How Your Pet’s Nutrition Needs Change with Age

By Amanda Baltazar

Just like babies transition from milk or formula to regular food, pets’ meals need to change as they age to suit their dietary needs.

If you feed your puppy or kitten food that’s too advanced, he or she likely won’t get enough nutrients to grow well. Conversely, older pets that are fed food for a younger animal can suffer from kidney problems or simply get fat.

Here are a few guidelines to feeding your pet correctly:

Puppies and Kittens

Puppies need high amounts of fat, calories and protein. They also need a lot of calcium and phosphorous to grow strong bones, says Denise Elliott, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVN, medical specialist, nutrition at Banfield, The Pet Hospital, based in Portland, Oregon.

Kittens also need calcium and phosphorous, though less than dogs because they grow less (ditto for small dog breeds), but they should get plenty from specifically formulated kitten food. Beware: Excessive quantities of both minerals can be detrimental.

Do, however, ensure your kitten is eating fiber, which helps expel hairballs and improves stool quality.

Middle-Aged Animals

As dogs and cats get older, they need a little less protein and fewer calories. “This is an arc downward from weaning,” explains Amy Zalcman, DVM, NYC Veterinary Specialists.

Dogs are middle-aged between eight to 24 months depending on their size. The smaller the dog, the sooner it reaches maturity.

The foods for middle-aged animals are known as maintenance foods, but most have too many calories since most dogs don’t get the exercise they need. Dean Severidt, DVM, a veterinarian of 30 years, recommends ‘maintenance light’ foods that are offered by most brands for all dogs barring those that are extremely active. Too many calories for a middle-aged dog, he explains, can lead to diabetes and joint issues.

However, cats’ protein needs do not decline as they age, so ensure your kitty gets adequate animal protein intake to maintain healthy muscle mass and metabolism. Sufficient protein ensures cats’ taurine needs (which support heart health) are met.

The Baby Boomers of Pets

When your pet hits old age depends on its size. Dogs tend to be old-aged at anywhere from six to 10 years old, again depending on their size.

At this age, pets should be moved on to senior dog foods, which have more fiber so they feel fuller, and less protein, since they’re no longer growing and developing muscle.

In fact, says Severidt, too much protein at this age can be hard on a dog’s kidneys, but if you cut it, you may actually extend your pet’s life. Instead of meat, find brands with more corn or wheat, he suggests.

You probably also want to feed older dogs less volume, too, because their metabolism has slowed down and you’ll prevent weight gain, says Elliott.

As they age, supplements can help. Severidt advises glucosamine for joint health and omega-3 fatty acids for joints, heart health and the immune system. These are also beneficial for cats, he says, but less so since cats are lighter and don’t impact their joints as much.

Cats should shift onto a senior diet at between age nine and 12. Make sure your cat isn’t getting too much fat or he or she will gain weight, especially coupled with less activity.

Very old cats have a tendency to become emaciated. If so, you’ll need to ramp up the calories they’re getting, says Elliott. She suggests foods specifically designed for mature cats that have higher calories but in the same amount of food, so the cat does not have to eat more.

This story was originally posted in on January 18, 2011
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