Food is important to keep a puppy healthy, and the best food for puppies is the type that’s optimized specifically for them.
Proper puppy nutrition can lay a positive framework for a healthy adult dog.
Unfortunately for us, dogs have a much more rapid growth period in the first year.
It’s not uncommon for a Great Dane puppy to be over a hundred pounds in its first year of life. Such a rapid growth means constant changes in nutritional needs.
Table of Contents
- 1 Puppy Food vs Adult Dog Food
- 2 Nutrient Requirements in Puppy Foods
- 3 Why Overfeeding is Dangerous?
- 4 How Do I Pick the Best Food for Puppies?
- 5 How Much Should I Feed My Puppy?
- 6 How Often Should I Feed My Puppy?
- 7 How Long to Feed Puppy Food?
- 8 Is Homemade Puppy Food Advisable?
- 9 Take Home Message
The absolute best puppy food or diet is the one that accounts for the young dog’s individual needs, gender, age, breed and size. These are all important factors that affect the ideal choice of best food for puppies for proper nutrition.
Picking the right food is critical for optimizing growth and preventing future diseases.
Below are some common questions and evidence-based answers regarding the best food for puppies all pet owners, new and experienced, need to be aware of.
Puppy Food vs Adult Dog Food
Never introduce adult dog food formulas to young pups before the time is right.
When your puppy is around 4-6 weeks old, it’s time to start gradually weaning them onto solid foods, making sure those special puppy food formulas are appropriate for your specific dog.
Adult dog food is designed to maintain health, whereas the best puppy food ideally would help support rapid growth of young dogs.
Amount of nutrients in adult dog food will also differ to what is deemed appropriate for puppies.
Here are the main factors to consider when comparing adult and puppy foods:
- Calorie count
- Calcium and phosphorus
- Protein amount
- Amount of dietary fat
- Vitamins and minerals
For example, adult dog food often has more calcium per calorie than it would to be appropriate for puppies of certain breeds. A puppy given adult dog food would consume too much calcium from a standard meal portion which can lead to many health problems (discussed below).
Digestion in puppies vs adult dogs
This is one thing that many pet owners forget to consider when trying to pick the best puppy foods for their young dogs.
Best food for puppies is often structured not only around growth, but for optimal digestion, too.
Outside of nutrient content, another reason why adult food isn’t appropriate for puppies is due to the way growing dogs digest their meals and the way their bodies absorb nutrients.
Puppies lack certain digestive enzymes in their bodies, particularly those needed to digest protein and carbohydrates. As they grow, they begin to develop those enzymes.
Summary: It’s important to account for the many differences between the way adult dog’s and puppy’s bodies work. Puppies digest food and absorb nutrients differently to adults, which directly affects proper food choices.
Nutrient Requirements in Puppy Foods
Just like adult dogs, puppies require specific amounts of certain nutrients for optimal growth.
Not enough of one thing or too much of something else may lead to developmental problems.
Below I list a few other considerations for those trying to pick the best food for puppies.
Calorie requirements differ based on puppy’s age, breed, size and gender.
A growing dog will require about twice as many calories in relation to its body-weight when compared to an adult dog. This number evens out as the puppy ages in the first year. By the time a dog is around 6 months old, he will consume only 20% more calories than adults.
Males require slightly more calories than female dogs, and large breeds need more calories than small breed dogs.
Calculating an exact amount of calories for puppies is very difficult due to all the variables .
It’s important to supply enough calories, but overfeeding can also be an issue. Too many calories are a concern in genders, ages and breeds of all sizes. This quickly leads to canine obesity .
Therefore, puppy owners should be particularly mindful of the calorie amount their puppy’s food contain, especially when feeding using the “free choice” method and leaving the food out for puppies to finish.
Studies have demonstrated that it’s easy to overfeed puppies, which eventually leads to skeletal and other related diseases .
Overfeeding is more likely when using the “free choice” method, as another study has shown .
Again, puppy owners of large breed puppies should be particularly mindful of the accurate calorie, calcium, phosphorus and protein count. This is because large breed puppies grow faster and are also at a greater risk of various nutrition related skeletal diseases [13, 14, 15].
