You wouldn’t give an infant the same food and toys you give a teenager. So why would you care for a puppy the same way you do for an adult dog? As our pets grow and change, so too should the products we use to care for them.
“There are several different life stages for dogs and cats, the most well-known being puppy or kitten, adult and senior,” explains Jen Beechen, vice president of marketing for ORIJEN and ACANA pet food. “There are other life stages that require different nutrition as well, like prenatal and postnatal stages for female pets. Each life stage requires unique, targeted nutrition for optimal health.”
Carrying pet products, like food, treats and toys, designed with specific life stages in mind can help customers avoid confusion and successfully navigate an increasingly crowded market.
“Inherently, customers want to do the right thing and provide their pets with a high-quality diet,” says Danielle Opetz, companion animal nutritionist at Fromm Family Foods. “Life stage-specific products take some of the guess work out and give them confidence that they’re feeding a complete and balanced diet that is right for their pet.”
Retailers can also build lifelong loyalty among their customers by acting as expert guides through every stage of their pets’ lives.
“Besides stocking these products, it’s important that retailers educate store associates about the importance of tailored nutrition for dogs and cats at different life stages,” says Susan G. Wynn DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition) and senior director of scientific affairs at Instinct Pet Food. “When retailers combine the right life stage-specific product assortment with educated and helpful store associates, pet owners will get the best nutrition for their pet.”
Growing up is a lot of work and requires a lot of energy, which is why puppies and kittens need food that can keep up with that nutritional demand. On average, dogs are considered puppies until they’re about a year old while kittenhood lasts about six months.
“Puppies and kittens are manufacturing and organizing new tissue like bone and muscle, and if the nutrients to support that aren’t available, there are lifelong consequences such as permanent malformations,” says Wynn. “These demands must be met by supplying higher levels of many nutrients, especially – but not limited to – protein, calories and calcium.”
It’s also important to remind owners that different breeds age at different rates. For instance, large breed dogs like Great Danes or Labrador Retrievers, stay puppies for longer (up to 24 months) and therefore have different nutritional requirements than their small or medium counterparts.
“Since large breeds typically take longer to reach their full adult size, supporting a slow and steady growth is crucial, which is why you’ll find some of the mineral content, like calcium and phosphorus, to be lower in foods [formulated] specifically for large breed puppies, like ORIJEN Large Breed recipe,” says Beechen.
For pets, adulthood starts when growth ends and lasts until they reach the golden years – anywhere between six to 10 years of age. During this time, it’s all about maintaining their health and preventing disease.
Another major concern for parents of adult pets is avoiding obesity. According to the Banfield Pet Hospital, the percentage of dogs diagnosed as overweight or obese rose from 16 percent in 2011 to 34 percent in 2020. For cats, the percentage increase was even higher, jumping from 18 percent to 38 percent in the same period. That’s why it’s important to choose formulas with a good balance of fruits, vegetables and proteins and without any excess nutrients.
“We don’t want to overfeed the essential nutrients required in high amounts by puppies and kittens,” says Wynn. “Feeding a growth diet often exceeds the adults’ nutritional needs, resulting in unhealthy weight gain and potentially other nutrient excesses. Feeding extra nutrients at this age does not prevent any diseases and can potentially be harmful.”
Another, often overlooked, stage of life is motherhood. While not all pets will carry and give birth to a litter of little ones, those that do have their own set of unique needs to maintain both their own health and that of their babies.
“During gestation, lactation and growth, a pet’s dietary needs change significantly, as this period has the largest demand on the body,” says Opetz. “During this time, pets require a higher level of nutrients, including increased levels of protein (amino acids), fats such as EPA and DHA to improve cognitive function, and minerals such as calcium, iron and manganese to support skeletal development.”
The last change to pets’ needs happens when they reach the senior phase of life and start to physically slow down.
“Senior dogs often require a diet high in protein to promote lean muscle mass and low in fat to help with weight maintenance, since metabolism tends to slow down with age,” says Beechen. “ORIJEN Senior is a protein-packed diet that is lower in fat than other life stage-specific foods in the ORIJEN lineup.”
As pets age, they are also more likely to develop chronic health conditions, like arthritis, heart disease or cancer. Many senior-specific products include ingredients to support their health and address their symptoms.
“For instance, Instinct Raw Longevity 7+ for dogs contains turmeric as well as Perna mussel and chicken cartilage for healthy joints, enhanced Vitamin D levels for appropriate immune system balance, and lemon balm plus coconut oil for healthy brain function,” explains Wynn. “Instinct Raw Longevity 7+ for cats contains higher levels of vitamin B12 and a unique protein source for the stomach problems that so commonly plague older kitties.”
While life stage-specific labels on products can go a long way in helping customers find the right items for their pet, retailers shouldn’t depend on that alone to drive category sales. Emma Kumbier, veterinary outreach coordinator at Primal Pet Foods, suggests creating niche sections for different life stage in the store.
“From a consumer standpoint, marketing makes a huge difference,” she says. “Niche sections for puppies, adults and seniors rather than having everything merged. These niche sections can also include things for ‘All Life Stages,’ or things like kibble toppers that can be used at any stage of life.”
Seasonal displays, too, can be an effective tool for grabbing customers’ attention and educating them about the many benefits of products for specific life stages.
“Puppy and kitten adoptions typically spike in the spring, so displays featuring the essentials—pee pads, litter trays, crates, beds, food and treats—are a great way to highlight products specifically formulated for young pets,” says Beechen. “There are also plenty of awareness days throughout the year to leverage. For example, November is Senior Pet Month, which offers an opportunity for retailers to have the conversation about senior-focused recipes.”
Overall, the category is predicted to continue to grow as both researchers and owners learn more about the needs of pets throughout their lives.
“As more pet parents are viewing their pets as part of the family, marketing will likely continue to latch onto this narrative and increase the targeted life stage approach to labeling individual items,” adds Kumbier. PB