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Feeding Pregnant and Lactating Dogs

We've been getting quite a few queries lately about whether our food is suitable for pregnant and lactating dogs.

While Genius Ocean Fish does meet the AAFCO standards for gestation and lactation (and for feeding puppies), these standards are a minimum and aren't necessarily optimum for all dogs.

This blog which explains the ideal nutrition for dogs from mating through to weaning.

Optimising your dog’s nutrition before mating

Dogs have no special nutrient requirements before mating, the most important thing is to have them going into pregnancy at an optimal body condition score. Dogs that are underweight at mating are more likely to have low birth weight puppies, whereas overweight dogs are may have problems during whelping and poor milk production.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association has some excellent information on body condition scoring (BCS) on their website, including a video which walks you through how to do it. I recommend that you get familiar with body condition scoring before mating and regularly weight and condition score your dog whilst she is pregnant to ensure she is maintaining an optimum weight and BCS. 

Anecdotally there have been reports of fertility issues in dogs fed grain free diets. I am not aware of any studies on this as yet, as much of the research effort is currently focused on the issues with dilated cardiomyopathy, but my recommendation would be to play it safe and feed a grain inclusive diet to your dog prior to mating.

Feeding dogs in early pregnancy

The gestation period of the dog is on average 63 days and can be divided up into 3 trimesters of 21 days.

In the first 2 trimesters nutritional requirements aren’t that different from normal as the foetuses are growing very slowly. The most important thing at this stage is to maintain an ideal body condition score, in particular to ensure that the dog does not lose weight. You do not want a dog going into the energy intensive 3rd trimester underweight.

So, you can continue to feed your dog’s normal diet until towards the end of their 2nd trimester, but if you have a large/giant breed dog or your dog may be carrying a large litter then you may want to switch over to a higher energy density food earlier. An xray at day 42+ of pregnancy is a good way of ascertaining litter size.

Also remember to leave adequate time to make a slow transition to a new food, especially if the macronutrient content differs significantly from what you have been feeding.

Learn more about transitioning to another food in this blog

Feeding dogs in late pregnancy and during lactation

This is when the action happens! From about day 40 the foetuses are growing exponentially and energy requirements skyrocket. Typically, a dog will require 30-60% more energy depending on the size of the litter. Lactation is a hugely energy intensive period. After whelping the dog’s energy needs steadily increase as the pups grow and drink more milk.  Energy requirements can be 2-4 times higher than normal and will peak at around 3-5 weeks after whelping.

In late pregnancy as the puppies get bigger and take up more room in her abdomen, it gets harder for the bitch to eat more as her abdomen is already so full! After whelping energy intake is no longer limited by abdominal fullness, but an enormous amount of food must be consumed to make enough milk for the rapidly growing pups.

This is where the energy density of the food is really important, especially for large/giant breed dogs and dogs with larger litters. Whilst lower energy foods (around 3,500 kcal/kg) do meet the AAFCO standards for gestation/lactation they aren’t ideal for bitches in the 3rd trimester of gestation or lactation because many dogs will not be physically able to eat enough of a lower calorie food. You should be aiming to feed something that is at least 3,700 kcal/kg or above - 4,000 kcal/kg is ideal for large/giant breed dogs and those with large litters.

Protein needs also increase substantially during this time to 40-70% above maintenance requirements, so a diet that is higher in protein quantity and quality is needed. The minimum crude protein allowance to meet AAFCO is 22% DM, but between 25-35% DM is considered to be optimal at this stage.

The AAFCO minimum recommendation for fat in foods for late gestation and lactation is 8% DM, however the optimum fat level is thought to be around 20% DM. As well as providing the bitch with more energy, higher fat levels in her food have been shown to lead to higher fat levels in her milk, which is advantageous for growing pups. 

Carbohydrates are also important as dogs have a high requirement for glucose during the last trimester. Feeding a carbohydrate free diet may lead to weight loss in the bitch and reduced birth weight and lower survival rates of puppies. It can also lead to significantly lower amounts of lactose in the milk. It is recommended that 20% of the energy in the diet come from carbohydrate. As kibble diets require carbohydrate in order to bind the ingredients together, carbohydrate levels in dry diets are unlikely to be low enough to cause a problem.

Its also crucial to get Calcium and Phosphorus levels correct during pregnancy and lactation and these require tighter control than a typical adult maintenance diet would provide, but fit within the profile of a puppy food. The recommendation for calcium is 1.0-1.7% DM and for Phosphorus this is 0.7 - 1.3% DM, with a ratio of between 1.1:1 and 2:1.

Weaning 

Generally pups begin to be weaned from about 5 weeks. As this happens the bitches nutrient requirements slowly return back down to maintenance by the time the pups are 8 weeks of age. 

All Lifestages Foods

There are now many dog foods on the market promoted as 'All Lifestages'. Often these foods are from smaller pet food companies who are basically wanting to sell as much food as they can, with the smallest range of products possible.

Clearly pet food manufacturers can make all life stages food which meets the minimum requirements for AAFCO for marketing purposes, but that doesn't necessarily make them ideal food for a pet in a particular lifestage. 

How does Genius stack up?

Genius Ocean Fish is a high protein, moderate calorie, moderate fat diet, which is high in omega 3 fatty acids. Our energy density, protein levels and fat levels well exceed the AAFCO minimum for pregnancy and lactation, but they don't quite meet the ideal, as described above.

So here's my recommendations:

  • Genius Ocean Fish is fine to feed to all dogs during the 1st and 2nd trimester 
  • If you have a large/giant breed dog, a dog that is likely to be having a large litter, or a dog that you are struggling to keep weight on during her pregnancy then switch them to a food which is higher in energy density, protein and fat. Generally speaking this will be a specifically formulated puppy food (not an all life stages food).
  • If you are feeding Ocean Fish because your dog has food allergies or other health issues that have improved on this food then continue to do so. Feed smaller, more frequent meals from the 3rd trimester and monitor weight and body condition score closely.

Here's a helpful chart of our food compared with the AAFCO minimum and what are considered the absolute ideal nutrient profiles for late pregnancy and lactation.

*Note this is based on dry matter (DM), so is a little different to the guaranteed analysis on our bags which is on an 'as fed' basis. 

 AAFCO min Genius Ocean Fish flavour Ideal, esp for large/giant breeds & large litters
Energy   3,720 kcal/kg 4,000 kcal/kg
Protein 22 % 31 % 25-35 %
Fat 8 % 13 % 20 %