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Pet Foods for All Ages and Stages

“I have a 10-pound miniature poodle puppy and a 60-pound lab that’s 5 years old. Can I feed them the same food?”

“My cat just turned 9. Do I need to switch him to a senior food?”

“My dog is overweight. Should she eat a ‘diet’ food?”

1570600We get questions like these every day! There are so many pet food choices out there and the differences are not just the types of protein used. Some foods are good for puppies, some for seniors, so what is the difference between puppy or kitten, adult, senior, small or large breed, weight control, etc. pet foods?

Let’s start by looking at foods labeled puppy or kitten, adult and “all life stages.” These foods labels are determined by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), a private advisory board made up of representatives from state, federal and foreign government agencies who regulate animal feeds in the US and develop uniform definitions for pet food ingredients and labeling. Pet foods that follow AAFCO guidelines can call their foods “complete and balanced.” There are currently only two standard nutrition profiles AAFCO uses to label pet food: (1) “Growth and Reproduction,” for puppies/kittens and pregnant or nursing females; and (2) “Adult Maintenance,” for adult, or fully grown, animals. On each bag or can of food there is an AAFCO statement that tells consumers which profile the food meets. If the food is labeled “All Life Stages” it means it meets the stricter guidelines for “Growth and Reproduction” and can be fed to pets of any age.

How Does AAFCO Determine Food Ratings?

There are two ways pet foods can get their AAFCO rating: (1) a food analysis, which is a lab test to ensure the food contains the 36 essential nutrients that AAFCO considers to be essential for “complete and balanced” nutrition (although these tests do not evaluate the quality of the nutrients); and (2) a food trial, which consists of feeding the food to a certain number of animals (sometimes as few as eight animals) for 26 weeks and monitoring the animals’ health before, during and after the trial. Foods that do not meet AAFCO requirements are labeled “supplemental” or for “intermittent feeding.”

What about the Other Categories?

There are no regulations or guidelines for large breed, small breed, senior or weight control foods. Large breed foods tend to have less protein and fat to help balance the calcium to phosphorus levels. The correct ratio will help with proper bone growth and body weight, because if a large breed puppy grows to fast it may result in abnormal joint development, which can lead to arthritis. Small breed dogs have a high metabolic rate and burn through food rather quickly. Couple that with their tiny little bellies, they tend to need a calorie-dense food to get the fuel their bodies need.

Senior dogs tend to be less active so their foods are often lower in calories and higher in fiber than the adult varieties. However, if your senior dog or cat still loves his walks or playtime, there is no need to switch to a food labeled for “senior” animals. Some brands also advertise glucosamine, Omega 3s, probiotics or other supplements to boost the food’s nutrients–just be aware that the amount added is usually too minimal to do any good, so additional supplementation is needed for joint, skin and digestive health.

So What Does this All Mean?

“The food says it’s ‘complete and balanced’ for my pet, so that’s all I need to know, right?” Unfortunately no. The AAFCO statement that the food is “complete and balanced” has led some pet owners to believe that they can feed the same food for the lifetime of their pet. Unfortunately, this is a common way some animals develop food allergies. Ideally, pet owners should rotate both proteins and brands in order to give their pets a fuller nutritional experience.

More importantly, not all nutrients are created equal. A food that is labeled “complete and balanced” by AAFCO may meet the protein standard for Adult Maintenance foods by filling the food with proteins from cheaper plant sources, which are not as biologically appropriate for carnivorous animals like cats and dogs.

So What Should I Do?

You need to look at more than just the AAFCO statement, or the fact that the food is for puppies, seniors, etc., when choosing a pet food. Look at the ingredients list and the guaranteed analysis to make sure the food contains appropriate levels of animal proteins and no cheap filler ingredients (like corn, wheat, soy, artificial colors or flavors, preservatives and byproducts). It’s also important to know where the pet food company manufactures its food and sources its ingredients from. Independent pet stores (like Petagogy) usually know a lot about the foods they carry and can help you choose a food that best suits your pet’s needs.