet is better balanced for the nutritional needs of an adult dog.
You can find the AAFCO and NRC recommendations for an adult dog in the Appendix. Under the current guidelines, AAFCO recommends that adult dogs have a minimum of 18 percent protein in their diet (no maximum) and 5 percent fat. The NRC recommends an adult dog on a Maintenance diet have a daily recommended allowance of 25 grams of protein per 1,000 kcal ME, with a minimum of 20 grams per 1,000 kcal ME. For fat, the NRC recommends a maximum of 82.5 grams per 1,000 kcal ME with a recommended daily allowance of 13.8 grams. Dog foods that are approved as All Life Stage or Maintenance foods will meet these requirements. Your dog’s individual requirements will vary depending on different factors such as his activity level, age, size, whether he is neutered or intact, health issues, and so on.
If your dog is living a comfortable daily life as a pet without doing much work or getting much exercise, a Maintenance diet is probably appropriate. If you and your dog hunt, go to dog shows or agility trials or other competitive events; or if you have a stud dog or your dog occasionally has a litter of puppies, you will likely need to feed an All Life Stage dog food. Kennel dogs and dogs recovering from illness can also need food that is higher in nutrition than a Maintenance dog food.
You can calculate your dog’s energy and calorie requirements using a mathematical formula with specific adjustments for your dog’s situation. You can also find calculators online that let you plug in your dog’s weight and adjust for other factors to give you an estimate of the calories you should be feeding your dog per day.
Most adult dog foods today are a mix of plant-based and animal-based ingredients. Dogs generally prefer animal-based ingredients and they are easier for them to digest. However, plant-based foods can cost less. They cost less for dog food companies compared to using more meat. Dog food companies usually emphasize the animal-based ingredients in their foods even when plant-based ingredients are providing a lot of the protein. Plant-based ingredients often contribute to the protein percentage in dog food, even in some super premium foods.
“Plant-based” does not necessarily refer to corn or wheat. Plant-based can refer to peas and lentils used as protein. It can also refer to sweet potatoes, potatoes, and other vegetables used as carbs. Today many well-known dog foods use these ingredients in their grain free foods. Grain free foods are very popular but some people mistakenly believe that they are lower in carbohydrates than foods that contain corn or other grains. Many grain free foods are quite high in carbs but you may not discover this fact unless you look at the dry matter basis (DMB) for the food.
You should look for foods that meet AAFCO approval for All Life Stages or Maintenance, whether they are primarily animal-based or not. Most dogs living as house pets will do well on a Maintenance diet. They can become overweight or obese quickly if they are fed a super premium All Life Stage food with higher protein and fat. These dogs are not usually getting enough exercise or work to use up the calories in these other foods.
If your adult dog is more active, even if he doesn’t have a job, he may require more nutrients than are found in the typical maintenance diet. Puppies that make the switch to an adult food can often benefit from eating an All Life Stage food because they may still be growing. In these cases it’s a good idea to choose an All Life Stage food for your dog. Look for foods with good quality ingredients that are easy to digest.
When choosing any dog food it’s important to keep several things in mind.
- Don’t choose foods based just on the protein content or percentage. More is not always better.
- Don’t let the company’s advertising unduly sway you. Read the labels and compare to other foods.
- Don’t feel like you have to jump on the band wagon. You don’t have to feed the same food everyone else feeds.
- Don’t choose a food only based on price. Very expensive foods are not always the best choice for YOUR dog.
There are lots of great dog foods being made today. There’s nothing wrong with trying a few of them to see how your dog likes them and responds to them. But there is no one best food that is right for every dog. In addition, dog food companies frequently change their formulations. A food that worked great for your friend last year may have some very different ingredients now. Even if the ingredients look the same, companies have six months after making a recipe change to update the list of ingredients on their label.
