Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I logoCollege of Veterinary Medicine

Back to search page.

First Rate Food Choices for Fido

Pet Column for the week of February 10, 2003

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Dog foods are all alike, right? Though some are labeled "for all stages of life," it is doubtful that these are the best choice. The fact is that the nutritional needs of dogs change throughout their lives and can even change depending on their environment.

Dr. Allan Paul is a veterinarian who teaches small animal nutrition at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. He says the first challenge in choosing a dog food is picking one that has overall quality.

"Look for a statement on the food bag that says that the product successfully passed feeding trials of the Association of American Feed Control Officials," advises Dr. Paul. "This ensures that the food has no nutritional deficiencies or excesses that could be detrimental to your pet in the long run."

Stage of life is another important factor. Growth requires energy, and young animals are often much more active than their older counterparts. Young growing animals usually require more energy than older ones.

"With young large-breed dogs, however, you have to be careful," warns Dr. Paul. "High energy intake directly affects growth. Large-breed puppies that grow too fast can develop a mismatch between their body growth and their bone growth. The bones just can't keep up with the growth rate and the result is orthopedic disease (bone malformations)." For these puppies, consult your veterinarian about how much to feed, and never feed free-choice food.

While intact growing animals require more energy, neutered animals require less energy in comparison. "Obesity occurs twice as often in neutered dogs than in intact dogs," says Dr. Paul. Neutered animals tend to gain weight more readily and are often less active than un-neutered pets. Owners, however, often do not recognize this change and continue to feed the same amount of food after neutering.

As animals reach their geriatric years (greater than 5 years of age for large breeds and 7 years of age for small breeds), they become even more sedentary and their metabolic rate begins to decline. Because their energy requirement is lower, they require less fat in their diet. These older dogs can also become prone to constipation, but adding some fiber to the diet can alleviate this problem and make the animal feel more satisfied and full when eating.

Older animals can also develop problems such as renal disease, but feeding a healthy food that is low in phosphorus can help keep renal disease in check. In addition, senior formulas often add extra antioxidants, which can help to maintain the immune system and fight off age-related problems.

Lactating animals require more energy than those at any other adult life stage. Producing milk for a litter of puppies is an energy-draining process. "It is not really possible to overfeed heavily lactating animals because so much energy is going into milk production," says Dr. Paul.

Animals that have environmental stressors usually have a higher energy requirement too. "Animals that live outside when it is very cold may need up to 90 percent more energy than animals that live indoors," says Dr. Paul.

All of this may seem very complicated, but it is possible to choose the best diet for your pet if you have information about your pet's nutritional needs. If you have questions regarding your pet's nutrition, please contact your local veterinarian.