Ideally, small breed puppies should not gain more than 100 grams per day and large breed puppies – no more than 200 grams per day.
Calcium and phosphorus
Getting the right amount of calcium is important but can be tricky to balance out for puppies.
That’s mostly because puppies need a sufficient amount of calcium and phosphorus, yet the requirements are still relatively low .
Both too much and too little calcium leads to health issues. This has to do with the regulation of calcium absorption in puppies – they cannot protect themselves from absorbing excess dietary calcium like adult dog’s body can [16, 17].
Too little calcium?
Many owners opt for a diet exclusive in meat thinking that “primal diet” is best, but this results in high levels of phosphate and low levels of total calcium consumed.
Studies show that insufficient amount of calcium leads to spontaneous fractures in puppies .
Too much calcium?
Over-supplementing calcium can lead to problems as well, especially in large breed puppies, according to large body of research.
Studies comparing high calcium concentration diet (3.3% DM) with normal diet (1.1% DM) showed that too much calcium inhibits dog’s joint, cartilage and bone growth, and may lead to diseases like osteochondrosis, radius curvus syndrome and stunned growth [23, 24].
Research also demonstrated that large breed puppies are more sensitive to accurate amounts of calcium and are more likely to develop skeletal diseases when compared to small breed dogs who have higher tolerance .
How much calcium?
Finding a sweet spot is difficult, but there are some guidelines to follow.
For large or giant breeds, 0.7% to 1.2% calcium and 0.6% to 1.1% phosphorus is appropriate [25, 26]. This should equate to a daily dose of around 210mg-540mg calcium per kilogram of dog’s body weight.
Small breed puppies are not as sensitive to an excess or lack of calcium, but should still be fed diets that fall in the 0.7% to 1.7% range for calcium, and 0.6% to 1.3% phosphorus [25, 26].
Puppies have different protein requirements than adult dogs. The recommended protein percentage range for growth is 22% to 32% of dry matter (DM), higher than that of adults .
In addition, puppies require alternate types of protein sources due to varied amino acid profile needs.
There’s also a myth floating around in the pet community that high protein puppy food may eventually contribute to bone diseases in adults dogs, particularly in large breeds. There was never any evidence to this, and further studies have completely debunked the protein myth .
Moreover, another study demonstrated that high protein commercial diets may even protect growing dogs from osteochondritis .
Growing dogs generally require a higher fat content in puppy food than adult dogs. Levels of fat sufficient to provide essential fatty acids can be obtained with the best food for puppies containing fat percentage of 10% to 25% DM .
It has been suggested that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is part of the Omega-3 fatty acid group, supports healthy vision and hearing in dogs .
Omega-3s can also assist dogs with inflammation, diseases like OCD and canine arthritis, and wound healing among several other health benefits that fish oil provides .
However, it’s important to note that not all puppy food brands will contain enough fatty acids to reap all the purported benefits of Omega-3s and -6s. Supplementation may be advisable.
Vitamins and minerals
A puppy’s growing body requires more vitamins and minerals when compared to adults.
Giving Vitamin C to dogs has been shown to prevent certain diseases such as canine hip dysplasia and osteochondrosis, but more research is needed .
It’s important to note that side effects from vitamin over-supplementation were observed in some cases, thus tracking amounts is essential [34, 35]. Certain vitamins and minerals can also interfere with absorption of nutrients from food if not tracked.
Nonetheless, a healthy balance of antioxidants is vital to ensure pup’s healthy growth.
Studies show that supplementing puppy’s diet with vitamins significantly improves a growing dog’s immune system and the number of antibodies when effectively paired with essential vaccinations done for young dogs .
Summary: Too many calories and calcium can lead to skeletal diseases. Food’s digestibility is important for puppies. Supplements aren’t necessary in most cases on a commercial diet, but can be beneficial in certain cases.
Why Overfeeding is Dangerous?
Some owners of large breeds mistakenly believe that more calories will equal a bigger, healthier dog.
This is a false assumption. The size of a dog is predisposed by genetics and nothing else.
However, growth rate is indeed influenced by nutrition and particularly calories and calcium.
