Feeding Dogs for Life Stages

Richard Hill, MA, VetMB, PhD, DACVIM, MRCVS

Life Stages: Much overlap in requirements
Gestation (Pregnancy)
Old Age

Types of Pet Food
1. Dry food contains very little moisture so as feed analysis reported on bag is similar to dry matter analysis. They are formed by an extruder and are mostly low fat (~25 percent energy as fat) because the extruder requires a low fat mixture. These are fine for dogs which are couch potatoes but may not contain enough fat for gestation, lactation or growth, or for dogs that undertake a lot of exercise. They may not give optimum coat quality. More expensive dry diets have fat sprayed on after extrusion and tend to contain more fat (40 percent energy as fat). They are packaged in special grease proof bags and are greasy to the touch.
2. Canned foods contain 75 percent moisture and are more expensive but usually contain more fat and protein. Multiply the analysis on the bag by four to compare with a dry diet.
3. Soft-moist and Soft-dry e.g. Kibbles and Bits. These are intermediate but mostly low fat

Differences between pet foods
Foods with different names do not necessarily differin composition. Marketin gstrategies aim to increasemarket share often by increasing number of brands and increasing shelf space.
Differences between pet foods are often small because new brand names are created with small changes in composition as a method of increasing the number of brands and because the final composition is restricted by the nutrient requirements of the animal, the need to restrict cost and to maintain palatability. Some terms such as “premium” and “super-premium” have no definition and do not guarantee better performance. The major differences are:
• Dry vs. Canned: Canned usually contains more fat and protein than dry diets
• Generic vs. proprietary: Generic diets are usually made with poorer quality ingredients and better ingredients and are usually tested on animals. “Generic” diets are inexpensive private label of local or regional manufacturers. There is no policing of label claims if only sold within the state of Florida.
• Life stage and therapeutic diets: Sometimes have different compositions but diets for puppies and diets for adult maintenance are often very similar in composition. Supplements and treats unbalance balanced diets so should be avoided or restricted to less than ten percent of the diet. Chews may be beneficial for dental hygiene.

Human food
is not complete and balanced so must have supplements such as vitamins and minerals added if more than ten percent of the diet. Uncooked meat represents a likely source of infection especially in young and pregnant animals. Bones, especially spiky bones such as the vertebrae found in chicken necks can get lodged in the esophagus especially in small breeds of
dogs. Too many bones can also cause constipation.

Neutraceuticals and herbs: Quality, consistency, absorption, potency and efficacy are uncertain. Toxicity and therapeutic indices have not been established; more of a risk in young and pregnant animals. Nevertheless, likely that some of these will prove beneficial in the future.

How much food?

Adjust food intake to maintain optimum body weight and condition. Do not feed too much. The slim-line model is best. Ribs should be felt but not seen. There should be a waist visible from the side and from above. The recommendation on the back of the packet can provide a guide but there is much individual variation. Reproductive performance may be sub-optimal if animals are too fat or thin.

Pregnancy (9 weeks)
First five to six weeks: bitch should maintain an ideal body condition score during mating and early pregnancy. There is no need for increased food intake above normal. Reasons for unsuccessful mating are usually poor timing, not diet.
Last three to four weeks: Most fetal growth occurs during the last trimester so increase food intake by ten to 15 percent per week. Protein requirements are high during this period so do not feed a low protein food. A higher fat high protein canned diet can be added to the usual dry diet.

Growth diets or therapeutic diets do not always contain enough protein. Do not feed supplements. Only exception would be to add folate to the diet of Bulldogs and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. There is plenty of folate in pet foods so supplementation may not be necessary but in humans additional folate minimizes the risk of spina bifida. Supplementation may minimize the risk of spinal defects in breeds where these defects are more common.
At the end of pregnancy: Body weight should have increased ten to 15 percent and intake should be 40 to 50 percent more than usual. The gravid uterus often limits intake, however, so feed energy dense (high fat) food in small frequent meals. Most of the additional extra body weight should then be lost when she gives birth.

Eclampsia: Hypocalcaemia is observed occasionally in dogs around parturition leading to tetanus (sic), seizures and poor uterine contraction. The cause has not been established. Nevertheless, it seems wise to follow similar practices as those used to prevent milk fever in cattle (e.g.calcium supplements should not be given before parturition as it will reduce the ability of the body to respond to the calcium requirements of parturition.) This is an emergency. Treatment consists of slow intravenous administration of ten percent calcium gluconate and limiting pups suckling (raise pups with milk replacer to minimize milk needs).

Lactation: Food intake increases with milk production to a peak three to four weeks after whelping. Water intake increases proportionately so free access to water is essential. Amount of increase varies with size of litter to as much as three or four times normal. Frequent meals of an energy dense (high fat) high protein food are recommended. Diets should also contain some carbohydrate for optimum lactose production.

