Feeding Your Young Adult Dog

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, DAAPM

When is my dog considered to be a young adult?

Dogs are generally full-grown at about 1 year of age (a bit older for giant breeds, such as the Great Dane). Dogs are considered middle-aged by 5 to 7 years of age. In between is the young adult life stage. Other than obesity, dental disease, and osteoarthritis, unless there is some unusual medical crisis like cancer, this is typically a healthy period of a dog's life.

What are the main priorities in feeding a young adult dog?

The nutritional goals for this time in a dog's life are to maximize health, longevity, and quality of life laying a good foundation for old age. When choosing a nutritional profile for this life stage, consulting your veterinarian is an important first step.

What factors do I need to take into account when feeding my young adult dog?

Breed, gender, neutered versus sexually intact, and lifestyle are all important considerations when choosing an optimal nutrient profile. Body weight is not nearly as important as body condition score (BCS), and your veterinarian can help you understand where your dog stands. Obesity is the single most common preventable disease of dogs across all ages. At least two-thirds of dogs are overweight, and one-third of them are obese. Obesity is defined as weighing more than 20% above ideal body weight. That means that a Labrador Retriever who should weigh 55 pounds (25 kg) is obese if she weighs 66 pounds (30 kg) or more. This is a more common than you might think.

Unless your dog is engaged in activities that consume large numbers of calories - working dog, agility competition, endurance activities - it is very important to match caloric density and intake to lifestyle and even to breed. Most dogs are actually minimally active. Studies have shown that approximately 22% of dog owners take their dogs out for exercise fewer than 3 hours per week and 40% of dog owners do not take their dogs for walks at all. Solitary dogs are less active than dogs housed in a group, and large dogs tend to be less active than small dogs. In addition, dogs living outdoors have different energy requirements than their couch-potato cousins.

An appropriate nutrient profile for the young adult dog should also consider the common health issues that may be influenced by nutrition, including dental disease, obesity, and osteoarthritis (OA), the prevalence of which increases during this stage.

What nutrients and other nutritional factors are most important for my healthy young adult dog?

Water is the most important nutrient for dogs. The body can only store so much water, so ongoing replenishment is important. Dogs typically regulate their water intake well, keeping their total intake fairly constant. Their total daily water intake will vary somewhat depending on environment, activity, and food composition. Dogs eating a dry kibble will drink more than those dogs who acquire part of their water intake from canned food.

Energy requirements among healthy young adult dogs can vary widely. Neutered dogs have lower energy requirements than intact dogs, and females tend to require fewer calories than neutered male dogs. Because most dogs are minimally active, dogs fed the amount recommended on most nutritional products (according to their body weight), will actually be overfed. It may be wise to choose a food quantity about 15% to 20% lower than that recommendation. For instance, if the bag suggests feeding your normal-weight Labrador Retriever 5 cups per day, a more reasonable starting point would be 4 cups per day. Reweigh him every 3 to 4 weeks to determine whether this is the correct portion.

Protein content in commercial dog foods varies considerably: from 15% to 60% on a dry matter (DM) basis. Once the protein requirement for an individual dog is met, additional protein provides no benefit. It is completely false that more protein is better. Excess protein is not stored as protein. It is broken down by the liver, the waste products are excreted by the liver and kidneys, and the leftover energy is stored as fat or glycogen. The extra energy in a high-protein ration can contribute to obesity.

When considering the fat content of a diet, there are different levels needed depending on if your dog is sedentary or more active. Aim for 10-20% (on a dry matter basis) for active dogs but lower the range to 7-10% for those less active dogs.

Similarly, fiber requirements can change with a dog's activity level. The fiber can help your dog feel full and prevent him from over-eating. Active dogs can get by with diets containing 5% fiber DM, but aim for at least 10% fiber for less active dogs.

When choosing a nutrient profile for your young adult dog, consider these steps:

  • Determine that the food is approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), either through feeding trials or by formulation.
  • Compare the key nutritional factor profile of the food to the recommendations for young adult dogs. Remember to compare on a dry matter basis. This comparison will help you identify any discrepancies. The pet food manufacturers' addresses, websites, and phone numbers are listed on pet food labels. 
  • Make sure you consider treats in your nutritional assessment and decision making. Treats contribute to the overall nutrient profile and, if fed in excess, can actually unbalance an otherwise balanced food ration. Do the same nutrient analysis that you do on the food ration itself - treats should be a reasonable match to the food and should comprise no more than 10% of your dog's total daily intake by volume. This also includes table scraps, which are hard to know the exact nutrient content so it is best to just avoid them completely.
  • Tailor the portions and feeding times to meet, but not exceed, your dog's needs. Dogs have a simple stomach, just like people, and two meals per day is a reasonable meal frequency. Most dogs simply cannot accept responsibility for feeding themselves, so free-choice feeding is generally a poor choice. Portion control also lays the foundation for nutritional transitions in response to changing metabolism, as well as the addition of a new dog who eats something different.
  • Monitor weight at least monthly. Most veterinary offices will allow you to come in to use the walk-on scale for regular weigh-ins. It is very difficult to tell if your dog is gaining or losing weight just by looking, but the scale does not lie! The importance of monitoring and adjusting the food portion cannot be overstated. It is worth the effort to keep track of your dog's weight and stay on top of weight changes, both up and down.

Your veterinarian can help you choose the most appropriate nutrient profile and an appropriate portion for your individual dog.


How often should I feed my dog?

Although free-choice feeding is the least labor intensive and therefore the easiest for the people in your family, offering open access to today's tasty foods opens the door to obesity. Dogs are no longer required to forage for their food, and they largely live sedentary lives. Their caloric output rarely matches their intake when left to their own devices. Free-choice feeding not only provides less control over food intake, it makes monitoring changes in appetite and food intake especially challenging. In contrast, meal feeding provides complete control over food portions, immediate evidence of decreased appetite, and better control over body weight. Meal feeding also provides an excellent framework and foundation for any nutritional transitions that are in the dog's best interest, mixing the old with the new until the transition is complete.

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