There are differences in dog food quality and we do encourage you to buy good quality foods. It’s just not always as easy to tell which foods are good quality as some people like to think. For example, we call your attention to the Purina vs. Blue Buffalo lawsuit. Blue Buffalo was a beloved pet food that claimed to use natural ingredients. Both the company and its many fans liked to sneer at Purina, frequently disparaging the company in commercials. Purina took them to court and Blue Buffalo was forced to admit that they used poultry by-products, corn and artificial preservatives despite contrary claims. Blue Buffalo has settled a $32 million class action suit with its customers because of this revelation. Many customers still feel betrayed by the company. (Blue Buffalo blames suppliers.) So, you may not always get what you think you are buying with dog food.
Many dog food companies today market their foods based on their ingredients. Lots of people are more conscious of eating healthier diets today and they want healthier foods for their dogs. In some cases companies have tried to transfer trends in human foods directly to dog foods. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Dogs now have organic foods, gluten-free foods, and low glycemic foods. Gourmet, human-grade, and holistic dog foods are common. At the opposite end of the spectrum, pet owners also like raw and wild-caught foods for their dogs. They like foods that have as little processing as possible. You can even find a few vegan dog foods – though nearly all veterinarians and other dog folks will tell you that this diet is not advisable for dogs.
Dog lovers do need to keep their wits about them when considering some of these offerings. Ideas about what constitutes a healthy diet for dogs can change over time. In the 1970s, when people were first starting to become interested in natural health and food for dogs, one of the first books on the topic was Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats by Dr. Richard H. Pitcairn and Susan Hubble Pitcairn. This book has been immensely popular over the years. It’s revised and is still popular today. Dr. Pitcairn is highly respected. It contains lots of good information about canine health and nutrition. However, the recipes in the book are definitely carb-heavy. Even the homemade cat food recipes in the book include grains. Dr. Pitcairn is a big believer in adding grains to your dog’s diet. You can reduce the amount of grains and still use many of the recipes but this is just an example about how ideas about what dogs need in their diets can change – in this case in just a couple of decades.
Opinions vary on how much the average dog actually benefits from some of the current dog food trends. We can examine some of these issues in more detail later.
Super premium dog foods generally have more meat and meat byproducts than other foods. They will also cost more because meat protein costs more. Less expensive dog foods typically have more cereal/grain. Cereal/grain have been roundly condemned in many quarters as filler ingredients but they are plant sources of protein similar to legumes and lentils. There are some good dog foods that use grains. It’s only when foods use excessive amounts of cereal/grain that it becomes a problem in terms of quality; or when a dog food company uses a deceptive practice such as “splitting” to try to hide the amount of grain in the food. “Splitting” refers to the practice of using several different forms of a grain in a food which essentially disguises how much of the grain is actually in the food. For example, a food might have an ingredient list that states it contains (in order of weight before cooking): “chicken, corn gluten meal, ground yellow corn, … corn flour, corn bran” and so on. You might believe by looking at the list that the food contains more chicken than any other ingredient. However, by the time the moisture is removed from the chicken and all of the sources of corn are added together, the food contains more corn than any other ingredient. You do find this practice in some lesser quality dog foods. However, there are still some high quality dog foods that contain a generous amount of meat protein which also use grains. Just because a food is grain inclusive does not mean that it is an inferior dog food.
If you are interested in canned dog food, it can contain between 75 and about 85 percent moisture. It does not usually have as many carbohydrates as kibble, on a dry matter basis (DMB). Many dog food companies are less likely to add grains to canned food, although they do add rice to some recipes.
Dogs are able to digest the starches in cereals and grains but dog food trends today encourage owners to buy foods that have more meat protein. Plant-based proteins lack some of the essential amino acids required by dogs so foods that rely on cereals, grains, legumes, and lentils need to be supplemented with other protein sources. In some less expensive dog foods soy is sometimes used as a vegetable source of protein. Some dogs can tolerate soy but it is also one of the most common food allergens for dogs. Any breed can be allergic to soy. Soy also contains some sugars that dogs do not digest well. They are only digested by bacteria in the dog’s colon which produces gas.
