By Dr. Caitlin Grant, BSc, DVM
Res. ECVCN (European College of Veterinary
and Comparative Nutrition)
It can be so exciting to bring a new furry puppy into your family, and along with that excitement comes a lot of decisions to make on how you will raise your puppy. One of the most important decisions you will make is deciding what to feed your new puppy. The information below is provided to help guide you through this decision and to help you understand your puppy’s nutritional needs.
Growth is one of the most nutrient demanding life stages that dogs go through. During the growth period, your puppy has requirements for several essential nutrients, such as protein, amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, that must be met through the dog food they eat. These requirements are established by:
- The National Research Council (NRC) (1): minimum requirement, adequate intake, and/or recommended allowance for each nutrient that the animal requires.
- The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) (2): minimum (and sometimes maximum) requirements that must be in the food.
Commercial dog food has a nutritional adequacy statement on the label that says the food is formulated to meet the requirements for a certain life stage (growth, lactation and gestation, or adult maintenance). This means that the dog food contains all of the nutrients in the correct proportions – or in simpler terms, is complete and balanced, for that life stage. You should find a puppy food that is intended to be fed for growth.
Next you need to decide whether to feed dry kibble, wet food (also referred to as canned food), or a combination. There is no research to support that one food form is better than the other and so this choice is really based on personal preference.
- Dry food: can be more convenient since it does not have to be refrigerated and is also usually less expensive.
- Wet food: has a much higher moisture content so can be a good way to increase water intake. Since canned food is so high in moisture, it is less energy dense (fewer Calories per 100 grams) and so you can feed a larger volume of canned food compared to dry food. This can be useful for puppies that are always hungry.
In general, it is a good idea to expose your puppy to both forms of food, even if you plan on exclusively feeding one or the other. There may come a time where you need to feed canned (or dry) food and if your puppy turns into a picky eater as an adult dog, he or she may refuse a food type that is unfamiliar.
How Much Should I Feed?
We want our puppies to grow into healthy adult dogs, but we do not want to over feed them. Overfeeding leading to obesity has become an epidemic in our pet population and a 2018 survey by the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention found that nearly 60% of pet dogs and cats in the USA are overweight or obese (3). You can use the following methods to keep your puppy a healthy weight:
- Label instructions: Food bags will contain feeding instructions on the label according to the weight of your puppy, whether your puppy is a small breed or large breed puppy. This can be a good place to start but remember that these are average requirements and are not individualized for your puppy. These label instructions also tend to over-estimate the amount of food your puppy needs.
- Calculate: Your veterinarian can help you calculate a calorie requirement per day based on your puppy’s individual body weight and age.
Remember that as your puppy grows, his or her energy needs will also grow and so you will need to continually adjust the food dose based on body condition and weight.
Puppy Feeding Management
Feeding management refers to how you feed your puppy and there are a couple of options to consider:
- Free feeding/graze feeding: this is when your puppy has free access to food either all day or for a large portion of the day. While this is convenient and allows your puppy to eat when he or she wants to, it can be difficult to monitor food intake. It can also make house training your puppy more challenging. This strategy is not recommended in multi-pet households unless pets are kept separately.
- Meal feeding: this is when your puppy is fed at specific times throughout the day. This method allows you to have more control over how much food your puppy is eating and helps get your puppy on a feeding schedule which makes house training easier. Puppies have small stomachs and so when they are young it is better to feed them smaller more frequent meals (3 to 4 per day). As your puppy gets older and can eat a larger volume of food, you can transition to fewer meals.
As your puppy grows, it is very important to monitor his or her weight to make sure growth is occurring at an appropriate rate and that your puppy is not getting overweight. Waltham has created puppy growth charts based on final adult body weight and these are a great resource for monitoring your puppy’s weight trends. More information about these growth charts can be found here.
You should weigh your puppy every 1 to 2 weeks. You can do this by:
- Taking a trip to your veterinary office – this is a great idea if you want to get your puppy used to going to the vet.
- Weigh at home using a bathroom scale – you need to be able to lift puppy and weigh both of you together, and then subtract your weight.
- Use a luggage scale – put puppy in a small pet carrier and use the scale to weigh puppy plus the carrier, then subtract the weight of the carrier.
Most puppy owners choose to also feed their puppy treats – especially during training sessions! The important thing to remember about treats is that they all have different calorie amounts per piece, so be sure to read the label. Treats and snacks should make up no more than 10% of your puppy’s calorie intake per day. If your puppy needs 500 Calories, 450 should come from a complete and balanced puppy food and the remaining 50 Calories can come from treats. A great alternative is to use the puppy kibble as treats – set aside a portion of the total daily amount to be used as treats during the day.
Puppies sometimes get diarrhea and it can be caused by a number of different reasons. The most common causes for puppies are dietary indiscretion (when they eat something they were not supposed to eat) or parasites. If your puppy gets diarrhea, it is important to think about the following things:
- When was the last time puppy was dewormed?
- Could puppy have gotten into garbage or eaten something off the ground outside?
- Did puppy get any new treats or foods that day?
- Did you recently switch the food you are feeding puppy?
One or two episodes of diarrhea are usually not concerning (unless there is blood present, puppy is also vomiting or showing other symptoms, or puppy is not eating/drinking). If your puppy has diarrhea, the best course of action is to call your veterinarian to make an appointment.
When to Make the Transition
Generally, the best time to transition to adult food is when your puppy reaches about 12 months of age. Large breed and giant breed dogs that still have a lot more growing to do can be kept on their puppy food for longer (up to 18 to 24 months). When you are ready to transition, do it slowly over several days. A suggested transition schedule is:
- Days 1 to 2: 75% current food + 25% new food
- Days 3 to 4: 50% current food + 50% new food
- Days 5 to 6: 25% current food + 75% new food
- Day 7 onwards: 100% new food
- National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. National Academy of Sciences, 2006.
- Association of American Feed Control Officials. Official publication. Harrisburg, Pa: Association of American Feed Control Officials, 2019.
- Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Available from https://petobesityprevention.org/. Accessed on November 14, 2019.
- Thatcher CD, Hand MS, Remillard RL: Small Animal Clinical Nutrition: An Iterative Process. In: Hand MS, Thatcher CD, Remillard RL, Roudebush P, Novotny BJ: Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th edition. Mark Morris Institute, Topeka, Kansas, 2010