A balanced diet is critically important to your dog’s cell maintenance and growth and overall health. Barring any special needs, illness-related deficiencies, or instructions from your vet, your pet should be able to get all the nutrients he or she needs from high-quality commercial pet foods, which are specially formulated with these standards in mind.
But dogs of different ages have different nutritional requirements. So, how much—or how little—should you be feeding your four-legged friend? Read on to learn what your pet’s body needs at the various stages of life.
Nutrients Your Dog Needs
Nutrients are substances obtained from food and used by an animal as a source of energy and as part of the metabolic machinery necessary for maintenance and growth. There are the six essential classes of nutrients dogs need for optimum healthy living.
Essential to life, water accounts for between 60 to 70% of an adult pet’s body weight. While food may help meet some of your pet’s water needs (dry food has up to 10% moisture, while canned food has up to 78% moisture), pets must have fresh clean water available to them at all times. A deficiency of water may have serious repercussions for pets. A 10% decrease in body water can cause serious illness, while a 15% loss can result in death.
Proteins are the basic building blocks for cells, tissues, organs, enzymes, hormones and antibodies, and are essential for growth, maintenance, reproduction and repair. Proteins can be obtained from a number of sources including animal-based meats such as chicken, lamb, turkey, beef, fish and eggs (which have complete amino acid profiles) and in vegetables, cereals and soy (but these are considered incomplete proteins).
Please note: Do not give your pet raw eggs. Raw egg white contains avidin, an anti-vitamin that interferes with the metabolism of fats, glucose, amino acids and energy.
Fats are the most concentrated form of food energy, providing your pet with more than twice the energy of proteins or carbohydrates. Fats are essential in the structure of cells, needed for the production of some hormones, and are required for absorption and utilization of certain vitamins. Fats also provide insulation and protection for internal organs. A deficiency of essential fatty acids (such as linoleic acid) may result in reduced growth or increased skin problems.
Carbohydrates provide energy, play a vital role in the health of the intestine, and are important for reproduction. While there is no minimum carbohydrate requirement, there is a minimum glucose requirement necessary to supply energy to critical organs such as the brain.
Fibers are kinds of carbohydrates that alter the bacterial population in the small intestine, which can help manage chronic diarrhea in dogs. For dogs to obtain the most benefit from fiber, the fiber source must be moderately fermentable. Moderately fermentable fibers—including beet pulp, which is commonly used in dog foods—are best to promote a healthy gut while avoiding the undesirable side effects of highly fermentable fibers, like flatulence and excess mucus.
Other examples of moderately fermentable fibers include brans (corn, rice and wheat) and wheat middlings. Foods that are high in fiber are not good for dogs with high energy requirements, and who are young and growing.
Tiny amounts of vitamins are necessary in dogs for normal metabolic functioning. Most vitamins cannot be synthesized in the body, and therefore are essential to obtain in the diet.
Please note that when feeding your dog a complete and balanced diet, it is unnecessary to give a vitamin supplement unless a specific vitamin deficiency is diagnosed by a veterinarian. Due to over supplementation, poisoning due to excess vitamins (hypervitaminosis) is more common these days than vitamin deficiency (hypovitaminosis). Excess vitamin A may result in bone and joint pain, brittle bones and dry skin. Excess vitamin D may result in very dense bones, soft tissue calcification and kidney failure.
Minerals are nutrients that cannot be synthesized by animals and must be provided in the diet. In general, minerals are most important as structural constituents of bones and teeth, for maintaining fluid balance and for their involvement in many metabolic reactions.
Weaning and Feeding Your Puppy
If you’re responsible caring for puppies in the first few months of their lives, you’ll need to be prepared to move them from a diet of mom’s milk to regular puppy food. This process of gradually reducing a puppy’s dependency on his mother’s milk, known as weaning, should generally begin between three and four weeks of age and is ideally completely by the time the puppy is seven to eight weeks.
Feeding Your Adult Dog
Adult dogs require sufficient nutrients to meet energy needs and to maintain and repair body tissues. The amount you feed your adult dog should be based on his or her size and energy output. Activity levels may vary dramatically between pets, and will play an important role in determining caloric intake.
