By Teresa Traverse
Knowing when to switch your dog’s food isn’t an easy task. After all, unless the food is making your dog sick, there’s no use changing it. Right? Well, not necessarily.
Our vet experts share eight reasons why you should consider changing your dog’s food.
The most obvious time to change your dog’s food is when he leaves puppyhood and becomes an adult, says Dr. Donna Raditic, a nutrition and integrative medicine consultant based in Athens, Georgia, and a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. This varies based on breed and size.
Puppy food has higher calories to help fuel a young dog’s dramatic growth, Raditic explains. “A puppy is making new tissues, skin cells, etc.” Puppy and adult dog foods also have other, significant differences related to protein and fat levels and vitamin and mineral concentrations.
Adult dogs don’t need as many calories since they’re finished growing and just need calories to maintain their weight, she adds. Likewise, a pregnant and nursing dog would also have different food requirements due to the physical demands of pregnancy and lactation.
According to Raditic, many dogs will put on weight after getting spayed or neutered, especially if they’re still being fed puppy food post-procedure. But you can avoid this by making a change in diet.
“They’re not growing anymore, and we didn’t adjust for growth. That’s one mistake,” Raditic says. “They also don’t have a reproduction requirement.” Intact males and females need more calories to maintain their body weight—spayed and neutered dogs need less.
Consult with your vet before taking your dog home, she advises.
Pet parents should reassess their dog’s food once he reaches middle age or early senior years, recommends Dr. Julie Churchill, an associate clinical professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences and a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.
But both vet experts caution that it’s not wise to simply head to the store for a bag of “senior” dog food when your dog approaches a certain age. Senior dog food is a marketing term, not a scientific one, they explain. According to Churchill, oftentimes the calorie requirements for older dogs decrease, and the nutritional value between one company’s senior dog food and another can vary widely.
“I do recommend reassessing and realigning food,” Churchill says, “but it doesn’t have to say senior on the bag, because senior doesn’t tell you what the nutrient composition is.” And there’s a big difference between the needs of an older Labrador who is still competing in field trials and the typical sofa-surfing pet.
If your pet is over or underweight, it might be a good idea to switch her food to fix the problem. But this depends on how much your dog needs to lose or gain. If your medium or large dog is just 1 to 3 pounds overweight, you can simply reduce her current food by one quarter cup, Raditic suggests.
For dogs that need to lose more than 3 pounds, a weight loss specific diet might be the best bet, she says. If you reduce your dog’s diet too drastically, you run the risk of creating vitamin and nutrient deficiencies since “adult maintenance” dog food blends are formulated based on the assumption that you’re feeding the recommended amount, not a reduced amount, she warns. Weight loss specific diets are formulated to be fed at a reduced-calorie level.
“Prescription weight loss diets really do have the ability to safely achieve weight loss so you’re not creating deficiencies,” Raditic says. “There are extra antioxidants, supplements, fiber, and other things in them that will help those dogs lose weight.”
While food allergies in dogs are rare, they do happen, Churchill says. Symptoms of food allergies in dogs include chronic itching and skin infections, sometimes in combination with vomiting or diarrhea.
“Any pet can develop allergies, and often there’s more than one allergy,” Churchill says. “Food and environmental can go together. That’s often the challenge [in diagnosing allergies].”
Seasonal shifts can often mean a drastic change in your dog’s exercise levels and the amount of food she might need. For example, if you take your dog on long hikes in the spring after being less active in winter, you might want to consider switching your dog’s food to match her more vigorous exercise routine.
“When there are dramatic season or temperature changes, that can sometimes impact activity level,” Churchill says. “That directly influences nutritional needs, especially calories.”
If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes or kidney disease, he will probably require a change in diet. “You’re basically using the food as medicine,” Churchill describes.
Vets will often use food to help manage both conditions (and others). “In kidney disease, nutrition is the mainstay of the treatment to reduce risks of progression,” Churchill explains. Diabetic food is a little different, she continues. “It largely helps prevent [blood sugar] spikes after eating.”
Although you’ll see diabetic dog food on the shelves, that might not necessarily be the best option for your diabetic dog, Churchill cautions. Pet parents should “do what their veterinarian recommends based on their exam and their assessment of that patient,” she says.
There is nothing wrong with being proactive in looking at your dog’s diet, Raditic says. For instance, if your dog’s breed is prone to bladder stones, like Bichons, Dalmatians, or Schnauzers, you could ask your vet to recommend a diet that may decrease your pet’s chances of developing the condition.
“Most veterinarians won’t be comfortable doing that, because there’s no science or research [to support it],” Raditic warns. But it might be worth a try, she says. “What’s wrong with trying to provide the best nutrition possible for that dog?”
Want to find out how to switch dog foods? Read this expert advice.