When you look at a bag or can of dog food, there’s always a statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that says the food is appropriate for any one of a number of phases of a pet’s life. These include “growth” (puppies), “reproduction” (pregnant or nursing bitches), “maintenance” (adult dogs), or “all life stages.” But how could a food be for every stage of life if there are all those categories?
Fair question. First, consider that there are two ways a dog food can be shown to meet nutrient needs, according to AAFCO standards. One is to make sure the recipe is “formulated to meet” the levels of nutrients that AAFCO publishes. These nutrient levels, or profiles, list minimums and, in some cases, maximums, for essential nutrients that should be in the food depending on the dog’s life stage. The minimums for puppies and pregnant or nursing dogs are often higher than the minimums for non-reproducing adult dogs. Thus, as long as the food contains the minimums for pups and breeding females, it can be said to be “for all life stages.” The nutrient levels “may be overkill” for the average adult dog, says board-certified veterinary nutritionist Cailin Heinze, VMD, but a healthy grown dog will not be hurt by the higher amounts.
One caveat: food for puppies and pregnant/lactating bitches is often, but not always, higher in calories than food formulated for “maintenance.” If calories are an issue for your adult dog, check package labels to compare calorie levels from one food to another. That way, if your dog needs fewer calories to maintain or lose weight, you can choose a lower-calorie food.
The second way a recipe can be validated is for the food to actually go through feeding trials with dogs in the life stage group for which the food is intended. For instance, if a company wants to say “gestation/lactation” on the label’s AAFCO statement — not by making the recipe according to a list of nutrient minimums but by seeing what happens when dogs actually eat the food — it needs to test the food on pregnant/lactating dogs and see if the results stand up to AAFCO guidelines. These guidelines are not about specific levels of nutrients, as they are for foods “formulated to meet” AAFCO standards, but for actual health outcomes. For instance, the bitch and pups must have similar weight gain to the average for dogs in the colony, show no signs of deficiencies, and have normal red blood cell and blood protein values. If the standards are met, the AAFCO statement on the label can say “feeding trials” to show that the food is right for reproduction.
For dogs who are reproducing and also for puppies, “I would certainly rather have feeding trials” than a food simply formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient minimums, Dr. Heinze says. “A lot more can go wrong during those stages of life than during adult maintenance. Problems happen much more quickly than they would over the course of an adult dog’s life.” In other words, there’s only a small window for getting it right, and a food that has gone through feeding trials for gestation/lactation and/or growth provides more assurance that things will turn out the way they’re supposed to.