I can still vividly recall the day four years ago when I held my 13 lb Great Dane puppy in my arms, ready to take her home.
As my husband and I headed to the car, the kind adoption lady offered some well-intended nutritional advice.
Little did she know that I was a veterinary nutritionist, but her suggestion reminded me of how common misunderstandings about puppy nutrition still are.
Proper nutrition plays a crucial role in healthy growth that can impact your puppy's lifelong well-being. In this article, we delve into essential aspects of meeting the basic nutritional needs for your puppy so you’ll know the nutritional mistakes to avoid.
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Your Puppy's Growth Stages and How Nutritional Needs Change
Puppies go through distinct stages of development, and their nutritional needs change as they grow.
Neonatal Period (0–2 Weeks)
During the first two weeks of life, puppies rely entirely on their mother for nutrition and care. They are all about their momma’s milk.
Transitional Period (2–3 Weeks)
Between weeks two and three, puppies get more curious and start learning to lap and chew, marking the beginning of their transition to solid food.
Socialization Period (3–12 Weeks)
This is where the real fun begins. From 3 to 12 weeks of age, puppies begin growing milk (deciduous) teeth, and their mother strongly encourages a gradual transition to solid food. Most puppies are weaned from their mother between 6 and 8 weeks old.
Juvenile Period (12 Weeks Onward)
The duration of this phase varies based on the breed size.
Small breeds may reach their adult size by around 10 months, while giant breeds can continue growing for nearly 2 years!
To monitor your puppy's growth and ensure they're developing appropriately, you can use puppy growth charts created by WALTHAMTM, which have been designed after observing more than 50,000 young, healthy dogs.
It's like having a GPS for your pup's growth. As per the examples of the growth chart below, you want your puppy's weight to progress in the shape of a curve. The interactive chart will prompt you if your pup is progressing appropriately or not, as you add their weight over time.
And no worries if you have a mixed breed! All breeds, including mixed breeds, can use the puppy growth charts.
Your veterinary care team can also assist in tracking your puppy's body condition and weight. It's especially important to prevent your large-breed dog from growing too quickly, as it can lead to skeletal abnormalities and obesity.
How to Weigh Your Puppy
Check with your veterinary clinic. They will usually welcome you to use their scale, often in their lobby, to weigh your pet. It doubles as a great opportunity to do a "fun" visit to help your puppy feel comfortable with vet visits without an exam and the pokes that are usually part of it.
If you can't make it to your vet's office, then you can take your puppy's weight at home.
Essential Nutrients for Puppies
To support your puppy's healthy physical development, providing the right nutrients in the correct amounts is vital – considering their higher need for bone and tissue development.
Puppies have greater metabolic demands compared to adult dogs because they're growing quickly. Feeding them the appropriate number of calories is essential for their development and maintaining a healthy body condition.
Calorie requirements vary with age, breed, activity level, and reproductive status, but puppies need more calories per body weight than adults to support their growing bodies.
Gradually reduce calorie intake as they approach adulthood. Pet food labels include feeding guidelines, but remember that each puppy is unique. Avoid overfeeding to prevent obesity and related health issues.
Effects of Spay/Neuter on Calorie Intake
Being spayed or neutered significantly changes a pet’s appetite and metabolism. With the shift in hormones, their metabolism will slow down, and usually, their appetite increases. This is not the most helpful combination to maintain a healthy weight!
After this procedure, your pet will likely need some changes to their diet. It may be reduced volume or maybe even a new diet altogether, so make sure to ask your veterinarian to help monitor your dog’s body condition very closely and make the needed adjustments to avoid inappropriate weight gain.
Pet Food Label Tip: For reading pet food labels, use the feeding guidelines as a starting point and adjust the portion size based on your puppy's healthy body condition. Remember, your pup is an individual, not a number on a label.
Proteins are essential for muscle and tissue growth. Amino acids are the building blocks of those proteins, and there are 10 essential amino acids that dogs need to eat in their diet.
