A Dog's Nutritional Needs From Puppy to Senior Years

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When you first adopted your dog, you took the time to research and speak with their veterinarian about dog nutritional requirements before choosing what you'd feed them. You know to never share table scraps with your pet, but do you know that as your dog ages, their nutritional needs will shift? A lifestage dog food will grow with your dog, but it's important that you understand what your furry family member needs from their puppy to senior years.

What Are Dog Nutritional Requirements?

Nutrients are substances that are obtained from food and used as a source of energy. Dogs love to play with their owners, and they need energy to do so! Nutrients are essential for an animal's growth, and can be considered maintenance tools to keep your dog in optimum health. Just as your car requires gasoline (and other types of maintenance) to run, your dog needs food to keep them going too.

There are different classes of nutrients that your dog needs in their diet: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water. Choosing a balanced food that includes those nutrients is what will help young dogs grow and older dogs stay healthy.

Newborn Puppies

When dogs are first born and for the next several weeks, their complete nutrition comes from their mother's milk. However, if the mother is ill or dogs are orphaned, a commercial milk replacement will need to be given to the young pups. Your veterinarian can educate you on how to choose a replacement, as well as how to feed newborn puppies who do not get milk from their mother.

Eventually, they'll begin to wean from their mother's milk—or a replacement liquid—and begin to digest solids. To begin the weaning process, start removing the mother from their litter for short periods of time. While the mother is away, introduce them to puppy food in a dish. Gradually increase the amount of time the litter is exposed to their own food, be encouraging, but do not force the food on them.

Young Puppies

Once puppies are weaned, they'll get all of their nutrition from dog food, so be sure to choose something that's not only tasty, but healthy too. Puppies require and expend a lot of energy, so young dog nutritional requirements include increased protein to support healthy growth. Also, puppies may require three to four smaller meals a day to start and then slowly be transitioned to two larger meals per day. Talk to your vet about the best feeding regimen for your puppy to ensure they are getting their adequate daily nutrition.

Expect puppies to play with their food at first. While eating may start as a game, young dogs will enjoy the taste, and look forward to the flavors and sensations of chewing. It may help to slightly moisten dry food to get your dog comfortable chewing.

Jack Russell Terrier puppy eating out of a silver dog food bowl.

Adult Dogs

For most dogs, they reach their adult life stage around their first year, so it is important to transition to an adult dog food at that time. An adult dog's food is based on size and activity level. If you have any questions as to how much you should be feeding your dog, it's best to check with your vet, but never overfeed your furry friend. At this stage of life, dogs require nutrition for maintenance. So, an extremely active pet would have different nutritional needs from a less active lap dog. Also, a large dog requires more food in their diet than a small breed needs to ingest.  Once you've chosen the type of food that's the best fit for your dog, remember that other elements, such as temperature, will influence changes in your dog's diet. Extreme heat and cold will burn more of your dog's energy, and they’ll need to make up for that in their diet. Also, an activity change, such as starting an exercise regimen, will change the amount or type of food you offer your pet.

Because adult dogs don't need the same nutrients to help them grow that puppies do, the best dog food for your adult dog is one that is specially formulated for their adult needs. For instance, Hill's Science Diet products are specifically formulated to meet the needs of an active adult dog. Continuing to feed your adult dog puppy food once they’ve reached their full size can lead to weight issues, as puppy food tends to be rich in growth-based nutrients.

7+ Age Dogs

An often overlooked segment in a dog's life are their more mature years, those typically between seven and 12. While your dog still has lots of life in them and probably doesn't have problems playing and exercising with you, you may notice that they are starting to slow down a little and their play sessions aren't as long as they used to be. Dogs are no different than humans in this regard. Just as we slow down with age, so do they, so it is vital to feed them foods that meet their mature adult needs. Because your dog has slowed down at this stage of their life, they need more nutrients devoted to healthy organ, bone and muscle maintenance. A food formulated for their needs at this age will keep them feeling young and active. 

Even if your dog hasn't begun to slow down yet, their body is still in need of vital nutrients to keep them feeling young and active. Consider products like Hill's Science Diet Mature Dog foods, specially formulated to improve everyday ability to get up and go . Choosing the right nutrition can help increase their activity, interaction and mobility as they age.

If you're unsure where your dog is in their life cycle, check out this helpful resource related to pet aging . Here you can compare your dog's age to human years, as well as better understand the signs of aging you need to watch out for as they age.

Senior Dogs

A dog will reach their senior years typically around age 11, but again it can differ between size and breed of dog. Larger dogs tend to reach their senior years more quickly than smaller dogs due to the stress that is put on their body from being a large breed. As your dog ages, their body and nutrition needs will change once more. There will be metabolic and immunologic changes that require altering your dog's diet. Every dog differs, so be sure to ask at your dog's annual checkup if he has reached or is approaching their senior years.

A senior dog food will be formulated to help maintain their normal body functions. Metabolism often slows down significantly, so senior dogs don't need food that is rich in calories. In addition, Hill's makes foods specifically formulated to support healthy mobility, which can be an issue for older dogs. If you have any concerns about your dog's health as he ages, be sure to consult your veterinarian to help you select the best dog food to meet your senior dog's needs.

Addressing Special Needs

Remember, dog nutritional requirements can change at any point in your pet's life regardless of age. If your vet recommends altering your pet's diet, make sure to follow their instructions, and always remember to gradually transition your dog from each dog food to avoid digestive problems.

Choosing Dog Food for Each Stage of Life

Don't forget to keep fresh clean water available to your dog, in addition to their food, at all times.

One more quick note about feeding your dog a nutritious diet. When you love your dog so much, it's easy to want to spoil them with treats and snacks. Just remember to share healthy dog treats, when training your pup. Dog treats shouldn't make up more than ten percent of your dog's diet.

Deciding on what to feed your dog shouldn't be a difficult choice. If you need help to decide between the many choices available to you, first, narrow down the options to your dog's age group. Next, consult your vet for any nutritional considerations for your dog. The vet will consider your dog's breed, size and energy output when helping you make the choice.

Contributor Bio

Erin Ollila

Erin Ollila

Erin Ollila is a pet enthusiast who believes in the power of words and how a message can inform, and even transform, its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the Internet and in print. Reach out to her on Twitter @ReinventingErin or learn more about her at http://erinollila.com.