The 5 Most Important Nutrients for Puppies (Based on Science)

Puppies are not just small adult dogs. They require different nutrition due to their rapid growth rate.

In addition, not all puppies grow at the same rate or for the same length of time due to the enormous genetic variation amongst dog breeds.

This article will detail the most important nutrition points to consider to optimize your puppy’s growth and development.

1. Calcium

Calcium, of all minerals, is needed in the greatest relative amount in all ages of dogs [1].

Calcium is necessary for many body functions, including blood coagulation, muscle contraction, nerve impulse transmission and bone formation.

The amount of calcium needed is very specific for puppies.  Too much or too little can cause problems in growing dogs.

Dietary requirements for growing puppies are different from those of adults [2345]. The National Research Council recommends the upper limit for calcium in growing puppies to be 4.5g per 1000 calories.

Most puppies do well with 3g per 1000 calories [6], or about 1.5% on a dry matter basis. Respected pet food companies with money invested in research and veterinary nutritionists on staff, such as Purina and Hill’s have large breed growth formulas with 2.8 g per 1000 calories.

Research has shown that calcium less than 1% has been associated with subpar growth in many breeds [7].

In addition to subpar growth, calcium deficiency will cause nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism. This type of malnutrition will results in bone fractures and poor body condition [1].

Calcium deficiency is extremely uncommon unless a well-intentioned owner is feeding a home cooked all meat diet, or an otherwise unbalanced diet.

A much more common problem is calcium excess, which can occur with over feeding and supplementing an already balanced diet. Calcium excess is implicated in a variety of developmental skeletal diseases, mostly in large breed puppies [1].

It is hypothesized that calcium excess can slow down the maturation of articular cartilage, which is then at risk from detaching from underlying bone. The resulting disease is called osteocondrosis dissecans, or OCD [8].

Too much calcium can lead to hypercalcitoninism, which in turn creates excessive sub-periosteal bone being laid down. This is a risk factor for hypertrophic osteodystrophy, or HOD [8].

2. Phosphorus

Phosphorus is involved in many functions in the body, including energy metabolism, cell membrane integrity and bone formation.

Calcium combined with phosphorus is what makes bone, therefore phosphorus is as equally important as calcium in a puppy’s diet. Again, too little or too much can be detrimental to bone growth.

Appropriate phosphorus levels should be slightly less than that of calcium, around 0.8 to 1% [10]. Insufficient amounts of phosphorus will cause less calcium to be absorbed from intestines, which in turn causes excessive bone resorption. The medical term for this is Rickets.

This is extremely uncommon if a puppy is fed a balanced commercial diet. Generally oversupplementation of phosphorus is more of a concern. This can occur when puppies are overfed, or if well-meaning owners supplement an already balanced diet.

3. Protein

Protein is necessary for growing bodies, and puppies do have an increased requirement for dietary protein, especially large breed puppies.

Most nutritionists agree that on a dry matter basis protein levels should be around 30% for giant breed puppy food formulas [10]. There have been some myths that high protein diets can cause bone growth problems, but studies have disproved this [11].

Despite the recommendation for slightly higher protein levels, studies have shown no change in skeletal development with puppies fed between 14 and 32%, suggesting protein doesn’t play as large of a role in the development of orthopedic disorders [12]

4. Fat

Fat is necessary for energy and for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat is necessary in puppy diets to enhance growth and provide balanced nutrition. In addition, fat makes diets more palatable and puppies are more likely to accept them.

Growing puppies require more dietary fat than adults, generally fat content in puppy food should be around 9%. A diet deficient in fat will cause poor energy levels, slowed growth, fatty acid deficiency and weight loss [1].

Excess dietary fat is less likely to have detrimental effects on growing puppies, unless it contributes to overall excess of calories, leading to an overweight body condition.

Fat provides two and half times more calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein do. Too much fat consumed can lead to obesity, which can have serious consequences in growing puppies.

5. Calories

In general, puppies need more calories relative to their size, but over feeding can lead to serious issues.

Most puppy food is more energy dense than adult food, however giant and large breed puppy food will be more calorie restricted to help lessen the risk of overfeeding.

Overfeeding and obesity are associated with an increased risk for orthopedic issues [131415].

The exact amount of calories needed per puppy will vary greatly depending on how large your puppy is, how quickly it’s growing and how much energy it expends during the day. Also, energy content of different brands of puppy food will vary on a per cup basis.

Most veterinarians recommend lean feeding to prevent over-nutrition, which means the amount feed is tailored to the puppy’s body condition [6, 8].

Large breed growing puppies should consume enough calorie to grow but not enough to lay down extra fat.

Lean feeding is a great habit to get into for the life of the dog as well, since calorie needs will change over time and with changing seasons and weather.

As an owner, understanding how to correctly judge body conditions and adjust portions accordingly is probably the best way you can prevent nutritionally related growth disorders.

In Conclusion

The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has nutrient guidelines that show the minimum nutritional recommendations for optimal puppy growth are more than the minimum recommendations for adult maintenance in all of these five important areas, protein, fat, calcium, phosphorus, and calories.

It can be difficult to sort through the wealth of information and misinformation regarding nutritional needs for puppies and choosing a puppy food tailored to your puppy’s needs is important.

Pick a brand made by a reputable company that has the capability of manufacturing on site, or at least in the United States. Ensure the nutrients match what is recommended by experts in the field.

Ask your veterinarian for a brand recommendation if you’re still unsure. Always feed for lean body condition, a great habit to get in throughout your pet’s life.

1. Lewis, Lon D. and Michael S. Hand. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. Topeka, Kan.: Mark Morris Institute. 2000. Print.

7. Laflamme, D. P. “Effect of breed size on calcium requirements for puppies.” Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian 23.9 (2001): 66-69.