“You are what you eat” as the saying goes, is just as applicable to puppies as it is for humans.
Feeding a quality balanced diet is important to ensure your puppy grows up to be healthy, dazzling and clever. But differently to humans, puppy diets need a different kind of balance.
In our puppy nutrition guide, you’ll find everything you need to know on how to help your puppy grow fine and dandy.
How your puppies growth and development impacts their nutrition
0 to 4 months old
The younger puppies are, the more fuel their bodies will need. From when they’re born until they reach 4-6 months of age, they’ll need up to 3 times the amount of calories, proteins, vitamins and minerals as they will when fully grown! It’s not uncommon to think they’re sleeping with their feet in grow bags overnight.
This makes complete sense – because they’re growing so much and so quickly, puppies need a complete and balanced diet from when they are weaned from their mother’s milk, as this is what will help them to develop properly.
A complete and balanced puppy diet will give them strong bones and teeth, healthy vision, a beautiful shiny coat and well developed muscles. Gorgeous.
6 months and up
By around 6 months of age this rapid growth rate starts to plateau, but depending on their breed size, puppies continue growing and developing for several months longer. At this stage, they’ll still need a higher nutrient amount than they will as full grown adults, so feeding them with food specifically formulated for growth is the way to go.
DID YOU KNOW? Smaller breeds of dogs need a surprisingly high amount of nutrients per kg of weight than the giant breeds. Amazing, right?
EXAMPLE: Smaller breeds of dogs such as Chihuahuas and Bichon Frise will physically mature at a much younger age than large or giant breeds such as Labradors and Mastiff, which is why they get switched to adult food earlier.
Large and giant breeds, such as Great Danes, Saint Bernards and Newfoundlands, may not mature physically until nearly two years old. These breeds, as well as any large breed puppy, should be fed a growth diet specifically formulated for large breed puppies for their entire growth period.
Nutrient balance is important
The nutritional health of puppies, just like adult dogs, depends on receiving the correct amounts and proportions of six essential nutrients. Only when their food contains these nutrients can it be considered ‘complete’ with the exception of water – we’ll be alright without it. But they do have to drink it.
The six essential nutrients are:
We’ll fill you in in further detail down below.
Complete Puppy Food vs Complementary Puppy Food – what’s the difference?
Complete foods will contain all of your puppy’s essential nutrients in every meal they eat. These diets are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals to meet all of your puppy’s dietary needs.
Complete foods come in various forms such as:
- Dry (Kibble)
- Raw/Bone And Raw Food diet (BARF)
Complementary foods will not contain all of the vitamins and minerals your puppy needs, so they’ll need to be supplemented.
Complementary foods can also come as dry, wet, home cooked and raw foods but are mostly considered as treats and toppers – sometimes we put it on top of complete food to make it more palatable.
PRO TIP: Pay attention to the labelling of your puppy’s food! The description on the pet food will spell out whether it contains all of the “complete and balanced nutrition” required for growing puppies.
It’s good to know that although fat, protein and calcium tend to get the greater emphasis in puppy foods, every single essential nutrient is key, especially during the period of rapid growth. Deficiencies in any essential nutrients can come to light sooner or later – so best we start as we mean to go on to have happy, healthy, dogs. those.
Problems with nutrient amounts in your dog food
Feeding a complete and balanced puppy food is important for numerous reasons.
Here are a few examples of problems that can happen if nutrients are not balanced:
- Too much fat: Can lead to grey greasy stools and contributor to pancreatitis.
- Too much salt: Can lead to congestive heart failure.
- Too little zinc: Can contribute to compromised immune function and skin abnormalities.
- Too little protein: Can cause disturbed growth and stir up their immune system.
- Too many overall calories or a poorly balanced diet: This will often lead to obesity. They’ll get chubs in a not-so-cute way.
FOR LARGE BREEDS: The right balance of calcium with phosphorus is particularly critical for large breed dogs, as too little or too much can lead to skeletal problems.
What makes up a high-quality puppy diet?
Water: The key to life, the source of all their wee. As with humans, water aids in hydration, helps regulate temperature and transports nutrients throughout the body. Your puppy should always have access to a bowl of fresh water, whether it’s meal time or not!
Calories: To say puppies are active is an understatement. Their levels of energy will depend on your puppy’s age, breed size, environment and activity level so you’ll want to make sure you’re giving your puppy the right amount of calories – not too many. We don’t want them to go into obesity, right?
Read about how many calories to feed your puppy here; we explain it all in detail.