Puppies require more protein than adult dogs as they grow. There’s not a “best” protein source, but it’s important that the protein sources in your puppy's diet are highly digestible so their puppy body can absorb and use the amino acids.
Understanding if a protein is digestible is somewhat challenging. However, this is something that a responsible pet food company will do. They will have a knowledgeable team of nutritionists, formulators, and food scientists test the food for digestibility. The digestibility test will look at stool quality and analyze the diet and the stool to see how well the pet is digesting and absorbing all of the nutrients. For a list of potential questions to ask a food company or research on their website, refer to the WSAVA guidelines on selecting pet foods and their guide on researching nutrition on the internet.
Allergies to Protein
While rare, puppies may develop food allergies, which may show up as skin issues (red, itchy skin) or digestive problems, like diarrhea. Food allergies come from the body’s abnormal recognition of the protein in the food as an intruder, sending inflammatory soldiers to attack. Consult your veterinarian if you notice any concerning symptoms.
Fats provide concentrated calories and play a role in overall health. Omega-6 fatty acids, found in vegetable oils like soybean and sunflower oil, support skin and coat health. Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, aid in normal brain development. Diets that contain DHA will contain fish oil or marine algal oil.
It’s okay to feed a diet containing fish, but avoid feeding large amounts of food and treats with fish. It’s possible that consumption of large amounts of fish may risk excessive vitamin D intake. This can cause skeletal abnormalities and other health concerns in growing dogs.
Carbohydrates are a source of energy and fiber. The diet will aim to balance the types and amounts of fiber for your puppy to accommodate their unique digestive system, which is still developing and can be a little extra sensitive.
Examples of fiber sources you may see in puppy food include beet pulp, fructooligosaccharides, and whole grains such as wheat and corn.
Vitamins and Minerals
While vitamins and minerals are required in smaller quantities compared to protein and fat, they are no less crucial for growth. For example, pet nutritionists pay special attention to calcium levels, especially in large-breed puppies. Too much calcium can lead to skeletal abnormalities.
Foods formulated specifically for puppies will follow nutrient guidelines to support growth. You won't need to compare one food's nutrients over another. However, if you have a large breed dog, follow the tip below.
Pet Food Label Tip: When you are looking for the best food for your large breed puppy, look on the bag (usually on the side) for the nutritional adequacy statement that should read something along the lines of: [Pet Food Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth/all life stages including growth of large-size dogs (70 lbs or more as an adult). See more in the next section on AAFCO statements.
Water is the most vital nutrient, so ensure fresh, clean water is always available. Wet and canned foods can also help maintain hydration due to their higher water content.
Selecting the Right Diet for Your Puppy
Finding the right food for your puppy can be challenging. There are an abundant number of options, and your puppy is unique.
Ask yourself these questions:
1) Is it right for my pet nutritionally? Look for the American Association for Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutritional adequacy statement on the pet food label to see if it provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth.
AAFCO is a volunteer organization that writes nutritional and label guidelines for animal food products in the United States. Each State regulatory organization under the FDA must decide to adopt the guidelines and enforce them. Most States base their feed laws and regulations on the AAFCO models. As far as I'm aware, currently, all States have adopted the nutritional adequacy statement, so if a pet product does not contain an AAFCO statement, they are legally non-compliant.
For large breed puppies (predicted to be 50 lbs or larger), seek products labeled "including growth of large-size dogs."
2) Is it safe? This may seem like a scary question, but having trust in the company that produces the food is a reasonable thing to consider. All pet food products should have a contact phone number on the product. You can also look at their websites. See if they discuss who formulates their foods. Do they have Ph.D. animal nutritionists, board-certified companion animal nutritionists, or board-certified veterinary nutritionists? What type of tests do they do to ensure that foods are balanced, safe, and digestible? Do they perform digestibility tests on all of their foods?
3) Does my puppy do well on the food? Sometimes, trial and error is the best approach, as long as you're feeding a food made for puppies. Your puppy is special, so it might take a couple of tries to find a food that they eat well and produces good solid poops. Don't forget to do a gradual transition if you change diets to help their digestive tract adapt to the changes.