Old age in dogs varies from breed to breed (including crossbred dogs). Dogs are usually considered old when they have reached about 75 percent of their expected lifespan. So, a Great Dane may be considered an old dog when he is only 6 years old while a smaller breed, such as a Toy Poodle, may not be considered old until he is about 10 years old. Even then, individual dogs can vary greatly. Some dogs will remain frisky and playful late in life so these are only generalizations. However, it is important to recognize when your dog is getting older so you can start to provide preventive veterinary care, food, and other support.
While the NRC and AAFCO have nutritional guidelines for puppies, pregnant/nursing bitches, and for adult dogs on maintenance diets, along with all life stage diets, there are no specific guidelines for senior dogs at this time. Various pet food companies and canine nutritionists are researching nutrition for senior dogs but there are no firm standards or guidelines yet about vitamins, minerals, calories, or other advice on feeding older dogs. The NRC currently states:
Because of decreased physical activity and slowed metabolism, older dogs need 20% fewer total calories than do middle-aged adult dogs. As dogs age, they tend to become overweight. It may take obese dogs longer for their blood glucose concentrations to return to normal. This disrupted carbohydrate metabolism can lead to diabetes.
However, most people who have had senior dogs know that this advice can be harmful in many cases. Many elderly dogs begin to lose muscle tone and weight as they age. Feeding these dogs 20 percent fewer calories could be a death sentence. Yet many dog food companies combine senior dog food with weight loss/weight control diets in one product, assuming that all older dogs are overweight.
We suggest that older dogs (over 7 years for most dogs) fall into two age divisions. Mature senior dogs, 7 years and older, may have a slowing metabolism. These dogs may be less active than when they were younger. They may play less and get less exercise. They may have gained some weight so they are a little overweight. These dogs may benefit from foods currently made by many dog food companies and marketed as senior and weight control diets. Try to encourage your mature senior dog to stay active and keep his weight under control. Attend to any small health problems before they become major.
There is another age division beyond this mature senior age. These dogs are elderly senior dogs. Elderly dogs may begin to have serious health problems. Their metabolism further slows. They do not digest food as well as they did when they were younger. Their senses are not as sharp as they once were so they don’t see or smell food very well. You may need to warm food for them to make it more appealing. You may need to find food that is tastier for them to get them to eat or add a tasty topping to their regular food. Elderly dogs may also have teeth problems so you need to have your veterinarian check their teeth often. Teeth problems can keep a dog from eating even if he is hungry. Elderly dogs often begin to lose weight so feed them all the food they will eat. The last thing these dogs need is a senior/weight control diet. Try to make sure your elderly dog continues to get daily exercise, even if it’s just a pleasant walk. Exercise is good for muscle tone and digestion. Continuing a daily routine is also good for your dog’s mental outlook.
Many older dogs will have less thirst so they can become dehydrated. Older dogs often begin to have problems with arthritis in their joints. Your dog may benefit from supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin though, as we’ve already mentioned, you may be better off buying these supplements at the drugstore or online and adding them to your dog’s food instead of buying a dog food that contains them.
As dogs get older their organs no longer function as well as they once did. In their digestive system, their liver, gallbladder, and pancreas all decrease in function. Their intestines can no longer remove all of the nutrients from the food the dog eats. The colon no longer works as well as it used to so dogs can have problems with constipation. The kidneys can no longer filter as well as they once did and this is considered normal as the dog ages. In fact, all of these changes are normal as dogs grow old. Ideally, you can catch many of these changes before your dog becomes sick. Your vet can perform regular geriatric exams every six months. And you can adjust your dog’s diet so it fits his current health.
You can adjust your older dog’s diet based on whether he needs to lose or gain weight. If your older dog is a little overweight, you can feed a senior/weight control food that uses some easily digestible carbohydrates. If you don’t like the idea of feeding these carbs (which are filler ingredients), you can try feeding your older dog his regular dog food with smaller rations to help him lose weight. Many people add drained and rinsed green beans to their dog’s food to help the dog feel fuller and lose a little weight.