Protein: Protein is the building block of muscle development and tissue repair. It also supports the immune system and can be utilised as a source of energy, too. It keeps them in high spirits you see?
The most commonly found sources of protein in puppy food are:
Fats: Yes, that’s right. Despite what you may think, fats are actually a concentrated form of energy – a source of essential fatty acids help your puppy absorb certain vitamins to keep them healthy and maintains a healthy skin and coat.
Fats you can easily find in puppy food are:
- Chicken Fat
- Beef Fat
- Lamb Fat
- Pork Fat
- Fish Oil
- Sunflower Oil
- Vegetable Oil
Carbohydrates: Chewing, romping, running and playing take a whole lot of energy. And aside from sleeping, that’s about all puppies do (besides poo in places that are not the loo). Carbohydrates provide a slow-release stable source of energy and cereal grains like oats, wheat, corn and rice will help keep their motors running.
You may have read about Grain Free diets. In our opinion a grain free diet is not necessary for the majority of dogs, but if you or your vet feel your puppy would be better off with it, then here are some that we think are good:
If you want to learn more then the Pet Food Manufacturers Association also has a Fact Sheet on Grain Free Diets here.
Minerals: Elements like calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron are necessary to help your puppy’s body grow strong bones and teeth, maintain normal muscle, nerve function and produce hormones.
DHA: DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) is a natural omega-3 fatty acid that helps support brain and vision development.
PRO TIP: Puppies fed a diet with high levels of DHA have been shown to be more trainable – better get them an extra load of that!
Vitamins: Essential vitamins work pretty much the same with humans as with puppies. For example, vitamin E will help keep your puppy’s immune system healthy, while vitamin A will help maintain skin and hair.
PRO TIP: When preparing your puppy’s food, always ensure you follow the recommended feeding guide on the package (unless otherwise recommended by your vet), as amounts can vary from breed to breed and also change with age.
How to keep puppies fit and healthy
Besides feeding them a complete and balanced nutritious diet, puppies of all breed sizes need an appropriate amount of calories during growth. Not too many and not too little – it’s all about balance (how many times are we going to say ‘balance’ in this article…)
The right amount of calories will be the amount that supports normal growth and maintains the puppy at an optimal lean body condition.
A good thing to remember is that maximal growth is not optimal growth. Overfeeding and excessive weight gain in large dogs puts them at high risk of developmental orthopedic conditions such as hip dysplasia.
When feeding a large breed puppy, research shows that avoiding overfeeding is better for skeletal development – a puppy putting on weight too rapidly can be too much for their bones to handle.
But monitoring your puppy’s weight and body condition score regularly and adjusting their food intake accordingly will do the trick to keep them in their ideal body condition.
What is a puppy’s ideal body condition?
To know if your puppy is in ideal condition you should be able to feel a minimal fat covering on their ribs, and see a waist when looking down from above.
From their side, you should also see a tuck where their tummy goes into their pelvis – we call this an abdominal tuck.
Even puppies who aren’t predisposed to skeletal problems need to have their lean body condition maintained. Overweight puppies often stay this way into adulthood, causing increased risks for various health problems. We want none of those!
You can check your dog’s body condition score here
How much food do puppies need to eat?
How much you feed your puppy will depend on their breed. Think of a busy Jack Russell Terrier vs a couch potato British Bulldog – they can’t possibly follow the same diet.
Weighing your puppy’s food for ultimate precision of what they should be eating at each meal is the thing that can truly make the difference!
Your puppy’s puppy food label provides general guidelines of how much food they should eat as a starting point. However, the amount of food should still be adjusted as needed, to maintain a lean body condition for your puppy’s specific breed.
Just like with humans, all puppies are different. Some seem to burn that energy off in their sleep (the lucky ones), while others only need to almost look at a piece of chicken and they pile on the pounds (I’d argue most humans are like the latter)!
PRO TIP: Keep in mind that all additional foods (including training treats!) contain calories. Treats should not exceed 10% of the puppy’s daily caloric intake in order to prevent excessive weight gain and unbalancing the puppy’s nutrient intake. Vegetables can be a great healthy snack for puppies. They love a good sweet potato.
My puppy is always hungry!
Although those puppy dog eyes say ‘nobody ever feeds me, I’m starved’ are generally just a good trick to get your leftovers, it can be the case that they are genuinely excessively hungry after meals. This means they might need their diet adjusted.
You can solve this by giving them lower energy density (or fewer calories per gram) meals. These may help your puppy feel fuller for longer as it will give them a large volume of food to eat, without that weight creeping on. Many of us should probably jump on this bandwagon.