Overfeeding and supplying more calories and calcium than a puppy requires means that a puppy will grow and reach his adult size faster than his genetics and body expected. This quickly leads to a multitude of skeletal and developmental diseases [11, 13-15, 20, 23, 24].
Puppies should grow at the pace their genes allow to avoid straining a growing dog’s skeleton, and to prevent joint, cartilage and bone related diseases.
Summary: Studies show that overfeeding or underfeeding puppies leads to growth disorders and skeletal diseases when they become adults.
How Do I Pick the Best Food for Puppies?
Choosing the best food for puppies can be a daunting task since there is so much information and misinformation available to consumers.
Often pet owners are reduced to determining quality of the best puppy food by evaluating its label and the reputation of the manufacturer.
A good place to start would be to follow our dog food ratings system and pay attention to the most important dog food evaluation factors listed by our veterinarians.
Canned puppy food
Let’s get this out of the way first.
Technically, you can feed your puppy wet dog food, but most vets will usually advise against that. The reason being is because canned dog foods are much higher in fat content and calories, and this makes it more difficult to adjust the diet for puppies.
Canned food also typically contains about 80% water, which in turn means a poor cost-to-value ratio and will be very expensive for feeding puppies.
It’s a similar case with semi-moist dog foods, where they contain about 55% water as well as high salt and/or sugar levels for preservation. Owners opting for this type of puppy food will be overpaying. Puppies also don’t need the sugar or salt content in these semi-moist foods.
Majority of vets and trainers will recommend feeding puppies specially formulated commercial dry dog foods, and this article on the best food for puppies refers to dry kibble only.
When feeding a large or giant breed puppy, such as Mastiff or Great Dane, it is critical that you chose a puppy food formulated for giant breed puppies.
It’s well understood that large breeds are at greater risk for developmental disorders of the bones and joints. This includes canine hip dysplasia, osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD), and hypertrophic osteodystrophy among others .
Even though this is genetic predisposition for the most part, studies show that environmental factors and nutrition can also have an impact [37, 38].
Proper puppy nutrition up to the age of 12 months old can have a significant impact on future developmental disorders when dogs become adults.
Macronutrients and digestibility
Levels of protein, calories and calcium should always fall into the ranges mentioned above.
Again, digestion matters too. Studies show that with age puppies digest their food better . In the meantime, it’s important for the puppy food formula to be adjusted for digestibility.
Therefore, feeding diets that have low digestibility will require that more food be fed in order for the puppy to grow. This increased amount of kibble can lead to pot-bellied appearance, diarrhea, gas, vomiting and obesity.
Furthermore, inappropriate puppy food choices have been shown to increase incidence of diseases like OCD, CHD and canine elbow dysplasia, particularly among large breeds [18, 40]
DHA, fish oil, or some other source of essential fatty acids should be included in the ingredient list. Otherwise, supplementation would be required.
Generally, all well-rated dog foods on NextGen Dog site, and majority of AAFCO approved puppy food brands will have ideal digestibility and nutrient levels.
Puppy food labels and testing
If you’re not using our dog food ratings system to evaluate your puppy food brand, then remember that your best chance of choosing the best food for puppies is to ensure that it has met guidelines set by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
Evaluating ingredients is important to ensure there are no added artificial flavors, sweeteners and colors, or otherwise harmful ingredients.
Make sure that the label includes a “Best Use By” date to determine its shelf life.
Disregard all marketing labels that have no legal definitions, such as “organic,” “natural,” “holistic,” “premium” and so on.
Most importantly, observe how your puppy does on that specific puppy food brand. After feeding for a while, is your puppy’s coat shiny? Is there excessive flatulence or soft stools?
Not all puppies will thrive on the same dog food brand, regardless of its quality.
Summary: Canned food is too high in calories and not cost effective for feeding puppies. Breed, size, age and gender matters a lot when choosing the best puppy food. Macronutrient profile and digestibility should be accounted for as well.
How Much Should I Feed My Puppy?
Growth rate is influenced by how nutrient dense a puppy food brand is, and how much is fed.
Growing puppies will reach their optimal adult weight whether the rate is fast or slow.
A too rapid growth rate can lead to a predisposition to deformities of the skeleton as mentioned above. Further research has also shown it can decrease lifespan in dogs .
