Puppy Nutrition Basics

Puppyhood by itself is such an overwhelming and exciting time – and choosing a food for a puppy is no different. Probably the most common way I see most pet parents choose a puppy food is by visiting a Dog Food Rating website – something like Dog Food Advisor, or Pet Food Ratings….

And honestly, when I got my pups (over 7 years ago) I did the same thing!

But the problem with using a rating’s website is that it doesn’t consider your pup’s unique nutritional needs, and it also does not take into account the inherent bias and education of the website in question. Most pet food rating websites are not created by people with an education in small animal nutrition.

What I hope to do is break down puppy nutrition in comparison to adult dog nutrition so that you understand exactly why we might choose one food over another, and where to look on the label or what to ask your pet food manufacturer prior to purchasing a puppy food.

Choose a Food Labeled for Puppies

We know through countless research studies that puppies have significantly different nutritional needs than that of adult dogs. We know they need MORE protein, fat, vitamins and minerals within their diet in order to provide nutrients for developing bones, muscles, ligaments and organs. But we also know several nutrients need to be kept in specific ratios in order to make sure those bones, joints or organs develop correctly.

The hard part about puppy nutrition in comparison to adult dog nutrition is that we really don’t get a “redo” – if we mess up the calcium to phosphorus ratio in puppyhood it’s likely that our puppy could have life-long bone or joint abnormalities. Which is obviously pretty terrible.

Calcium and Phosphorus in Puppy Food

Puppies have very particular needs when it comes to Calcium, and Phosphorus in comparison to adult dogs. Unlike most other vitamins and minerals, puppies don’t just need MORE of these items within their diet, but they also need them at certain ratios at a controlled rate to have optima growth and development.

Controlled calcium is especially important for puppies because puppies unlike adult dogs CANNOT adequately regulate how much dietary calcium they absorb from their intestines until they are about 6 months of age. This means that if given excessive calcium during growth puppies passively take it in.

But the amount of calcium alone isn’t the only issue, we also need that amount of calcium to be in the correct proportion to the amount of phosphorus within the diet. Too much calcium in proportion to phosphorus can cause phosphorus deficiency which leads to hormonal imbalance, and too much phosphorus can cause calcium deficiency leading to conditions like Rickets!

% Calcium% PhosphorusCal. to Phos. Ratio
Small Breed Puppy0.7-1.70.6-1.31:1 to 1.8:1
Large Breed Puppy0.7-1.20.6-1.11:1 to 1.5:1
Adult Dog0.4-0.59%0.3-0.6%1:1 to 2:1
Small Animal Clinical Nutrition
Research on Calcium & Phosphorus in Puppies

Hazewinkel HAW, Goedegebuure SA, Poulos PW, et al. Influences of chronic calcium excess on the skeletal development of growing Great Danes. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 1985;21(3):377-391.

 Schoenmakers I, Hazewinkel HAW, Voorhout G, et al. Effects of diets with different calcium and phosphorus contents on skeletal development and blood chemistry of growing great danes. Vet Rec 2000;147(23):652-660.

Voorhout G, Hazewinkel HAW. A radiographic study on the development of the antebrachium in Great Dane pups on different calcium intakes. Vet Radiol 1987;28:152-157.

Hazewinkel HAW, Van den Brom WE, Van ’T Klooster AT, et al. Calcium metabolism in Great Dane dogs fed diets with various calcium and phosphorus levels. J Nutr 1991;121(11 Suppl):S99-S106.

Tryfonidou MA, Holl MS, Vastenburg M, et al. Hormonal regulation of calcium homeostasis in two breeds of dogs during growth at different rates. J Anim Sci 2003;81(6):1568-1580.

Nutritional Adequacy Statements for Puppy’s

The good news is – AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials), NRC (National Research Council), and FEDIEF (European Pet Food Industry Federation) – all have well established guidelines and labeling surrounding foods for puppies.

In particular you need to look for what is called a “Nutritional Adequacy Statement” – as long as you choose a dog food with a statement that is appropriate for growth your puppy should receive at least the minimum nutrients in the right ratios.

This is a sentence that is found -somewhere- on the pet food label, but usually near either the feeding instructions or the guaranteed analysis. It should read one of two ways to know if the diet is appropriate for a puppy.

“___________ is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for all life stages.”

“Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that ______________ provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth.”

Note for large breed puppies you want to look for an additional statement that will ensure that the food has the appropriate calcium to phosphorus ratio and amounts for a large breed dog.