My puppy can’t put weight on, what should I do?
Some puppies struggle to put weight on and get enough calories in to maintain a healthy weight.
If health issues have been ruled out, then try looking at some more calorie dense food. This is particularly true if your puppy seems bloated like a balloon after meals, or if you feel like you’re feeding them bowls and bowls of food without seeing much weight gain.
My puppy is becoming picky. What should I do?
Some puppies genuinely don’t like a certain brand of food. That’s that’s ok, I wouldn’t want to eat my ‘food hell’ every day either.
The best thing to do is stick with a complete and balanced puppy food that matches the energy needs of your puppy. Once your puppy realises that this is the food they are going to be eating, they will usually eat it without an issue.
However, constantly changing your puppy’s food can lead to a pattern of pickinness (we all know how annoying those humans can be) and potentially obesity – people with fussy puppies tend to give them a lot of high calorie extras and worry about them never eating enough. In the end, what happens is quite the opposite. The puppy ends up eating too much, of the wrong kind of thing.
Also, nobody likes a picky eater. Just saying.
To resolve picky eaters or grazing, here’s what you can do:
- Change the dog’s food bowl to a puzzle feeder. These are super fun. Studies show that dogs would rather choose to solve a task for food rather than it being given freely out of a bowl, so puzzle feeders turn out to be quite like heroes. I also find it helps to make them feel like mealtimes are their highlight of their day, since they’ll start associating them more with solving puzzles and getting rewards – another of their obsessions.
- Use some of their daily food as food rewards in training exercises.
- Put the food down and then pick up what’s left after 10 minutes.
- Food left out will spoil quicker than we realise, so if it’s gone off and tastes like poo, it can create negative feelings towards it.
- Don’t feed them again until you put fresh food down at their next meal time; meaning they are hungrier and more motivated to eat.
If you got this far, well done! We’ll summarise everything for you in case you want a quick glance:
- Puppies should be fed food especially formulated for growth and development until they reach physical maturity.
- DHA is an essential nutrient to support brain and vision development. (Remember – it’s the one that makes them easier to train!)
- Large and giant breeds do not mature until they are nearly 2 years old. This means that until they reach maturity, they should be fed a diet specifically formulated for large breed puppies in an amount that maintains lean body condition to prevent excessive weight gain.
- Small breed and toy breed puppies should be given nutrient dense, bite-sized kibble. The smaller kibble size makes it easier for small (sometimes tiny) mouths to chew.
The best puppy food is one that is:
1. Right for your puppy’s life stage.
2. Formulated for their expected adult size and weight.
3. Nutritionally complete and balanced.
4. Easy and affordable for you to purchase at a Pet Store or online.
High Protein treats are generally the most liked by puppies – commercial treats can be quite high in fat and in calories, which isn’t a good thing. Make sure to check how many they have per day by reading the packets to check their nutritional composition…we don’t want puppies with extra rolls than they need.
Treats should form no more than 10% of their daily caloric intake to avoid them getting chubs and rolls. It won’t be cute forever!
We wrote a whole article reviewing healthy puppy treats here if you’re curious about more.
The correct diet is what will work for you and your puppy – your options are:
– Kibble – Dry Food
– Kibble – Semi Moist Food
– Wet Food
– Home Cooked Food
– Raw Food and Bone And Raw Food diet (BARF)
As tiny puppies, they will be happy having their mother’s milk until they’re about 5 weeks old – at which point they get weaned onto a complete puppy food diet.
When you bring your puppy home, you should keep them on puppy food until they are mature – which will vary based on their breed size.
Yes – as long as it is nutritionally complete. If your puppy likes it more, it’s no problem – they’ll simply like their mealtimes a lot better!
Wet food such as this one is quite good. Tried it myself with a knife and fork.
Teething puppies often have sore gums. If your puppy is struggling to eat, try adding some water to their food and spreading it on something like a lickimat to get them more interested in eating – they won’t have to do any crunching on those sore gums.
PRO TIP: Frozen Food Toys and Ice Cubes can also be great for cooling down hot and sore gums. On a nice hot summer day, these are absolutely brilliant. They’ll see you as the Treat God.
We hope you’ve found this article useful and expanded your knowledge on Puppy Nutrition. Your puppy will surely be grateful for it – you’ll be helping to make them big and strong!
For some more good information from puppy experts, catch up on our other beautifully written articles or download out ZigZag Puppy Training App.
You’ll have a good time. Believe me, I work there.