the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.

Baby food: When puppies and kittens need a therapeutic diet

Baby food: When puppies and kittens need a therapeutic diet
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Puppies and kittens have very special nutritional requirements compared to adults, including higher levels of protein and certain vitamins and minerals. Therefore, puppies and kittens require a diet that meets growth requirements until they are 1 year of age (18 months in giant-breed dogs). While adult dogs and cats often can tolerate some nutritional deficiencies for a surprisingly long time, puppies and kittens are very sensitive to dietary imbalances and an inappropriate diet can cause serious problems quickly.


Our previous Petfoodology posts have made recommendations for feeding healthy puppies and kittens. But what happens when your growing pet has a health issue that requires a special diet? This can make it very difficult to find a diet that not only helps manage the disease but also meets all her nutritional requirements. I’m particularly sensitive to this issue because one of my own dogs was born with a liver shunt that requires medication and a therapeutic diet to help manage the disease. But the therapeutic diets available did not meet all of his nutritional requirements during this sensitive period of growth.


Most puppies and kittens, fortunately, are healthy but they can be born with medical problems (congenital diseases) such as heart, kidney, or liver disease. Even if they’re born healthy, they can eat something toxic that damages their kidneys or other problems can arise, like diarrhea.


Diet can help in the management of these diseases (for example, a low sodium diet for a kitten with congenital heart disease or a reduced phosphorus diet for a puppy with congenital kidney disease). But, in trying to help manage their diseases nutritionally, we have to be sure we still meet the unique needs of the growing animal.


For example, we often recommend a reduced fat, easily digestible therapeutic diet for puppies or kittens who have repeated bouts of diarrhea (once parasites and other common causes of diarrhea are addressed). Some of the reduced fat, easily digestible therapeutic diets meet the nutritional requirements for growth, but others don’t.


How can you tell? If you’ve read our previous posts, you know that the nutritional adequacy statement is the most useful piece of information on the pet food label – yes, way more important than the ingredient list!

  • If the nutritional adequacy statement on a therapeutic diet says that it is formulated to meet the nutritional profiles for adults (or has undergone feeding trials for adults), that diet should not be fed to a puppy or kitten. The closer the pet gets to 1 year of age, the lower the risk (I’m less worried about feeding a therapeutic diet that meets adult requirements to a 10-month old kitten than to a 4-month old kitten).
  • If the statement says that the diet is for “intermittent or supplement use,” it’s not nutritionally complete and balanced for adults or growing animals. This is ok for an adult cat with kidney disease, for example, because we want some of the nutrients to be lower to help manage the disease. However, you should avoid feeding a diet of this type to a puppy or kitten unless the plan has been carefully reviewed by a veterinary nutritionist.
  • If the statement says that the diet meets the nutritional profiles for growth or all life stages, it’s fine to feed to kittens and puppies.
  • If the statement says that the diet has undergone feeding trials for growth or all life stages, it should be ok for kittens and most small- and medium-sized puppies. But feeding trials are not usually conducted in large-breed dogs, so if your puppy is expected to mature at more than 60 pounds and especially if she’s a giant breed (for example, Irish Wolfhounds, Great Danes, St Bernards), that diet may or may not provide all the nutrition your puppy needs while growing and bone abnormalities or other serious medical issues can develop quickly from nutritional deficiencies or excesses. For more information, see our post on feeding large- and giant-breed puppies.


Top tips for feeding a puppy or kitten with medical issues:

  • Nutrition can play a very important role in the management of diseases in puppies and kittens, so be sure to talk to your veterinarian about the best diet for your pet to keep him healthy and to help manage any medical issues he might develop.
  • Feeding an unbalanced diet (for example, cooked chicken and rice or a therapeutic diet that does not meet growth requirements) for 3 or 4 days is unlikely to hurt even a growing puppy or kitten. But they can develop problems quickly! So if your growing pet needs a special diet for longer than a few days, talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to ensure you’re meeting your growing pet’s special needs.
  • Don’t come up with a plan on your own. Even for a veterinary nutritionist, developing a dietary plan that helps manage the disease and meets the growing animal’s nutritional needs is not easy. I spent many hours determining the optimal therapeutic diet for my puppy and calculating all the supplements (7!) that were needed in order to meet his nutritional requirements above what was in the diet.
  • Don’t feed a homemade diet to your puppy or kitten (whether they’re sick or healthy) unless it’s been carefully formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. Even if you think you’ve come up with a great recipe or found one online or from a friend, I can almost guarantee you it’s not nutritionally balanced. And in a growing animal, this can cause permanent damage or can even be deadly. In fact, we strongly recommend you don’t feed a home-cooked diets to any growing puppy or kitten because of the risks.
  • Don’t just feed a therapeutic diet designed for adults and assume it will be ok. Read the nutritional adequacy statement carefully.
  • If you have a large- or giant-breed puppy, even therapeutic diets that have undergone feeding trials for growth may not be ideal. If your large- or giant-breed puppy needs a therapeutic diet, I encourage you or your veterinarian to talk to a veterinary nutritionist.


So, the bottom line is that if your kitten or puppy has a medical issue, be sure to ask your veterinarian if you should be feeding a therapeutic diet. Therapeutic diets made by manufacturers with nutritional knowledge and rigorous quality control can work wonders and can be an integral part of the medical care for these young animals, but for animals that are still growing, special attention is needed to find the right therapeutic diet (and, in some cases, additional supplements) to ensure your pet gets the benefits without the risks.


Dr. Freeman is a veterinary nutritionist and a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She is on the cutting-edge of science, with hundreds of articles in prestigious journals, speaking engagements at national and international conferences, and awards for her scientific achievements. However, she also is passionate about providing objective and accurate information on pet nutrition to veterinarians, pet owners, and other animal enthusiasts.

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