It doesn’t matter if it was adopted, gifted or bought: everyone remembers the moment they first met their furry friend. As the life-long bond formed, there’s a seemingly endless stream of memories: the first birthday that was celebrated together, the first personal item they chewed, the first command they learned, that time they tried to dig a hole through the kitchen wall…
Raising an animal during their infant years takes an incredible amount of endurance, but it’s also extremely rewarding. There’s the sense of satisfaction as your smart puppy successfully completes its obedience training; there’s that feeling of pride as your kitten finally learns that that’s where the litter box is.
As rambunctious puppies and kittens progress into strong adults and gentle seniors, their nutritional and mental needs change with them—whether that’s for better or worse.
Between the necessity of socialization, mental stimulation and dietary needs, there’s a lot to be aware of. Whether it’s a first time pet parent or a seasoned pro, retailers need to be able to successfully guide shoppers through all the stages of their pet’s life.
Bringing a new puppy or kitten home for the first time is intimidating, even for the most hardened pet owners. Whether its a "I can’t believe I’m doing this!" or a "I can’t believe I’m doing this—again," they’ll require a crash-course on the basics, a refresher or an update on the latest trends.
"The first priority for a pet parent is to find and feed a nutritionally complete and balanced diet," advises Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods. He explains that while there are foods out there that are suitable to be fed at all ages, there will likely be specific points in a pet’s life where a stage-specific diet is a better option, especially during the early developmental months and years.
Nieman continues that the greatest demand on a pet’s body is during growth, meaning that recipes geared toward younger breeds should be higher in nutrient and energy densities.
More specifically, "a growing puppy requires at least 56 grams of protein per 1000 kilocalories of food," says Lindsay Meyers, BS CVT, product development and veterinary channel manager of Primal Pet Foods. "Puppies and kittens require EPA and DHA—fats that are important for growth and development."
She continues that puppies, in particular, have increased amino acid and specific mineral requirements for bone growth.
The other side of the coin is recognizing the dangers that improper feeding can present and making consumers aware of them.
"Overfeeding puppies can accelerate the growth curve, allowing the bones to grow too fast too soon and lead to improper calcification and metabolic bone disease," says Rob Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods. "You need to be concerned about calcium levels for the puppy, especially large and giant breed puppies."
A helpful trick to rounding out a pet’s diet—which can be applied across all lifestages—is to add in fresh food.
"We believe that a variety of fresh foods is the best way to feed your pet for optimal health," explains Meyers. "Every pet’s digestive system and unique microbiome is different. For your pet to go from survive to thrive, we believe that feeding them a variety of balanced foods, including at least some fresh or frozen raw foods, is incredibly important, just like it is for us."
Food’s one thing; treats are another. Due to their relatively small sizes and the popularity of treat training, pet owners may not think they’re doing that much harm if they toss a few pieces their pup’s way. With the increased frequency puppies eat these snacks, it’s important that they are nutritious.
"When frequent treats are needed, it can sometimes be nice to use a complete and balanced treat so that you can decrease the calories of their scheduled meals to make up for the added treat calories," explains Lindsay Meyers, BS CVT, product development and veterinary channel manager for Primal Pet Foods. "You want to be careful of this if the treats you’re feeding aren’t balanced."
With "supplements" being the word on everyone’s lips, it’s important to keep in mind that they are designed more for lifestyle, not a lifestage, condition or activity, explains Downey. It’s up to pet owners to monitor their pets to determine if their joints need a little extra lubrication or if they seem to get anxious or stressed throughout the day.
While one of the best things about raising a young animal is their playfulness, their high-energy levels and constant need for attention can quickly get exhausting, especially for older owners, those with young children or workaholics.
Sarah Johnson, sales coordinator at P.L.A.Y Pet Lifestyle and You, explains that in addition to walks and running in a yard, toys can serve as an outlet to wear a young animal out.
These types of toys should include enrichment and fetch and tug toys that are designed for higher-energy activity and durable enough to hold up to teething puppies.
Spencer Williams, CEO and president of West Paw, adds that, "during the younger years of a dog’s life, they need socialization, so tug toys that dogs can play together [or with an owner] is a great way to teach dogs how to play nice."
Enrichment toys, which include puzzle toys, also aid in developing problem-solving skills as well as building confidence, adds Emily Benson, marketing director of Starmark Pet Products.
The Middle Ages
Now that their puppy’s grown into its paws and their kitten no longer fits in their shoe, consumers can put away their bitter apple spray and embrace the adolescent years. For pet parents who are adhering to life-stage specific diets, it’s time to walk them through their first major dietary change.
Nieman recommends employing a transitional change over time to help reduce the chances of digestive upset.
"This is done by beginning with a mixture of 75 percent of the old and 25 percent of the new," he explains. "Once a well-formed stool is seen and no other problems show themselves, the next move is to mix 50 percent old and 50 percent new. Again, once a well-formed stool is seen with no other apparent problems shown, the next step would be to mix 75 percent of the new and 25 percent of the old."
Nieman notes that there are dog food brands that offer life-stage specific formulas that require no transition, such as Fromm.
When it comes to the food itself, there’s no set requirement for EPA or DHA, but they are beneficial sources of omega-3 fatty acids that can improve joint and skin health and prevent allergies, says Meyers. Specifically for an adult dog, they require 45 grams of protein per 1000 kilocalories.
Now that the bulk of training is finished, treats are now mainly reward- or incentive-based. This is where those extra calories can pose serious harm.
"Many treats are really high calorie bombs, and with obesity being the No. 1 problem with dogs and cats today, this is certainly a growing problem," warns Downey. "Owners frequently are concerned about the diet and calorie intake in the food they give but fail to consider the calorie count of the treats they are giving. Many treats are loaded with sugars or fat to increase palatability."
In terms of playtime, "Adolescent or middle-aged dogs need mentally-stimulating puzzle toys for when they’re home alone for long periods, as well as interactive toys that serve to reinforce the bond between a human and their dog," explains Williams. "Humans should challenge their dog to tug-o-war and allow the dogs to win sometimes to help them build confidence."
The Golden Years
Let’s call it like it is: one of the worst things is watching a beloved pet grow old. With the potential for a myriad of health problems, it’s more important than ever to make sure that the needs of senior animals are being met.
At this point, the power of protein can’t be underestimated. Downey explains that older dogs utilize protein less efficiently than their younger counterparts. This means that they progressively lose neural and mental functions, as the activities of enzymes that synthesize neurotransmitters decline. Those are protein-based, and restricting protein can actually increase senility.
Pet owners are going to see their older animals start to lose interest in certain activities they used to love, and they might just assume their pet is too old to be bothered with it. When it comes to addressing these changing desires, Johnson explains that retailers should emphasize that it doesn’t mean they don’t like toys any more, they may just need something different to engage them than when they were younger.
"For seniors, these toys help to keep their aging minds sharp and can help encourage them to stay active into their old age," explains Johnson. "Many seniors may benefit more from toys that offer high food motivation or louder sounds that can help them locate the toy if their senses have dulled."
While exercise has been a priority across the board, it’s especially prevalent for senior dogs.
"Older, more mature dogs…need to stay active to remain fit," says Williams. "Extra weight can cause joint pain and arthritis, so ensuring that mature dogs remain active throughout their later years can help keep their weight down and their energy level up. We recommend playing fetch for exercise, and then rewarding them with a healthy snack inside their favorite treat toy."
While all these provide a good starting point for retailers, they have to realize that each dog has its own needs.
"What’s most important is to be in tune with how different dogs change and behave during their own life cycles and what their own preferences turn out to be," explains Johnson. "Be prepared to cater to that broad spectrum." PB