“[Pet Food] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO nutrient profiles for growth/all life stages including growth of large breed dogs (those with an adult weight of 70 lbs or more”

Looking Beyond “Puppy Food”

Now if you are anything like me – as a crazy dog mom – that only wants the “best” for her puppy, then you probably don’t want to provide your puppy with just the “minimum” levels when it comes to nutrition. You want to make sure you provide optimal levels.

And that is what we are going to chat a bit about in more detail – what other things should you look at on the pet food label when comparing brands? And why are these items important?

How much Protein Should Puppies Have?

Ah protein – everyone loves to focus on this macronutrient when they compare dog foods – and with good reason – protein IS important for our dogs. In particular the building blocks of protein, called essential amino acids – these essential amino acids form a variety of functions within the body, from helping with organ function, or providing building blocks of muscle!

Through research the NRC (National Research Council) and AAFCO (American Association Feed Control Officials) have established MINIMUM requirements for protein for both adult dogs and puppies.

Adults18% Crude Protein
Puppies22% Crude Protein

However nutrition specialists typically recommend puppies and adult dogs be placed on much higher protein diets – unless contraindicated by certain medical conditions. General recommendations do vary depending on which specialist you speak to – but general consensus is both puppies and adult dogs should be on a diet that contains about 25-30% Crude Protein.

The difference with puppies is not the percent of protein within the diet, but the AMOUNT of protein that they are ingesting. Since puppies eat about twice as much as adult dogs, they will be consuming about twice as many grams of protein! 

Thus instead of looking at just the macro composition of the food what we really want to know is how DIGESTIBLE the protein within the food is. Different types of proteins are more digestible than others – and typically meat or animal based proteins are more digestible than plant-based protein for dogs. But contacting your pet food manufacturer for digestibility information is going to be your best bet! Ideally choose a puppy diet with a Dry Matter Protein Digestibility of greater than 85%, which is considered highly digestible.

MYTH: High Protein Diets are Bad For Large Breed Puppies

Large vs. Small Breed Puppies have different nutritional needs.

Years ago there was some debate around the amount of protein we should or shouldn’t give large breed puppies because nutritionists at the time (about 20 years ago) theorized that protein caused bone abnormalities in dogs. This stemmed from observations that dogs fed higher protein diets (that were actually coincidentally too high in phosphorus and calorically dense) showed signs of bone abnormalities. We now know that high protein diets do not cause bone abnormalities in large breed puppies.

Several research studies have been done looking at large breed dogs fed a variety of foods of different protein content (up to 36% on a dry matter basis). These researchers found that as long as the foods contained the right amount of calcium, and in the right ratio to phosphorus – AND – foods were fed portion-controlled meals to optimize lean body condition dogs did not have bone abnormalities.

Instead they found that overfeeding large and giant breed dogs cause bone abnormalities such as osteochondrosis, hypertrophic osteodystrophy and hip dysplasia.

Research on Overfeeding vs. Protein in Large Bred Dogs.

Dammrich K: Relationship between nutrition and bone growth in large and giant dogs, J Nutr 121:S114-S121, 1991

Smith GK, Paster ER, Powers MY, et al: Lifelong diet restriction and radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis in the hip joint in dogs, J Am Vet Med Assoc 229:690-693, 2006

Kealy RD, Olsson SE, MOnti KL, et al: Overnutrition and skeletal disease: an experiment study in Great Dane dogs, Cornell Vet 64(Supp 5): 1-159, 1974

Nap RC, Hazewinkel HAW, Vorrhout G, et al: The influence of dietary protein content on growth in giant breed dogs, J Vet Orthop Trauma 6:1-8, 1993

Comparing Puppy Foods by Protein - Quick Tips:
- Dry Matter Protein 25-32% Protein
- Highly Digestible - with a Dry Matter Digestibility of > 87%

How much Fat should puppies have in their Diet?

As far as macronutrients go, fats are actually extremely important when we think of choosing a diet for our puppies. Fat content of the diet comes down to two elements – one is the essential fatty acids, and the second is calories. Let’s break both these down a bit further.

Fat and Feeding too Many Calories

Fats are the most calorically dense macronutrient, meaning when you compare the calories dogs get from consuming 1 gram of fat, it is over twice as calorically dense as that of protein or carbohydrates. This means that when we think about weight management – often fat intake goes hand in hand. I know many people don’t think about weight management and puppyhood. But it really does start here.

