Today’s pet owners are hungry for high-quality, research-backed foods with sustainable ingredients that will support their dogs from head to tail, through all phases of their life cycle. As a result, the market for life-stage diets for dogs is steady, according to industry insiders.
Royal Canin saw slight growth in the category in the past year, said Brent Mayabb, chief veterinary officer and vice president of corporate affairs for the St. Charles, Mo.-based pet food manufacturer. He said the company has advanced though online sales and specialty retailers that are expanding their assortments to include more life-stage diet options.
Rob Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet in Hatfield, Pa., also noted the growth potential of the category, saying he believes whole-life diets are losing ground to age-specific foods.
"As the humanization of pets continues to be a growing trend worldwide, pet parents are having a hard time wrapping their heads around feeding the same food for the entire lifetime of their fur babies," Downey said.
Dietary variety can indeed contribute to pet health and longevity, said Norm Shrout, co-owner of Long Leash on Life in Albuquerque, N.M.
"Dogs … evolved at our sides for more than 14,000 years, during which time they ate what we ate," Shrout said. "Since our diets varied over time and season, the dog achieved nutritional balance over time in a natural way. Contrast that to many dogs today eating exactly the same highly processed dry food brand or flavor overloaded with artificially synthesized chemical vitamins and minerals for their entire life."
Additionally, today’s pet owners—now dominated by millennials, according to Downey—want to do business with smaller, local companies, which has shifted industry growth toward niche brands. As the humanization trend persists, Downey added, pet owners want foods with human-grade ingredients that are sustainably sourced.
"Price will always be a concern, but what consumers really want is perceived value," Downey said. "They don’t mind paying for a product as long as they get what they pay for."
Today’s customers come armed with the internet, which makes them better informed about their buying practices, said Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.
However, pet nutrition information online could be inaccurate or misguided, Downey warned. He recommends that consumers look to peer-reviewed journals to find proper research.
Shrout pointed out that there is still ongoing debate about human nutritional requirements, and research on pet nutrition lags even further behind.
Understanding of the specific nutritional needs throughout a dog’s life span is still evolving, Mayabb said.
"The nutrient needs for both growth and adulthood have been generally defined for many years," he said. "… As we continue to study life-stage nutrition, we continue to understand their specific needs even better."
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established nutrient profiles for growth/reproductive and adult life stages, but not for senior dogs.
"All foods purporting to be formulated for seniors are simply the educated opinions of that respective brand," Shrout said.
He encourages his customers to seek out smaller manufacturers that have a more vested interest in the health of their customers’ pets.
The bottom line, Mayabb said, "is that you can best address your dog’s nutritional needs by selecting a diet that’s been specifically designed for his or her stage of life."
Keeping Pet Owners in the Know
The digital world has changed the way customers interact with retailers and manufacturers, said Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.
"They ask deeper questions and demand a higher level of responsiveness and communication from the brands they bring into their home," he said.
Norm Shrout, co-owner of Long Leash on Life in Albuquerque, N.M., warned that pet owners can become victims of misinformation through big brands’ advertisements.
"Many of these pet food brands have mastered the technique of misinforming the public just enough to cause confused pet food purchasing," he asserted.
Conflicting information online can also cause confusion.
"The bulk of the pet nutrition research is funded or performed by big pet food companies and, therefore, potentially biased in favor of their products," Shrout said.
Nieman suggests that retailers can sometimes steer consumers with questions directly to their own trusted manufacturer suppliers.
"At Fromm, we have very knowledgeable customer service representatives, an on-staff nutritionist, and a consulting veterinarian to answer customer questions and make recipe recommendations five days a week," he said.
Manufacturer-provided displays or packets can also help educate customers at the point of purchase. For example, Royal Canin offers Breed Health Nutrition displays that highlight information about various breeds and the brand’s kibble shapes, Mayabb said.
Treats on a Leash in Ames, Iowa, provides a puppy checklist for new pet owners, said co-owner Barb Morris.
"Looking at the ingredients and guaranteed analysis with the consumer is a great way to educate them," she said.
Nutrition Throughout the Lifespan
Understanding Life-Stage Diets
Puppies, Small and Large
Manufacturers agree that a proper balance of nutrients is crucial during puppyhood.
"Examples include making sure that puppies get the proper levels of calcium and phosphorus to support growing bones … and highly digestible protein to support growing soft tissue and organs," said Brent Mayabb, chief veterinary officer and vice president of corporate affairs for Royal Canin in St. Charles, Mo. "In addition, specific nutrients like the omega-3 fatty acid DHA can help support healthy neurologic development, and antioxidants support puppies’ fragile immune systems."