Bitches milk is best
•   Colostrum contains antibodies so must ensure pups get colostrums or severe risk of overwhelming infection is present.
•   Bitch’s milk is twice the energy density and contains more protein, fat, calcium and less lactose than cow’s milk.
•   Breast milk varies in composition during lactation (early milk contains almost lo lactose).
The enzymes and transporters in the puppy intestine that digest and absorb nutrients like lactose are switched on and off in a programmed fashion, so diarrhea and/or constipation are possible if milk replacer or pet food is different from that expected by the pup at any
particular age.
•   Milk also contains other substances such as epidermal growth factor that may influence the development of the puppy intestine.

Orphan Rearing
•   Feed with warm milk replacer (e.g. Esbilac or using homemade recipe: 1⁄2 cup cow’s milk, 2 egg yolks, 1⁄2 tablet Centrum Junior, 1 tsp dicalsium phosphate).
•   Volume per day is about 15 percent of body weight during first week then 25 percent during subsequent weeks assuming the food contains approximately 1 kcal/mL.
•   Monitor body weight daily. Puppies must not lose weight.
•   Keep pups warm and humid (85-90oF, > 50 percent humidity).
•   Establish feeding frequency from pups crying. Do not wake to feed. Feed often first day (every two to four hours) and then can reduce to four times daily and can leave overnight if kept warm.
•   Stimulate to defecate and urinate after feeding.
•   If possible, foster pups on another bitch. Alternatively, divide litter in two and alternate during day between bitch and orphan feeding.

Neonatal Feeding
• Days 1-3: suckle 40 times daily for total of ten to 15 hours per day.
• Day 4: suckling more efficient so only eight hours per day.
• Days 10-12: Eyes open, start to examine solid food.
• Week 3: Offer moist palatable energy dense food four times daily. Remove any left after an hour.
• Gradually increase time away from dam and then wean at seven to eight weeks of age. Reduce bitch’s food for two days prior to weaning to cut milk production.


•   Energy requirements: from three to four months on, feed about the same amount of food as that required for maintenance by parents. Amount of food required by Great Dane pups and adults is greater than that required by other breeds of similar weight.
•   Rate of growth: very variable depending on size. Larger breeds take longer to reach adult weight (Yorkshire Terriers: ~ eight months; Newfoundlands: ~ 18 months to two years).
Limit rate of growth in large breeds to minimize hip dysplasia and growth deformities. Keep lean. Restricted intake does not affect final height, length, bone size or muscle mass.
•   Puppy Food Composition:
o Feed an increased protein and increased fat growth diet up to four to six months
of age. “Large breed dog diets” contain less fat to limit the rate of growth. There
is currently no evidence that these diets cause less orthopedic problems than
higher fat diets if intake is restricted to prevent rapid weight gain.
o Calcium should be close to one percent DM (3 mg/kcal) with a CA:P ration of
1:1 to 2:1. Pups fed all meat diets and insufficient calcium develops osteoporosis
and pathological fractures. Large breed dogs fed too much calcium can develop
osteochondritis dessicans. Most commercial puppy foods including those
marketed for large breeds contain this amount of calcium. The calcium content in
adult maintenance diets are sometimes closer or above two percent DM. Amount
of protein has no effect on orthopedic problems.
o Do not feed supplements especially in large breed dogs. Large dogs eat more
food so eat more vitamins and minerals. Increased calcium and vitamin D may be

Neutering and Spaying
Increased risk of obesity because reduces energy requirement by one third and increases appetite.
Old Dogs
• Keeping a dog lean is the best method for prolonging age
• Antioxidants may be beneficial; doses are uncertain however and some diets have these added so that additional supplementation should only be administered under veterinary supervision
o Vitamin E up to 10-15 IU/kg daily or 100 IU/kg weekly by month
o Vitamin C needs to be given three to four times daily to increase blood levels
• Energy needs decline with age
• If have disease then may need special diet; most require extra protein and not less • If thin needs extra calories, if obese needs less
• Needs to maintain intake of essential nutrients


• Feed a national brand pet food that has been tested using AAFCO approved feeding and is complete and balanced for the particular life state (e.g. reproduction or growth or adult maintenance).
• Do not feed supplements. A pet food that is complete and balanced does not require
supplements. Do not feed extra meat, calcium or vitamin supplements especially in growing or pregnant animals.

• Treats are ok but try to keep to a minimum. The bulk of an animal’s diet should come from pet food.
• If feeding mostly human food, make sure it is cooked and balanced for the particular life stage.
• Coat quality can be poor if dogs are fed a low fat inexpensive dry food. To improve fat content of the diet, do not add meat to the diet. It is safer to use a more expensive high fat dry diet or to add a canned diet to the dry diet. High fat is here defined as greater than 40 percent energy which is equivalent on the label to greater than five percent fat for a canned diet, greater than 13 percent in a semi-moist diet and greater than 18 percent fat in a dry diet.
• Do not restrict protein or other essential nutrients unless specific disease necessitates this.
• Keep animals lean!!!

Dog Owners and Breeders Symposium
July 28, 2001
University of Florida
College of Veterinary Medicine