Our main concerns about feeding too much fat is too much energy which can lead to weight gain and rapid growth. For large breed dogs this might be long fragile bones because the bone formation cannot keep up with the accelerated growth – making them more prone to bone fractures and other bone abnormalities. For our little dogs it might make them become overweight in puppyhood, which can predispose them to obesity later in life – shortening their lifespan.

Research on Overfeeding Causing Joint/Bone Abnormalities

Dobenecker, B., Kienzle, E., Köstlin, R., & Matis, U. (1998). Mal- and overnutrition in puppies with or without clinical disorders of skeletal development. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, 80(1–5), 76–81. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1439-0396.1998.tb00506.x

Dobenencker B, Kienzle E, Matis U. Mal- and overnutrition in puppies with and without clinical disorders of skeletal development (abst.), in Proceedings. European Society of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition, Munich, Germany, 1997:25.

Slater MR, Scarlett JM, Donoghue S, et al. Diet and exercise as potential risk factors for osteochondritis dissecans in dogs. Am J Vet Res 1992;53(11):2119-2124.

Meyer H, Zentek J. Über den Einfluβ einer unterschiedlichen Energieversorgung wachsender Doggen auf Körpermasse und Skelettentwicklung (Influence of various levels of energy intake on development of body weight and skeleton in growing Great Danes). J Vet Med A 1992;39:130-141.

Because of these issues with feeding too much the general consensus is to feed a diet that keeps your dog LEAN. If you happen to have a puppy prone to gaining weight choosing a diet with between 14-16% might be a good idea. However for most puppies choosing a diet between 15-20% fat is completely fine.

The best Types of Fats for Puppies

Flaxseed vs. Fish Oil as a source of DHA for puppies

When we think of particular types of fats and which are most beneficial for puppies we have to look a bit deeper into the research. Most puppy foods if they have adequate protein and fat will contain enough linoleic acid – which is a precusor to arachidonic acid – both of which are essential fatty acids for dogs. Sources of these essential fatty acids would be animal proteins, and vegetable-based oils (like Walnut, Safflower, Corn, Soy or Canola).

But what some puppy foods may or may not have is an adequate source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is particarly important in brain, hearing and eye development in early stages of life. A series of research studies have been performed not just with dogs, but other species where they have shown that DHA supplementation has been shown to be positively correlated with improved retinal function (ability to see!), and improved ability to learn.

It is important to note that these studies did not find the same improvements when puppies were supplemented with ALA in the form of FlaxSeed Oil. This is probably due to the fact that puppies rapidly lose the ability to adequately convert ALA to DHA after weaning. Thus direct supplementation of DHA in the form of Fish or Marine Oil is advised.

Research on Benefits of DHA for Puppies

Heinemann KM, Waldron MK, Bigley KE, et al: Long-chain (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids are more efficient than alpha-linolenic acid in improveing electroretinogram responses of puppies exposured during gestation, lactiona and water weaning. J Nutr 135:1960-1966, 2005.

Bauer JE, Heinemann KM, Lees GE, Waldron MK: Retinal functions of  youn dogs are improved and maternal plasma phospholids are altered with diets containing long-chain n-3 polyunsaturaged fatty acids during gestation, lactation, and after weaning. J Nutr 136:19914S, 2006

Heinemann KM, Bauer JE: Docosahexaenoic acid and neurologic development in animals, J Am Vet Med Assoc 228:700-705, 2006

Kelly R, Lepine AJ: Improving puppy trainability through nutrition. In Proc NAVC, 2005, pp 21-26

Comparing Puppy Foods by Fat Content:
- Look for diets that are supplemented with Fish Oil rather than Flaxseed Oil
- Consider a lower fat diet if having issues with weight control (14-16% Fat on a Dry Matter Basis)

How Much to Feed Your Puppy?

Puppies have very high nutritional needs in comparison to adult dogs. Generally speaking most young-puppies at 8-12 wks will consume twice the amount of calories as an adult dog of similar weight. Which is a lot of food. However, even though our puppies have high energy needs it’s important to know that overfeeding a puppy can cause serious health problems.

So though it might be tempting to free-feed a puppy in order to allow them to eat “as much as they want” this is actually a very bad idea. Instead measured feedings given to optimize for a lean body condition is ideal. For large breed dogs overfeeding can cause bone and joint abnormalities such as osteochondritis, and for small breed dogs it can predispose them to obesity later in life which can lead to a shortened lifespan.