Meal portion sizes can be tricky to determine, especially considering puppies are never satiated. However, careful monitoring of meal portions is important in growing puppies.
Overseeing how your puppy grows is also essential. This can be done visually, using the the BCS chart (below) and recording your pup’s weight once a week. Amounts can then be adjusted to reflect the needs of a growing dog.
Referring to puppy feeding charts on the commercial puppy food labels is not a bad idea either.
Body Condition Score
Feeding an amount that allows your puppy to maintain a healthy Body Condition Score (BCS) as he is growing is the most practical and effective way to manage increasing portions .
An appropriate BCS can be determined by looking at your puppy from above when standing. Does the waist dent inwards? Can you feel ribs and spine easily? This is a healthy puppy weight.
Prominent ribs that can be seen sharply indicate an underweight pup, and a round waist with difficult to palpate ribs indicates an overweight pup.
Here’s our Body Condition Scoring chart to refer to. Remember to be very critical in your evaluation of BCS, since studies have shown that owner misperception is very common, even when using a BCS chart mentioned above .
Re-evaluate the amount you are feeding based on your puppy’s BCS about every 2 weeks.
Summary: Using BCS chart and food label guidance is a good way to figure out amounts to feed a puppy. Weighing a puppy weekly and adjusting the diet is necessary.
How Often Should I Feed My Puppy?
Up to 6 months, puppies should be fed 3-4 times a day. More frequent meals aid in digestion.
A sample puppy feeding schedule may look something like this:
- 6am: puppy’s morning meal
- 12pm: puppy’s afternoon meal
- 5pm: puppy’s evening meal
If you’re doing four feeding sessions, then adjust this accordingly.
By the time a puppy is 8-10 months old, it’s time to reduce schedule to 2 meals a day.
It’s always a good idea to weigh your puppy weekly to monitor his growth.
How Long to Feed Puppy Food?
One of the most common questions is concerning the switch from puppy food to adult dog food. The schedule is simple, and mostly depends on the size of the breed.
Since diets formulated for adult maintenance may not have nutrients balanced for growth, puppies should be kept on a growth formula until they are about 80% to 90% full grown.
This means that with very small breed puppies the switch to adult dog food can be made around the age of 6-12 months, since they will be nearly full grown by then.
Large breed dogs may continue to grow well past a year and require a growth formula for longer.
When switching from puppy food to adult food, it’s better to do it over the course of 1-2 weeks.
This can be done by mixing the two food formulas, and gradually decreasing puppy food while increasing amounts of adult dog food. Remember about the meal timing as well.
Summary: Small breed puppies mature around 6-12 months of age, and large breed puppies can grow up to 18 months. That’s the time to switch to adult dog food.
Is Homemade Puppy Food Advisable?
It’s common for new pet owners to ask about making their own homemade puppy food. However, research suggests that this may not be such a good idea.
Inadequate canine nutrition can be detrimental to dogs in many ways.
Although holistic vets may advise homemade dog foods to be the better choice, facts and evidence are simply not there to support this.
This is especially true when it comes to homemade puppy food, where nutrition has to be particularly on point. With growing dogs, risks are higher for under- or over-feeding them in terms of calories, macronutrients, minerals and vitamins.
Pet owners who for whatever reason believe that homemade dog meals are superior to commercial diets are advised to wait for the dog to grow into an adult before administering homemade dog food.
Until then, it’s best to stick with specially formulated commercial puppy diets.
Summary: Studies show that homemade dog food doesn’t meet nutrient requirements, especially for puppies. It’s recommended to stick with commercial diets.
Take Home Message
Puppy’s nutritional requirements vary greatly over the first year of growth. A lot depends on the dog’s breed, size, age and gender.
Adult dog food is different from puppy food in nutrient profile, calories and digestibility.
The best food for puppies would be a specially formulated commercial diet alongside owner’s efforts to adjust it for the dog’s individual needs.
Most supplements aren’t needed when feeding good quality, puppy-optimized commercial diet.
Amounts of calcium and calories are very important to track. Underfeeding or overfeeding can cause a multitude of skeletal and growth-related disorders.
Monitoring puppy’s weight and regularly amending puppy’s diet is key to a healthy growth.