Senior woman in the park

As we grow up, we go through different life stages—childhood to teen years to middle age and retirement. And, although they might not change as drastically as us humans, our pets go through life stages, too. 

Pet parents know that owning a puppy is very different than owning a senior dog, so why would they provide their pets with the same products throughout their life? Life stage-specific foods, treats, toys and other products ensure pets’ unique needs are met as they grow and change.

“Pets grow through a number of life stages, and lifestyles and nutritional needs will vary in each one,” says Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for Wellness Natural Pet Food. “During every stage, growth rate, activity level and feeding guidelines will look different, which is why it’s important to consider the nutritional needs that align with your pet’s age when selecting treats and meals.”

While some pet products may work with a one-size-fits-all approach, others, such as foods and supplements, work best when they are tailored to pets’ unique needs based on their age group.

“While feeding a product formulated for all life stages makes dinner time simpler for a consumer, it may not be optimal for each pet,” says Dr. Marcie, Campion, nutritionist and pet technical lead for Black Gold Pet Food. “It’s similar to putting a man’s shirt on a little boy. While the shirt will function as a shirt on the little boy, it is not tailored to his specific size or need.”


Age-Based Benefits

Many industry experts typically break dogs’ and cats’ lives down into anywhere from three to four life stages: puppyhood/kittenhood, adolescence, adulthood and seniority. 

Arguably one of the most important periods of life for animals is the first. And, to ensure they are set up for a long and healthy life, young animals need extra support from their food in the form of additional protein and certain vitamins and minerals.

“For example, our Wellness CORE Puppy formula incorporates optimal calories and the DHA that young dogs need for healthy brain, bone and muscle development,” says Leary-Coutu.

As pets reach adulthood, though, their metabolism starts to slow, so they often need products with fewer calories in order to avoid obesity—a major health concern for millions of pets today.

“Over 50 percent of dogs and 40 percent of cats in the U.S. are currently obese,” says Rob Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods. “Studies have shown that obesity can shorten a dog’s lifespan by two years. A simple fact is that lean dogs and cats live longer and healthier lives.”

On the other end of the spectrum, senior dogs and cats need diets that are focused on the systems most affected by the aging process, like joints, cognitive function and immune systems. 

“All current research shows that older dogs likely need more protein on a calorie basis that young mature adults,” says Downey. “[Older] pets utilize protein less efficiently than do young mature adults. They are also more susceptible to stress, which tends to deplete body proteins. Also, older dogs, like people, progressively lose neural and mental functions. The neurotransmitters in the brain that help keep you mentally sharp are protein based, these enzymes decline as we age.”

Of course, there’s more to determining pets’ needs than just their age, which is why many products also take into consideration factors like breed, size and lifestyle. 

“Small breeds have small stomachs—they can’t consume large amounts of food, so their diets need to be more nutrient dense,” explains Downey. “With large breeds, especially puppies you need to be careful not to over feed or feed a diet with too high of calcium levels. This can accelerate the growth curve causing the bones to grow too fast, potentially causing improper calcification and lead to metabolic bone disease.” 


The Sales Stage

Pets aren’t the only ones who benefit from life stage-specific products, though. Retailers, too, can profit from having a well-rounded inventory with products for pets of all ages and sizes.

“For many independent pet retailers, the relationships they forge with their customers are often long term,” says Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods. “Many pet parents seek out advice and recommendations throughout their pet’s lives and appreciate the familiarity a neighborhood pet store can bring. Carrying a full assortment of life stage products ensures that retailers will have a nutritional solution in real time for their shoppers and options along the way during the pet’s life journey from puppy to senior.”

In addition to facilitating relationships with customers, carrying products for different life stages also gives retailers the chance to cultivate relationships with brands that offer treats, meals, toppers and supplements for all types of pets. 

“These relationships play a significant role in retailers developing a colorful marketplace that consumers can trust and view as a one stop shop,” adds Leary-Coutu.

However, no category is without its disadvantages. With so many different life stages and lifestyles to cater to, the category is bound to take up a fair amount of store real estate.  

“One of the biggest challenges is space,” says Dr. Campion. “The number of pet food products continues to increase, but retail space may not. Retailers should evaluate their assortment yearly in order to meet both their customers’ needs and the needs of their business.”

To ensure the investment of resources and space is worthwhile, Dr. Campion emphasizes the importance of customer education and staff recommendations in driving category sales.

“As your associate’s knowledge of pet food increases, so will their confidence in making recommendations,” she continues. “Providing them with a series of questions such as the consumer’s nutritional philosophy, size of the pet, age of the pet, activity level, environment they live in and whether or not they have any issues gives them a built-in decision tree to quickly help the consumer make a decision.” 

Traditional marketing tactics, such as in-store signage, POS materials and coupons go a long way in breaking customers out of the one-size-fits-all mentality when shopping for their pet, but retailers can’t overlook more modern tools, such as email blasts and social media posts, reminds Nieman.

“It’s also important to remember that retailers must stay flexible and embrace digital efforts and out-of-the-box thinking,” he says. “With the country still navigating through the pandemic and retail still being affected, incorporating digital outreach efforts and engagement and offering additional services like order ahead purchasing and contactless pick-up will help retailers stay connected and competitive.”

And, as retailers are looking toward the future, they should know that the prospects for life stage-specific foods, treats and other products is only expected to get brighter as the pet industry continues its trend toward humanization.

“With the surge in ingredients that provide micro-nutrition (nutrition with a specific benefit like digestion or immunity), we predict that life stage specific products will continue to increase,” says Dr. Campion. “Pet health science is changing all the time, and just like our own desire for customized nutrition, consumers will want more customization for their pets in order to live a longer, healthier life.”  PB