You can look for senior dog foods that include essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is found in good quality vegetable oils such as flaxseed oil and safflower oil. These oils also help your dog absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
Since older dogs can have more problems digesting their food, they usually do better with diets that are easy to digest. Look for foods that are lower in fiber since fiber can be hard to digest and absorb. Some health problems benefit from fiber in the diet such as colitis and constipation, and diabetes mellitus. If your older dog has one of these conditions and needs more fiber, try adding psyllium (Metamucil) or pectin to his diet for more fiber. A diet for an older dog that is easier to digest is also better able to provide the vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids that your dog needs.
People may disagree about how much protein dogs need in their diet. Older dogs need as much protein as other adult dogs. They certainly don’t need less protein. They also benefit from eating better quality protein than when they were younger dogs. Note that one line of thought about feeding senior dogs suggests that they should be fed less protein than adult dogs (14 to 21 percent DMB) but other research contradicts this information. We agree that older dogs need more protein, not less, as they age, as long as the dog does not have a health condition such as advanced renal disease that would prohibit feeding more protein.
We suggest that older dogs be treated as individuals, whether your dog is just past his prime or quite elderly. Some dogs do well eating senior dog foods while other dogs do best when they continue to eat their regular super premium food. Your older dog may benefit from eating a puppy food that is easy to digest or an all life stage formula food. In most cases a maintenance diet is not advised for older dogs because they would not meet the vitamin and mineral requirements of an aging dog. Your senior dog may also benefit from eating anything tasty from your kitchen added to his meals if they will encourage him to eat. Sometimes you have to be very creative in feeding older dogs and getting them to eat.
Performance dogs – dogs that hunt, mush, compete in sports such as agility, herding, rally, obedience, tracking, or other stressful activities – can burn up lots of calories. For example, a pet German Shorthaired Pointer that weighs 60 pounds needs about 1504 calories per day. However, if that dog is doing heavy work hunting in the field, she may need as much as 3342 calories per day. Working dogs can really use up a lot of calories compared to pet dogs.
Training, competing, and traveling can also put a dog’s body under stress. These dogs need more than a maintenance diet. It’s best to feed them a good quality performance dog food.
There is often a difference between dog foods marketed as “performance” foods and those marketed as typical super premium foods. Performance foods often have a ratio of around 30 percent protein to 20 percent fat (some have higher protein and fat percentages). This is higher than many maintenance dog foods and certainly more protein and fat than a couch potato pet usually needs. Most dogs who don’t get much exercise will become overweight if fed these percentages. At the same time, some super premium dog foods with human grade type ingredients, which boast about their high meat protein percentages, can have more protein and fat than these performance foods.
Performance foods are usually nutrient-dense. They usually have quick-energy carbohydrates so dogs can use them as they work. These carbs are absorbed efficiently by the dog’s digestive system.
Purina ProPlan and Eukanuba have been making performance dog foods for a long time and are highly regarded by many long-time breeders, hunters, and competitors. Other well-known performance dog foods include Black Gold, Native, Pioneer, Kinetic, Pro Pac, Nulo, and Muenster Perfect Balance. Check the protein and fat percentages, as well as the other percentages and ingredients. Many of these brands make a variety of dog foods that have a wide range of purposes.
For most dogs we recommend that you save performance foods with high fat percentages for periods when your dog is training or working hard. You can usually change foods to something with a more moderate fat percentage during months when your dog has time off. This can keep your dog from putting on extra weight. If your dog does well on the performance food you feed him, look at other foods made by the same company that have a slightly lower fat percentage during these down times. You can gradually begin feeding your dog the performance food again a couple of months before he begins working steadily.
Brood bitches and stud dogs
If you are considering breeding your dog, it’s important that he or she is in good health. Your dog should be up-to-date on vaccinations and wormed before breeding. A brucellosis test is also important before breeding any dog, male or female. Ideally, you are familiar with your breed standard and your dog is a good representative of your breed. Breed clubs usually have health and genetic tests that they recommend for dogs before they are bred to improve the health of the breed.
