Why It's Important Not to Underestimate Lifestage Diets for Dogs

In years past, pet owners grabbed a bag of dog food and stuck with it from puppyhood to adulthood. The market has since evolved, offering life-stage diets designed to match each unique phase in a dog’s life.

"Since the beginning of the pet food industry in the mid-50s, most pet food formulas have been listed as good for all life stages," said Rob Downey, president of Annamaet Petfoods, a manufacturer in Sellersville, Pa. "The first puppy foods appeared in the early 1960s as dogs and cats began to be considered a big part of the family. … The move to life-stage formulas got a bigger push in 2012 when the AVMA [American Veterinary Medical Association] released a study showing that nearly 40 percent of the ‘all-life-stage foods’ in the grocery store were found to have too much calcium for large- and giant-breed puppies. After that, veterinarians began recommending against feeding the same formula from puppy age to senior age."

Such evidence-based clinical nutrition has prompted companies to forge ahead with life-stage diets.

"Our decades of science and research guide us in making food with the precise blend of taste and nutrition options for every stage of life," said Kathy Gross, Ph.D., and worldwide director of clinical nutrition at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a manufacturer in Topeka, Kan. "Our Science Diet foods are made for the various needs of healthy pets, like supporting mobility for dogs, helping cats prone to hairballs and more for every life stage."

The company also takes into account the eating behavior of pets.

"Our small-pawed dog friends (less than 12 pounds), for example, need tailored nutrition for their unique small- and mini-size needs during the prime of their life, like our Science Diet Small Paws Adult (1-6 years) dog food," Gross said. "This food is specially made with nibble-size kibble, easy-to-digest ingredients for healthy digestion, high-quality protein for lean muscles and contains our special small and mini antioxidant blend for lifelong immune support."

EmerAid, a division of Lafeber International, carries a distinct purpose, illustrated by its tagline: "Life-Saving Nutrition."

"EmerAid Sustain HDN (Highly Digestive Nutrition) is a nutritionally balanced food designed to support cats and dogs that are recovering from critical illness, suffering from chronic medical conditions or experiencing elderly age symptoms such as loss in weight, appetite and energy," said Nadine Lafeber, marketing coordinator at Lafeber International, a Chicago-based manufacturer. "It acts as a topper with a pet’s existing food but can also be made into bites as its own individual food. The formula stops or dramatically reduces diarrhea, encourages pets to eat their full meal, increases energy for an active lifestyle, and promotes lean body weight and muscle mass."

With dogs living longer, there are also more geriatric pets, Downey said.

"Combine this with the humanization of pets and the growing trend towards healthy diets [and] it is not surprising that senior formulas are one of the fastest-growing segments in the pet industry," Downey added.

Consumer Education

Food for Thought

Whether a pet owner is new to the concept of life-stage diets or a longtime advocate, education in the category is essential.

"When it comes to pet nutrition, there is a lot of misleading information out there," said Kathy Gross, Ph.D., and worldwide director of clinical nutrition at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a manufacturer in Topeka, Kan. "That’s why it’s more important than ever that pet parents get the facts needed to make informed decisions."

Marsha Vallee, co-owner of Noble Beast, a pet store in Phoenix, has nutrition consultations with customers and has even written a blog on large-breed puppy food.

"We definitely recommend large-breed puppy food when that is indicated," Vallee said. "For certain dogs, we might advise a senior food to control calories or increase fiber."

Some pet owners are seeking life-stage diets because of veterinarian recommendations, although that is probably less common, Vallee said.

"I do think some people are exposed to life-stage food because certain big-box brands market them," Vallee added.

Steering pet owners to life-stage diets could give them reassurance, said Rob Downey, president of Annamaet Petfoods, a manufacturer in Sellersville, Pa.

"If nothing else, many consumers using life-stage formulas will get peace of mind," Downey said. "Giving their puppy a food designed for puppies will ensure the calcium levels are at proper levels. All-life-stage formulas have a much bigger window for calcium levels, which may not be the best, especially if your puppy is a large- or giant-breed puppy. … The new cutting-edge senior formulas can provide your dog with the higher levels of protein they need. Some will also contain nutraceuticals like turmeric and coconut oil, a rich source of medium-chain triglycerides, that have shown promise in arthritis concerns to age-associated cognitive decline."

