Feeding Dogs for Lifestages & Lifestyles

Feeding Adult Dogs

When a dog reaches full maturity, it enters the maintenance period. Normal healthy dogs who are not pregnant, nursing, or hardworking have relatively low nutritional requirements for maintaining an appropriate body condition. A good body condition is one in which the animal is well proportioned, with an observable waist behind the ribcage, and ribs that can be felt with a slight fat covering over them.

With the variety of nutritionally complete and balanced dog foods available, providing a proper diet for an adult dog can be straightforward and simple without the need for supplements of any kind. If supplemental meat or table scraps are fed, they should account for no more than 10% of the total diet. Higher levels can dilute the nutritional value of the commercial diet, predispose an animal to obesity and may create a finicky eater.

For dogs with lower caloric needs and/or for dogs that are less active, attention should be paid to the potential for excessive weight gain. Often a dog's weight can be reduced simply by eliminating table scraps and treats from the diet and by avoiding high-energy dog foods. Overweight dogs may have more health problems and a shorter life expectancy.

Feeding recommendations for adult dogs can vary, depending upon the breed, activity, metabolism and owner's preference. Whether or not an animal is fed once or twice each day, it should be fed at the same time, and fresh drinking water should always be made available. Just as with humans, a dog's appetite may vary from day to day. This should not pose a problem unless the loss of appetite persists or the dog shows signs of illness or weight loss. In these situations, the dog should be examined by a veterinarian.

Feeding During Pregnancy

Regardless of the breed of dog, the female should be at least one year of age and in at least the second heat period before she is bred. The body condition of both males and females used in a breeding program is important. If males are overweight, they may be physiologically and anatomically inefficient for mating. Overweight females can have lower conception rates and more problems at whelping. Food intake will vary according to age, activity, body metabolism, and environment. If possible, each dog should be fed as an individual to achieve and maintain normal body condition.

The nutrient requirements of the female during the first six or seven weeks of pregnancy are not higher than for dogs at maintenance. During the last two to three weeks, requirements for all nutrients will increase, and caloric requirements can be met during this last trimester by gradually increasing the female's food intake. Diets containing more than 1600 metabolizable calories per pound of food and at least 21% protein are recommended. The easiest way to ensure proper nutrition is to feed a good-quality dog food that is labeled complete and balanced for reproduction and growth, or for all life stages. When feeding these diets, supplementation of vitamins and minerals is not necessary. Problems can occur with oversupplementation, especially when high levels of Vitamin A or calcium are added.

Unless a female has a tendency to put on too much weight during pregnancy, she can be given all the food she wants to eat. It is not unusual for a pregnant female to temporarily decrease her intake at about three to four weeks into the pregnancy. Normally, she will eat more during the latter phase of pregnancy. However, if this does not occur and body condition begins to deteriorate, steps should be taken to increase food intake. This can be done by moistening dry food with warm water to improve palatability, or by adding small amounts of canned dog food to the dry food and feeding several times each day. As whelping nears, the female may lose her appetite. This is considered normal behavior, and unless she appears to be having a health problem, no change in the feeding program is necessary. In may cases, food refusal during the ninth week is an indication that whelping will occur within the next 24 to 48 hours. Usually within 24 hours after whelping the female's appetite will return. After the puppies are born, she should receive all the food she wants.

During reproduction, water serves as a carrier of nutrients to the developing fetus and removes wastes for elimination. Other important functions of dietary water are to help regulate body temperature and as an aid in milk production. Keeping water bowls clean and changing water frequently tend to encourage water consumption. Fresh water in a clean bowl should be available at all times.

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Feeding During Lactation

Milk production is one of the most nutritionally demanding stages in a female's life. A complete and balanced diet for reproduction and growth, or for all life stages, will supply the nutrition a female needs during this time. The demand for milk by nursing puppies will continue to increase for about 20 to 30 days (or up to 4 weeks). Consequently, the female's food and water requirements increase during this time. At peak lactation, the female's food intake may be two to four times above her usual or maintenance food intake. Very attentive females may rarely leave their puppies to eat or drink and will need encouragement. The same diet used during the gestation period can be fed during lactation. In order to maintain good body condition and to provide ample amounts of milk for the puppies, nursing females should be offered all the food they want.

Moistening dry dog food with water will help increase food intake during lactation. Another important reason for offering the dry food moistened is that at three to four weeks of age, normal puppies will start nibbling solid food. Acclimating puppies to a good-quality commercial diet at an early age will help prevent finicky eaters. Home-prepared diets should be avoided. As puppies begin to eat more solid food, the demand on the female for milk production will decrease. Normally puppies are weaned between six and eight weeks of age, and by weaning time the female's food consumption should be less than 50 percent above her usual or maintenance level. To help reduce the milk flow and prevent mammary gland problems, the following procedure for weaning is recommended:

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On the day the puppies are weaned, the female should not receive any food, but should have plenty of fresh water to drink. The puppies should be separated from the dam and offered food and water. Dry food moistened with warm water may help stimulate the puppies' food intake. On the day after weaning, the dam should receive 1/4 the amount of food she was fed prior to being bred. The dam and puppies can be grouped together for several hours on the day after weaning so that the pups can nurse the dam dry. On the third day, the female should receive 1/2 the amount fed prior to breeding, and on the fourth day, 3/4 the amount. By the fifth day she should be offered her usual maintenance level of food. If the litter is large, the female may be quite thin when the puppies are weaned. In this case, she should be given extra food after the fifth day of weaning and until her body condition returns to normal.