Feeding Your Senior Dog
Dogs begin to show visible age-related changes at about seven to 12 years of age. There are metabolic, immunologic and body composition changes, too. Some of these may be unavoidable while others can be managed with diet. When feeding your older dog, the main objective should be to maintain health and optimum body weight, slow development of chronic disease and minimize diseases that may already be present.
Your Pet’s Size Will Determine When to Begin a Senior Diet
As your dog ages, health issues may arise including deterioration of skin and coat, loss of muscle mass, more frequent intestinal problems, arthritis, obesity, dental problems and decreased ability to fight off infection. Since smaller dogs live longer and don’t experience these age-related changes as early as bigger dogs, size is used to determine when it’s time to feed your canine a senior diet.
A good guideline to follow is:
- Small breeds and dogs weighing less than 20 pounds—7 years of age
- Medium breeds and dogs weighing 21 to 50 pounds—7 years of age
- Large breeds and dogs weighing 51 to 90 pounds—6 years of age
- Giant breeds and dogs weighing 91 pounds or more—5 years of age
Avoid “Senior” Diets That Have Reduced Levels of Protein
Studies have shown that the protein requirement for older dogs does not decrease with age, and that protein levels do not contribute to the development or progression of renal (kidney) failure. It is important to feed older dogs diets that contain optimum levels of highly digestible protein to help maintain good muscle mass.
Older dogs have been shown to progressively put on body fat in spite of consuming fewer calories. This change in body composition is inevitable and may be aggravated by either reduced energy expenditure or a change in metabolic rate. Either way, it is important to feed a diet with a lower caloric density to avoid weight gain, but with a normal protein level to help maintain muscle mass.
Talk To Your Veterinarian About Increasing Your Senior Dog’s GLA And FOS Intake
Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 fatty acid that plays a role in the maintenance of healthy skin and coat. Although it is normally produced in a dog’s liver, GLA levels may be diminished in older dogs.
Aging can affect a dog’s intestinal bacteria, which can result in symptoms of gastrointestinal disease. Senior diets for dogs should contain FOS (fructooligosaccharides) to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.
Look For Foods with High Levels of Vitamin E and Beta-Carotene
Antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta-carotene help eliminate free radical particles that can damage body tissues and cause signs of aging. Senior diets for dogs should contain higher levels of these antioxidant compounds. Antioxidants can also increase the effectiveness of the immune system in senior dogs.
Routine care for geriatric pets should involve a consistent daily routine and periodic veterinary examinations to assess the presence or progress of chronic disease. Stressful situations and abrupt changes in daily routines should be avoided. If a drastic change must be made to an older pet’s routine, try to minimize stress by introducing the change in a gradual manner.
One of the most common pitfalls dog parents should watch out for is overfeeding. Attempts to shower our dogs with love by means of big meals and lots of tasty treats are sweet, but misguided. In dogs, as with humans, extra weight can lead to health problems. Be sure to indulge your four-legged friend with affection, not food!
Causes of Obesity in Dogs
Obesity is an extremely common problem in pets and, as with humans, it can be detrimental to the health of a dog. The overweight pet has many added stresses upon his body and is at an increased risk of diabetes, liver problems and joint pain.
Obesity develops when energy intake exceeds energy requirements. This excess energy is then stored as fat. The majority of cases of obesity are related to simple overfeeding coupled with lack of exercise. Certain groups of dogs appear to be more prone to obesity than others. Specific breeds, such as Labrador retrievers and pugs, and older dogs are particularly susceptible.
How to Tell if Your Pet is Overweight
There are a few ways easy ways to identify whether your pet has put on the pounds. You should be able to feel the backbone and touch the rubs in an animal of healthy weight. If you cannot feel your pet’s ribs without pressing, there is too much fat.
Also, you should see a noticeable waist between the back of the rib cage and the hips when looking at your pet from above. When viewed from the side, there should be a “tuck” in the tummy, meaning the abdomen should go up from the bottom of the rib cage to inside the thighs. Dogs who fail these simple tests may be overweight.