Just as human medical care might be divided into neonatal, paediatric, young adult, adult, and geriatric, so canine health care and nutrition is often split into ‘life-stages’.
Neonate covers the time from birth to the start of weaning at 3 to 4 weeks. During this period the puppy is totally dependent on its mother. In the first two weeks puppies can’t see or hear properly and won’t go to the toilet without stimulation. They can’t regulate their own body temperature so will snuggle close to mum or their littermates. From 2 to 4 weeks the puppy gains mobility, sight, and hearing and most will try lapping water and eating solid food between 3 and 4 weeks.
Puppyhood starts at 3 to 4 weeks and continues until adolescence at 6 to18 months. Puppies grow rapidly and puppy foods are designed to support this. Small breed puppies grow faster in proportion to their size than giant breed puppies and are fully grown by around 6 months, whereas a giant breed may not stop growing until around 18 months so many brands offer different puppy foods for different sized dogs. Puppyhood is the most important time in terms of behavioural development too. Until the first fear stage sets in between 7 and 16 weeks (depending on breed/type) puppies can’t learn to be afraid and should be gently introduced to everything they will be expected to cope with as adults. In breeds with an early first fear stage (such as German Shepherds) it is vital that the breeder starts this training. As a puppy grows you will notice that there are times when he seems less bold and less able to cope with new things. When these subsequent fear stages will happen is less well defined but be aware that they will happen and are totally normal!
Adolescence is marked by the rise of sexual hormone levels in your puppy. Males may start adolescence as early as 6 months. You will see more urine marking, sniffing, and interest in other dogs. Training can become challenging at this time! Females will have their first season between 6 and18 months old and again this can be associated with behaviour changes before and afterwards. Around adolescence you will probably change to an adult dog food to reflect that your dog’s growth rate has slowed right down.
Dogs are considered adults from 12 to 24 months, depending on breed. This should be quite a stable time in their lives and any sudden changes in behaviour with no obvious external cause should be investigated as they can indicate a health problem.
It can come as a shock to learn that giant breeds can be considered geriatric at 6 years old! Most breeds are put into the geriatric category at 8 years old. Although most dogs will still be very fit and active at this age, changes due to wear and tear will start to be seen. Osteoarthritis is an obvious example and any stiffness or reluctance to jump into the car should be investigated. There are many foods, supplements, therapies, and medications which can slow the progression of arthritis and treat the symptoms. You might notice changes to your dog’s eyesight or hearing and may need to change how you communicate. Weight loss or gain, and changes in how much your dog drinks and urinates could be early symptoms of kidney, thyroid, adrenal, or liver disease and should be investigated by your vet.
Finally, we get to the end-of-life stage. Advances in palliative care and changing attitudes mean that more dogs are spending more time at this stage. Mobility is usually significantly reduced, but these dogs can still enjoy sniffing, foraging, games, and grooming. Foods need to be high calorie and easily digested as appetite declines. At this stage quality of life is all important and it is useful to agree on when and how euthanasia will take place in advance.