Feeding Puppies

For the first seven to ten days of life, the newborn puppy's eyes remain closed. Yet during that time, puppies double their birth weight and become increasingly more active. As a rule of thumb, each puppy in a litter should gain approximately its birth weight each week during the lactation or nursing period (the first week may be slightly less than that and the final weeks may be more than that).

While most females are excellent mothers, some nervous or inattentive dams may require special attention to help them calm down and accept their new offspring. This may involve working with both the dam and/or puppies, and placing pups near nipples at feeding time. Poorly nursing puppies may be smaller in size, cooler in body temperature, and weigh less. Routinely handling the pups will allow for an opportunity to check their condition and progress, although excessive handling may be stressful for the dam and pups and should be avoided.

The typical introduction of a puppy to solid food (around 3 to 4 weeks of age) usually amounts to the pup romping around and through the dam's food bowl, and licking moistened dry food from its paws. Puppy traffic will tend to compact the food, so stirring the compacted diet or offering fresh amounts periodically should be considered. By six weeks of age, most puppies are ready to be weaned. If they have started to eat solid foods from the dam's dish, it is not unusual for puppies to begin to wean themselves at about four to five weeks of age.

The nutrient requirements to support normal growth and development of puppies are greater than those for an adult dog. For this reason, nutritionally complete and balanced diets designed for growth and reproduction or all life stages are recommended. No additional supplementation in the form of vitamins, minerals, meat, or other additives is needed.

A puppy's stomach capacity is not large enough to hold sufficient food in one feeding to provide its daily requirement of needed nutrients. Young puppies should be fed at least three times a day until their food requirements, per pound of body weight, begin to level off as they mature. Feeding schedules can be reduced to twice a day when pups are four to five months old, and once a day when they are eight months or older. Fresh water in a clean bowl should be available at all times.

As with pregnant females, dry food can be moistened with warm water to encourage food intake. Milk may also be used to moisten dry food, however, too much milk can act as a laxative and cause digestive problems for some puppies and adult dogs. One hour should be allowed for a puppy to eat, after which the uneaten portion should be discarded. Moistened dry food or canned food left at room temperature can become unpalatable and may even spoil if left out for several hours.

Establishing routine eating habits by feeding a puppy in the same place and at the same time each day is recommended and can help in housebreaking. Offering human foods from the table is not recommended because it encourages begging and may create a finicky eater. Puppies consuming a complete and balanced diet do not need supplemental vitamins, minerals, or meat. In fact, oversupplementation has been shown to be detrimental to proper development of young, growing pups.

The amount of food offered to a puppy will vary depending upon its size, activity, metabolism, and environment. Puppies should not be allowed to become overweight. An overweight puppy not only presents a poor appearance, but the excess weight can cause bone abnormalities. If a puppy appears to be gaining too much weight, its food intake should be reduced. If a puppy appears to be too thin and there are no health problems, its food intake should be increased. Anytime owners have questions or concerns about their animal's body condition, they should consult their own veterinarian.

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Feeding Hardworking Dogs

Regardless of the seasonal environmental temperature or a dog's physiologic state, when all else is equal, the more active a dog is, the more food it will require. All nutrients will be required in greater amounts than for an adult dog at maintenance, not simply additional protein or extra minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. Physical activity is the outwardly visible result of a complex sequence of muscular contractions. The combustion of dietary fuels such as fat, protein and carbohydrates provide the energy for muscular work. Water, vitamins and minerals are involved in utilizing energy for work.

Hardworking dogs are usually referred to as those used for hunting, herding sheep, or sled dog racing, as well as dogs who routinely run long distances (i.e., greater than 20 miles per week). These groups of working dogs may have increased nutrient needs when they are training or actually working. The requirement for additional nutrients will depend on an individual dog's activity level. A benchmark for these foods would be that they are complete and balanced with high nutrient density including at least 26 percent protein, 10 percent fat, 30 percent carbohydrates and 1750 kilocalories per pound of dry food.

During those seasons when a dog is neither training nor working, it is recommended that the amount of the dog's training/working ration be reduced, or that the dog be gradually changed to a lower energy, less nutrient dense dog food (containing at least 20 percent protein and 1,500 kilocalories per pound of food). Maintaining dogs in good body condition in the off-season will help make conditioning for training/working seasons less stressful.

Working/training dogs should not be fed a meal immediately before or immediately after a session of hard activity. Feeding meals too near to workouts can result in poor performance and gastric upset or discomfort (evidenced by vomiting or loose stools) and may increase the risk of gastric bloat. The proper use of food (such as snacks or treats) during periods of increased activity can prevent hunger discomfort and fatigue in hard-working dogs. Proper use dictates that the snack or treat be fed after a period of rest, in small portions, with fresh cool water and followed by a period of rest.

Feeding Older Dogs

Aging dogs are defined as older or "geriatric" when they have reached the last 25 percent of their expected life span, which is directly related to size or breed, as well as the care received during a lifetime:

  • Small breed dogs greater than 12 years of age
  • Medium breed dogs greater than 10 years of age
  • Large breed dogs greater than 9 years of age
  • Giant breed dogs greater than 7 years of age

Some signs of aging are described as:

  • changes in body weight
  • difficulty in locomotion (movement)
  • changes in hearing and/or eyesight
  • changes in skin and/or haircoat
  • changes in urine or bowel habits
  • bad breath associated with teeth or mouth problems

Studies have shown that healthy older dogs utilize protein in a manner similar to the young adult dog, and that geriatric dogs may need about 50 percent more protein than younger adult dogs. However, current commercial diets formulated for adult dogs at maintenance generally provide adequate protein. Less active animals may have reduced energy requirements, and caution should be used when feeding energy dense diets to avoid the risk of excessive weight gain.

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