Cute, furry, and hungry. Your new pet is ready for puppy food, and you want to make sure you start them off right. Puppies grow fast. And providing the proper nutrition is important for building strong bones and teeth, adding muscle, and supplying all the energy needed for play and learning.
But what should you feed them? There are dozens of varieties of puppy food. Plus, there’s the one your puppy received from the breeder or animal shelter. Which food is right for your puppy, and how do you tell if it’s a good fit?
If you are wondering how to feed a puppy, read on.
How and why do puppies’ nutritional needs differ from adult dogs?
Puppies are growing rapidly, building bone and muscle, and developing organs. Adult dogs are maintaining their bodies. Your puppy needs extra nutrients to fuel their growth.
When should a puppy start eating solid food?
Puppies should get solid food starting at about four weeks, when they’re not able to get all the calories they need from their mother’s milk. Most puppies are weaned by six weeks.
Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, is assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. He says that for puppies younger than 8 weeks, you may need to moisten dry food until it feels spongy.
How do I select a high-quality puppy food?
Start by asking your veterinarian what they recommend, says C.A. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD. Buffington is a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at The Ohio State University Veterinary Hospital. “In the first six months or so, the nutrient needs are changing very quickly. And, they leave the least margin for error.” So asking your vet is a good idea since veterinarians typically recommend diets they’ve had the most experience with.
How do I know the puppy food will meet my dog’s needs?
The Association of American Feed Control Officials sets nutrient guidelines that most pet food manufacturers follow. Check the package label for a statement saying the food is formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient guidelines for complete and balanced nutrition, or that feeding trials following AAFCO guidelines have substantiated that it provides complete nutrition.
Along with that statement, the label should give the life stage the food is suited for. Puppies should be eating food labeled for growth or for all life stages.
After a month or 6 weeks on the food, assess your puppy’s health. They should be playful and energetic, with a shiny, thick coat. Formed brown feces are a sign that your puppy is digesting most of the nutrients in the food.
How often should my puppy eat?
Puppies should eat three times a day from weaning through four to six months, if possible. After six months, twice-a-day feedings are fine.
But if you’re not able to feed your pup three times a day, don’t worry. Buffington says puppies can adapt.
How much should I feed my puppy?
Puppies need to take in a lot of calories to fuel their rapid growth. At the start, that means about twice as many per pound as an adult dog of the same breed. Puppies grow the fastest in their first five months.
Look for feeding charts on commercial puppy food labels. You can use them as a guide. They provide recommended amounts based on a puppy’s age and weight. Adjust as necessary to keep your puppy in the best condition, something you may need to do weekly.
How do I know if my puppy is eating the right amount?
Veterinarians evaluate dogs using a body conditioning score, which ranges from one for emaciated, to five for obese. It's normal for very young puppies to have some baby fat, but after the first 8 to 10 weeks, "puppies should be a two", Buffington says. Another scale ranges from 1-9, with a 4 or 5 being a perfect body score.
You can learn to assess your dog at home. At a score of 2, which is relatively thin, a puppy’s ribs may be visible. The tops of the back bones will generally be easily seen. You shouldn’t be able to feel any fat on its ribs. You should see a waist when looking down at your puppy and an abdominal tuck when looking from the side.
By 5 months, your pup should look lean as it starts to wrap up its most rapid growth period.
Does my large-breed puppy need a special food?
Large breeds such as Great Danes, Labrador retrievers, and Doberman Pinschers are more likely to develop skeletal and joint problems, including hip dysplasia. Although these conditions are primarily triggered by inherited factors, overfeeding can worsen the situation.
Large-breed puppy foods are designed for controlled growth and may be lower in calcium and phosphorus than other puppy foods. Excess levels of calcium and phosphorus can contribute to skeletal problems. Large-breed puppy food also may contain more fiber to add bulk to the diet without calories.
Large-breed dogs are more likely to develop chronic joint or skeletal problems when they get older if they are overfed, according to several studies. In one study that followed Labrador retrievers for 14 years, dogs fed a balanced diet with 25% less food than their littermates were less likely to develop hip joint arthritis. Dogs on the calorie-restricted diet also showed signs of arthritis at an average age of 12 years rather than six.
Buffington says that keeping your large-breed puppy at a body condition score of 2 out of 5 will help ward off the excess weight that can cause orthopedic problems in later life.
What about organic puppy food?
There is no official definition for organic pet food yet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is developing rules on what types of synthetic additives, like vitamins and purified amino acides, may be used in "organic" pet foods.
What kind of puppy treats should I give?
Many pet owners like to reward their dogs with treats, but it’s best to limit them. Because puppies need so many nutrients to grow, it’s important to give them food that provides complete and balanced nutrition. A puppy should get most of their calories from puppy food rather than from treats, which typically don’t provide complete nutrition.
Aim for no more than 10% of calories from treats, say nutrition experts at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Choose treats that are the right size for your puppy. A Yorkshire terrier, for instance, doesn’t need an extra-large dog biscuit. And avoid table scraps, which teach your puppy at a young age to beg for treats at the table and can cause digestive upset and pancreatitis, a serious illness.
Consider giving other types of treats to deepen the bond with your puppy. Healthy snacks like bits of carrot, green beans, or bell peppers give your puppy something to crunch without many calories. And remember, in your puppy’s mind, spending time with you is the best treat of all.
“Play is a treat, training is a treat, learning tricks is a treat,” Buffington says. “Dogs are a pack species, and they want to be a member of the pack. Anything a member of the pack does with them is positive reinforcement.”
When should I switch from puppy food to adult dog food?
Once puppies have reached 90% of their expected adult weight, they should switch from a growth diet to one that’s suitable for maintenance. Small breeds may finish growing by 9 to 12 months; for large breeds, expect 12 to 18 months.
What foods are dangerous for my puppy?
Some foods that people enjoy can be harmful to dogs. Keep your puppy away from avocados, chocolate, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, and raw bread dough made with yeast. Also avoid onions, garlic, and chives; milk and large amounts of dairy products such as cheese; alcohol; coffee and caffeine; salty food, such as potato chips; and food sweetened with xylitol, such as gum, baked goods, and candy. Xylitol, also used in products such as toothpaste, can cause liver failure and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in dogs.