Pet Nutrition

Dogs and Cats Have Different Needs

Pet food bowls

Walk down the food aisle of your local pet supply store and you’ll see a wide variety of pet food products. Some are labeled for puppies or kittens. Others are for senior  pets. There are also pet food products for more active pets or for overweight pets.

How do you choose the right pet food for your pet, and why are there so many different options?

Your pet’s dietary needs change over the course of his life, from birth to adolescence to adulthood and then to old age. A life stage diet is one that is tailored to meet the different nutritional needs as your pet ages.

Dogs’ and cats’ nutritional requirements are quite different from one another. It’s always wise to discuss the best diet for your pet with your veterinarian at each stage of your pet’s life.

Specific Needs for Young Pets

Puppies need nearly four times the energy than adult dogs, and they need extra protein to help build new tissue. So an energy-rich diet including protein, fat, calcium and phosphorous is important during this phase.

Puppy stands by food bowl

Puppies’ needs vary according to breed. Small breed dogs need higher levels of these nutrients, while large breed dogs need less to control their growth rate. Medium-sized dog breeds are between the two.

Too little or two much of these nutrients can cause problems with your dog’s skeletal structure and possibly lead to obesity.

Kittens, due to the small size of their mouths and digestive systems, can’t eat much at one sitting. According to veterinarian Cori Gross, who is a Nationwide pet insurance field veterinarian, kittens should be free fed, meaning food should be left available at all times.

Their food should be high in easily digestible animal protein and other important nutrients, such as fiber, essential vitamins and minerals, and taurine, an amino acid found in chicken and fish sources.

Gross said there is evidence suggesting that adding DHA—an essential fatty acid that improves brain development and is mandatory in human baby formula—to puppy or kitten food can actually make your pet smarter. Ask your veterinarian for a DHA recommendation prior to adding it to your pet’s diet.

The Teen/Adult Dog Years

The recommended time to switch your dog’s diet to an adult food formula is ideal when your dog is close to his adult height, approximately at two years of age. Smaller dogs achieve this sooner, around one year of age.

Elderly golden retriever

The adult diet that is right for your dog will depend on his breed and level of activity. Feed your dog dry food to help keep his teeth healthy—and for larger breeds, to provide more caloric density.

While some dogs may require special diets due to medical issues, the average small or medium breed dog should eat food containing:

  • High-quality, animal-based protein for muscle maintenance
  • Fiber for a healthy digestive tract
  • Essential vitamins and minerals for the immune system
  • Vitamin-rich fish oils for a healthy coat and skin and for overall health
  • Healthy grains for energy

Large breed dogs may need food containing glucosamine and less fat than a medium breed dog to help maintain joint health.


Our pets are living longer than they did several decades ago. They are better vaccinated and receive routine veterinary care.

The Teen/Adult Cat Years

Veterinarians recommend feeding your kitten adult food at about nine months of age. Cats tend to put on weight after they are spayed or neutered, which occurs at six months or earlier.

Cat food bowl

To avoid overfeeding your cat, gradually mix the adult food with the kitten food. After two weeks, your cat should no longer be eating kitten kibble. Begin allowing free feeding only during breakfast and dinnertime. Eventually switch to measured portions of breakfast and dinner based on your veterinarian’s recommendation.

Blend dry cat food with canned food for a well-rounded meal. Cats are strict meat eaters, or carnivores, so the food should contain a high level of easily digestible protein. Fat is also important for needed calories.

Adult cat food should also contain:

  • Vitamin A, from liver, kidney and other organ meats, and niacin for healthy growth
  • Essential fatty acids for healthy skin and fur
  • Taurine for healthy eyes and heart muscle

Senior Living

Our pets are living longer than they did several decades ago. They are better vaccinated and receive routine veterinary care. They also are getting better nutrition.

A senior pet is one considered to be in the last third of his life. For instance, if your particular breed of dog has a life expectancy of 12 years, then it will be “senior” by age 8. If your cat has an expectancy of 18 years, then it would be considered “senior” around age 12.

Of course, some animals remain healthy and active well into their old age. Others, however, undergo physiological changes that can be impacted through diet.

Senior dogs need a diet lower in calories, protein and fat, and one higher in fiber, as most are not as active as they were. Obesity can become an issue. Kidney failure is not uncommon.

Cat

Senior cats do not need a reduced-calorie diet as they maintain their energy needs throughout adulthood—obesity risks greatly decrease after age 10. Senior cats still need a high amount of protein. They don’t necessarily absorb fat as well, so they might need more digestible fat in their diets for the same amount of energy.

Both senior cats and dogs can develop dental issues and can begin to lose teeth, making it more difficult for them to eat hard kibble. For senior cats or cats with certain medical problems such as bladder problems or obesity, Gross recommends that most if not all calories come from canned food.

Evolving Needs

Your senior pet may develop age-related health issues in the last year or so of his life. There are different food and supplements to address different problems.

Keeping your pet active and at a healthy weight will increase his lifespan and the time you get to spend together.

Your veterinarian can help guide you to make sure your pet has a quality of life as long as possible.