Life Stage Nutrition for Pets

By: Catherine Lenox, DVM, Diplomate ACVN

TVMA Member
Houston, TX

Published November 2014

Nutritional needs for dogs and cats vary based on which stage of their life they are in. These life stages include growth, adulthood, senior care and gestationThe process of carrying or being carried in the womb between conception and birth./lactationThe secretion of milk by the mammary glands. for reproducing females. Utilizing a diet that is complete and balanced for a specific life stage is important to help reduce the incidence of nutritional problems.

Puppies and Kittens

When puppies and kittens are growing, they require more calories, protein and fat and higher levels of vitamins and minerals than adult dogs. This is because they need nutrients for their daily activities in addition to nutrients to allow for tissue growth and development. Puppies and kittens, in general, need a diet formulated for growth until they are 12 months of age. Large and giant breed puppies require diets designed for large-breed puppy growth since feeding a diet appropriate for large-breed growth helps prevent orthopedic issues, obesity and other problems. Puppies are considered large-breed if their adult weight will be more than 50 pounds.

Young and Middle-age

Young adult and middle-aged cats and dogs (less than five to seven years of age), if healthy, require moderate amounts of most nutrients, including calories, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. If a dog or cat in this life stage is healthy, a diet formulated for adult maintenance is ideal for optimal nutritional value of its food.


Senior dogs and cats tend to be less active than their younger counterparts, but energy requirements can be higher or lower than young to middle-aged animals, depending on the age and the presence or absence of disease. In general, animals with chronic diseases require more calories to maintain their weight. Healthy senior animals may require increased dietary protein to help maintain lean muscle mass. However, the presence of disease can alter ideal nutrient requirements.

Pregnant Females

Reproducing females (either pregnant or lactating) require a diet formulated for gestationThe process of carrying or being carried in the womb between conception and birth./lactationThe secretion of milk by the mammary glands.. Most puppy and kitten foods are formulated for reproduction in addition to being a preferred formulation for growth of a puppy or kitten. Kitten food should be fed from the time of breeding, while puppy food should be started mid-way through pregnancy. It is beneficial to look at the pet food label and see that a feeding trial for gestation/lactation has been performed on the diet because that indicates that the company has demonstrated that the puppy or kitten food is also safe and nutritional for reproducing females. This will be stated on the label in the nutritional adequacy statement. Large-breed dogs in gestation/lactation do not require a large-breed puppy food, but the puppies should be started on a large-breed puppy food as soon as they are weaned for the reasons mentioned above. This is due to the different nutritional requirements for gestation/lactation versus large-breed puppy growth.

A bag or can of food will indicate which life stage it is intended for in the nutritional adequacy statement on the back, and this can help owners choose a food that is appropriate for their pet’s life stage. Some diets are formulated for “all life stages,” which means they meet the requirements even for growth and gestation/lactation. These are the life stages that have the most demanding nutritional requirements. While “all life stage” diets are appropriate for adult maintenance, they can provide some excess nutrients and can be dangerous if a dog or cat is not healthy or has borderline renal disease or other systemic diseases or issues.

The Importance of Annual Check-ups

Your veterinarian can be of assistance when selecting a diet as your pet ages. Yearly check-ups should include a talk about nutrition, and you can ask your veterinarian about feeding an appropriate diet for your pet’s specific life stage. Because nutritional needs change, it is important to ask about nutrition every year.

Dr. Catherine Lenox owns a consulting business, Lenox Veterinary Nutrition Consulting, PLLC.  She does nutrition consults (mainly homemade diet formulation) and acupuncture for pets and owners in Houston.

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