Pro Tip: Many food companies have a refund policy if your pet does not like the food. Keep your receipt (tape it to the bag or packaging so you don't lose it) and if your dog doesn't like the food or doesn't do well on it, you can return it.
To go the extra mile, consider keeping a food journal (and a poop journal) to track what works best for your puppy. Note any new foods, treats, or chews, and monitor their effects on your puppy's health and well-being.
Caution About Making Homemade Food for Your Puppy
There are many puppy food types, but feeding homemade dog food to a puppy can risk providing unbalanced nutrition and abnormal growth.
If you want to feed your puppy a homemade diet, work with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to help create a custom recipe. The danger in not doing so is an increased risk of nutritional imbalances and deficiencies that could lead to illness or hinder normal growth. Creating a complete and balanced diet is not easy, so working with a veterinary nutritionist is the safest option.
Common Misunderstandings About Puppy Nutrition – Myth Busting
- The biggest misconception about puppies I've seen is putting large and giant breed dogs on adult foods too soon instead of finding the size-appropriate growth food. The misconception comes from historically seeing abnormal skeletal growth in giant breed puppies when they get excessive amounts of calcium. It took scientists a little time to understand that it was calcium and then more time for AAFCO to modify the nutritional guidelines and labeling declarations in the nutritional adequacy statement.
- While there may be different opinions, it’s okay to feed treats with different protein sources. You don't have to stick to the same protein for their food and their treats. Multiple protein sources are helpful when making a complete and balanced diet as they allow for complementary ingredients to be combined to achieve a balanced nutrient profile.
- Just because puppies are growing and their metabolism is high doesn't mean that they can't get fat. Limit treats, raw hides, chews, and human food to less than 10% of your puppy's calorie intake. Choose treats with few calories and avoid very hard toys and edibles to protect growing teeth and prevent choking hazards.
Consult With Your Veterinarian
Finding the right diet and portion size for your puppy can be overwhelming, given the multitude of options available. Fortunately, you don't have to navigate this journey alone. Collaborating with your veterinarian will help tailor your puppy's diet to their specific needs, and they also want what is best for your puppy.
Talk to them about what you feel is most important when feeding your pet. Do you have any particular health concerns that you've noticed about your pet? Is there a particular place where you would prefer to purchase the food? Have you found a food you'd like to feed your dog and want them to review it? Bring the food or label with you, as your vet is more than willing to help.
When Should You Switch Your Puppy to Adult Food?
The time to switch to adult food is dependent on breed size, but consult with your vet on the timing that is right for your unique pup. The following timelines are a general guideline:
- Small breeds (less than 20 lbs) can start transitioning between 10 to 12 months
- Medium breeds around 12 months
- Large breeds between 12 and 15 months
- Giant breeds between 18 and 24 months
The other time to be aware of a potential need for change is at the time of the spay or neuter. Since your dog's metabolism will slow down significantly very soon after the procedure, it's a good time to discuss the diet and amount of food being fed with your veterinarian to see what adjustments could be made to keep your puppy in a good body condition score. This is crucial for lifelong health and well-being. Overweight pets have an increased risk for many health and well-being problems.
Whenever you switch your dog's food, whether it's from puppy to adult food or switching brands, make sure to do it gradually over several days to avoid gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea.
A solid nutritional foundation is crucial for a happy and thriving puppy. Feeding them well isn't just about filling their bellies; it's about nurturing their potential and setting them up for a fantastic future.
Strong bones, a shiny coat, and a sharp brain are just the beginning. Your pup will thank you for it with boundless energy, puppy kisses, and endless tail wags. Embrace the adventure! Navigating the world of puppy nutrition might seem like a wild ride, but remember, you're not alone. Your veterinary team is there to guide you through every stage of your pup's growth. Keep an eye on portion sizes, choose dog treats wisely, and keep your pup hydrated!