Canine nutrition has seen a lot of advancement in the past 50 years, said Rob Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet in Hatfield, Pa.
Downey said that in the 1960s, many kibble formulas were based on corn and soy, which created the potential for calcium deficiency. Because calcium is critical during puppyhood, many of the earliest puppy foods focused on boosting calcium.
Today’s pet diets have shifted away from corn, wheat and soy and toward meat and fish, which are rich in calcium. Now, instead of being concerned about providing too little calcium, manufacturers must find the balance between too little calcium and too much, especially for large breeds, Downey said.
"Overfeeding a puppy too much of an energy-dense food, meaning higher in protein and especially fat, you can accelerate the normal growth curve," Downey said. "This can cause improper calcification in long bones, leading to improper cartilage formation defects that can have long-term consequences on joint and bone health."
Barb Morris, co-owner of Treats on a Leash in Ames, Iowa, said most of the store’s life-stage diet sales are from puppy and large-breed puppy foods.
"We think the large-breed-dog owners are learning the importance of their dogs eating a diet that will help them grow at a proper rate," she said.
As puppies reach adulthood, their lifestyle and activity level determines a lot of their nutritional needs, Downey said.
"Do they go out on daily runs with their owner? Are they hunting dogs? … Maybe they are simply couch potatoes whose most strenuous daily activity is getting up to bark at the passing mailman," he said.
Royal Canin makes highly specialized diets for all life stages and sizes. Because large dogs are more likely to face gastrointestinal sensitivities, Royal Canin’s large-breed adult diets include proteins and fibers that help improve stool quality, Mayabb said.
On the other hand, smaller breeds face more skin sensitivities, so the company’s small-breed diets include higher levels of omega fatty acids and B vitamins.
But even among all small breeds or all large breeds, nutritional needs are not identical, Mayabb said. Royal Canin sells more than 20 different breed-specific diets. For example, the company offers puppy and adult formulas for Shih Tzus and Jack Russell terriers.
"While they are both small-breed dogs and share some very similar nutritional needs in some respects, there are some key differences we can also address nutritionally," Mayabb said.
Jack Russell terriers tend to be active and energetic, for example.
"They need higher energy levels in their diet, and they also need protein that brings the right balance of amino acids to support their muscular physique," Mayabb said.
On the contrary, Shih Tzus are less active, have longer coats and sometimes deal with skin sensitivities. To meet these needs, Royal Canin’s Shih Tzu formulas contain higher levels of B vitamins, amino acids and omega fatty acids.
Additionally, because the breed’s short muzzle can sometimes lead to trouble picking up kibble, Royal Canin’s Shih Tzu kibble has a unique shape created "just for them," Mayabb said.
As a dog ages, nutrient requirements decrease due to changes in metabolism and a less-active lifestyle, said Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.
"Senior diets are typically formulated with a lower protein percentage, fat content and caloric count to take into account these life-stage changes," he said.
To support these changes, Fromm Senior Gold features lower nutrient densities. The Fromm Gold line sticks to the same ingredients for each life stage, so dogs are able to transition easily between stages, Nieman said.
It is also important for senior dogs to maintain an ideal weight in order to not stress their weakening musculoskeletal system, said Norm Shrout, co-owner of Long Leash on Life in Albuquerque, N.M.
Downey said dog owners have reported success with Annamaet Re-juvenate, which contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) with anti-aging properties and turmeric, which works as an anti-inflammatory. It also contains DHA and L-carnitine to help maintain cognitive function.
Re-juvenate’s main ingredient is silver carp, which is rich in protein and omega 3s. The fish is an invasive species in the Great Lakes, so using it is beneficial to preserving natural resources, Downey added.
Staging the Shelf
At Long Leash on Life in Albuquerque, N.M., dog foods are organized by brand, and then life-stage diets are grouped together, said co-owner Norm Shrout.
"We minimize our life-stage offerings to a select group that has proven performance and universal appeal," he said.
Foods are displayed according to brand at Treats on a Leash in Ames, Iowa, as well.
"It allows us to look at labels with customers and talk with them about the differences in puppy, large-breed puppy and adult foods within a brand," said co-owner Barb Morris.
Morris recognizes that many customers are price-conscious, so the store provides a breakdown of what each food costs to feed per meal. This helps customers understand the value of higher-quality foods because they can see bags will last longer as they feed smaller portions.
"At times, we have four to five Mason jars on the counter, each filled with a different pet food, to show the daily serving for a 40-pound dog," she said. "This helps make our higher-priced, higher-protein foods seem more doable for those on a limited budget."
Shrout reported success with samples, coupons and dollars-off promotions.
"Several times per year, we’ll feature a specific brand with which we resonate and promote it on a larger scale," he said.