New Products

Breakthrough Nutrition

While it may seem that pet food manufacturers already have a vast array of products on the market, there’s room to grow, especially as nutritional concepts evolve.

"We want pet parents to feel confident that they’re feeding a food backed by science," said Kathy Gross, Ph.D. and worldwide director of clinical nutrition at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a manufacturer in Topeka, Kan. "Our more than 220 veterinarians, Ph.D. nutritionists and food scientists continue to develop breakthrough nutrition technology for cats and dogs."

Hill’s Science Diet No Corn, Wheat or Soy life-stage-specific dog and cat food assortments launched in early April.

The company is also gearing up to launch a "small paws expansion" for small and mini dogs at its Global Pet Nutrition Center in January 2021.

"[The expansion will] continue to support our breakthrough innovations in pet nutrition, even for our smallest furry friends," Gross said.

Annamaet recently released its Annamaet Original Senior.

"This grain-inclusive, life-stage formula follows the great success we had with Annamaet Re-juvenate, our grain-free senior formula that we released in 2018," said Rob Downey, president of Annamaet Petfoods, a manufacturer in Sellersville, Pa. "As we know, dogs are living longer, so we are seeing an increase in new geriatric maladies. Nutraceuticals like turmeric or coconut oil have been shown to help slow inflammation and the brain aging process."

Both Annamaet Original Senior and Annamaet Re-juvenate are also higher in protein.

"All current research indicates that as dogs age, they need more protein on a calorie basis than young mature adults," Downey said. "Older dogs, like older people, utilize protein less efficiently than do young mature adults. They are also more susceptible to oxidative stress, which tends to damage and deplete body proteins. Older dogs and people progressively lose neural and mental functions. Proteins are the building blocks of muscles. As we age, we lose muscle, as do our pets. Studies in humans have shown that low protein in the diet can increase muscle wasting with aging."

Lafeber International has moved in a new direction by making its EmerAid diets more available to consumers. Prior, pet owners would have to get it prescribed from a veterinarian, said Nadine Lafeber, marketing coordinator of the Chicago-based company.

EmerAid Sustain HDN (Highly Digestive Nutrition) is a nutritionally balanced food designed to support pets that are recovering from critical illness, suffering from chronic medical conditions or experiencing elderly age symptoms.

"EmerAid can be administered in various ways and acts as a topper for food," Lafeber said. "A major benefit of the product is that based off the pet’s preferences, an owner can choose the way they give it to their pet."

EmerAid can be made into bites by mixing it with water, be made into gravy to pour over food or given directly from the package by stirring the powder with food, according to Lafeber.

Merchandising

No Hide and Seek

When consumers walk into a pet store, chances are they know exactly where the pet food is. But once there, are the life-stage diets they are seeking easily found?

"Most retail pet stores separate products by brand, but some new forward-thinking retailers are now starting to separate products based on category: puppy, adult, senior," said Rob Downey, president of Annamaet Petfoods, a manufacturer in Sellersville, Pa. "This makes it easier for the shopper to find life-stage products."

Still, manufacturers, however, frown on this setup because they want their products all together on the shelves, Downey said.

"Basic market research shows the more shelf space you maintain in retail space, the more product you are likely to sell," Downey noted.

Pet owners may have other ideas about how the food aisle should be arranged, according to Kathy Gross, Ph.D. and worldwide director of clinical nutrition at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a manufacturer in Topeka, Kan.

"The feedback we’ve consistently received from pet parents is that they prefer our brand to be merchandised by breed size first, and then life stage."

Marsha Vallee, co-owner of Noble Beast, a pet store in Phoenix, organizes pet food by brand, not life stage.

"As a small store, we are steering people to the food, so this makes the most sense for us," Vallee said.

Retailers who want to promote new life-stage diets should consider endcap space, according to Downey.

"An endcap is an ideal location that increases visibility and allows for better accessibility," Downey said. "Endcaps also provide better signage opportunities."