It’s best if male and female dogs are not too thin or too fat before breeding. Being in good weight will increase your bitch’s chances of getting pregnant (along with timing the mating correctly). Her nutritional requirements can increase as much as four times normal with pregnancy so it’s important that she starts out in good health and weight. Making sure that she receives good nutrition directly relates to the quality of milk she can produce, the survival of her puppies, and their size at birth.
After your bitch is pregnant, a maintenance dog food will not be appropriate. You will need to feed her an all life stage dog food. For the first month after breeding you probably won’t notice any changes in your dog. During this period you can continue to feed her normal amounts of food. Most bitches do not exhibit any extra hunger during this time. By about 28-30 days after breeding, puppies are the size of walnuts. They are not very big and not taking taking a heavy nutritional toll on the mother yet.
By the beginning of the fifth week, however, the puppies will begin to grow quickly and the mother will begin to eat more. You should make sure that the all life stage food you are feeding has plenty of meat protein. Good super premium dog foods and canned foods are good choices.
Some bitches can become picky eaters at this time. You can give them eggs, meat (with fat) or other treats. However, do not give added calcium since this can lead to problems with later.
Bitches don’t usually begin to look pregnant until they are five or six weeks pregnant. In some cases they may not look pregnant until even later, especially if they are only carrying one or two puppies. During the last four weeks of pregnancy (total gestation is around 63 days), a bitch may increase her food consumption by as much as 40 percent. You should let her eat as much as she wants. You may have to give her several small meals per day, especially as she gets close to whelping. The puppies are taking up space, pressing on her stomach, and she may not be able to eat much at each meal.
A day or two before the bitch is ready to have her puppies she may begin to lose her appetite. However, some girls will continue to eat right up until it’s time to have the puppies. If your dog does stop eating before the puppies are born, she will be hungry again after the whelping. Many bitches appreciate some broth or ice cream after whelping.
Ideally your bitch will still be in good weight after whelping the puppies. You should let her eat as much as she wants after the puppies are born. She is nursing the puppies and regaining her own weight. Many dogs do not want to leave their puppies for the first few days so you may need to take food and water to her so she can eat more easily. By the time the puppies are about 3-4 weeks old and still nursing, she may be eating as much as four times as much food as she ate before she was pregnant. Most mothers start to wean their puppies by this time.
After the puppies are weaned the mother’s milk will start to dry up and she will begin to eat less. By the time the puppies are ready to go to their new homes their mother should be eating close to her normal amount of food again.
Many veterinarians will recommend giving bitches vitamins when they are pregnant such as Polyvisol for toddlers. Other vets recommend a senior vitamin/mineral supplement that includes B vitamins, vitamin E, and zinc. You should giving your bitch any supplements that contain noticeable amounts of calcium, phosphorus, or vitamin D.
The health of the stud dog is also important. As with the brood bitch, the stud dog should not be skinny or overweight. A male dog that’s in good condition has a better chance of reproducing well. If the dog is fat or skinny, you should make sure he’s in good health and adjust his diet before breeding. It’s a good idea to have your male dog checked by a veterinarian before breeding. A vet can check your dog’s sperm count, for example. A vet can tell you if your male dog is fertile or if he has any issues that could be a problem in breeding. If your dog has a low sperm count or other issue, your veterinarian might prescribe antibiotics or supplements such as Glyco-Flex or MSM.
You should feed a stud dog a good quality diet. A super premium food with meat protein has been recommended for many stud dogs. Some veterinarians recommend giving the stud dog a one-a-day vitamin to be sure he is getting all of the vitamins that should be in his dog food. Some people swear by various supplements but which ones actually help a stud dog is anyone’s guess. Many formulas say they are “natural” but they don’t say what they are – which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
As you can see, the same dog may require different nutrition at different times in his life. He might require different nutrition depending on what you are expecting of him – whether he is working in the field or living quietly at home or if he is being asked to father puppies. These are all important things to consider when choosing a dog food.
There are many other special situations that might require special diets and special foods but these are some of the most common. In the next chapter we’ll look at how to read labels and how you can choose the food your dog needs.