Needs Change as our Puppies Grow:

Probably one of the most common mistakes I see dog owners make is not understanding that puppies go through a rapid growth stage for the first couple months, then their needs slowly start to change/decrease.

Usually when you bring home your puppy between 8-12 weeks of age your puppy has just entered what is called the “rapid growth stage” in this stage puppies bones, joints and other tissues develop quickly – and in order to do this they need A LOT of food for their size. And this is also the time where large breed puppies are MOST sensitive to excessive calories that can cause bone/joint abnormalities – which is why portioned feeding is SO important for them.

But by the time your puppy has reached between 5-8 months of age – or 50% of their adult weight, growth starts to slow and caloric needs change. This period of time between the rapid growth phase and adult weight is one of the most common times we see weight gain in puppies! This weight gain can predispose puppies to being obese later in life.

My big take-way here is to monitor your puppy’s body condition score to know if you are feeding appropriately. Remember keeping your puppy at a healthy weight is the number one thing you can do to add YEARS onto their life.

How Often to Feed Your Puppy?

The general recommendation for feeding a puppy is based on their metabolism and stomach space. Puppies have higher metabolisms and little stomachs so we need to feed them more often than adult dogs.

For a large breed dog this usually means feeding about 4 times per day at 8-12 weeks per age, and slowly transitioning to twice daily by 6 months of age. In contrast for small or toy breed dogs who have higher metabolisms, and TINY stomachs we usually recommend feeding them 5 times per day at 8-12 weeks of age, and slowly transitioning to twice daily by about 6-8 months of age.

The big thing to remember here is that feeding your puppy MORE times per day will not harm them, it is just inconvenient for YOU, the pet parent. When you are transitioning and lowering the amount of times per day you are feeding – do not do so abruptly. Instead slowly reduce the amount offered in the meal you are looking to “drop” and increase the portions offered in the other meals. Then space the meals semi-equally throughout waking hours.

Times Per Day
AgeSmall BreedMedium BreedLarge Breed
2-3 months5 x per day4 x per day4 x per day
3-4 months4 x per day4 x per day3-4 x per day
4-5 months4 x per day3-4 x per day3 x per day
5-6 months3 x per day3 x per day2-3 x per day
6-7 months3 x per day2-3 x per day2 x per day
7-8 months2 x per day2 x per day2 x per day

Hypoglycemia in Small Breed Dogs

Because our small breed puppies both have small stomachs and fast metabolisms (about twice as fast as a large breed dog!) they are prone more to Hypoglycemia (or low blood sugar) than our large breed pups. I’ve personally seen this many times with newly adopted pups where they refuse to eat due to stress when they first come home. We often see these puppies end up with weakness, lethargy and muscle tremors. This is part of the reason why most small/toy breed dogs are fed more often than our large breed pups, and we tend to offer them higher calorie, nutrient dense diets.

For small breed dogs choose a food that is nutrient dense, highly palatable, and either a moisture rich diet or a diet that has small enough pieces that they can eat! Remember our small breed dogs have small - mouths and teeth too!

Choosing a Quality Puppy Food

At this point we have covered several different aspects of puppy food that you should be paying attention to, however I think it is extremely important for you to recognize that choosing a diet that fits your dog’s nutritional needs, and knowing how much and how often to feed your pup is only PART of the picture.

The other part of the picture is knowing if the food you are choosing is a high quality product. Unfortunately, the pet food bag, and often even the manufacturer’s website will not be able to give you this information…. To do this you need to actually do some detective work – and probably reach out directly to the pet food company!

Some questions you should ask are:

  1. Who exactly formulates / has formulated your diets and what are their credentials?
  2. Do you have anyone on staff with a background in small animal nutrition? If so, please explain their education level and certifications?
  3. Where are your foods manufactured? Do you manufacture your own foods?
  4. Where do you source your ingredients? What testing do your ingredients undergo prior to getting to your facility?
  5. Where do you source your vitamin/mineral supplements? What testing do these supplements go through prior to getting to your facility? Could you provide me with a copy of the COA of these products?
  6. How exactly does your company prevent cross contamination within the manufacturing process and prevent the spread of disease within your facility? Can you describe your procedure in detail?
  7. Are the meats you use USDA inspected? Are your foods considered human-grade – fit for human consumption per AAFCO’s current definition?
  8. What post-manufacturing testing does your company do for pathogens such as E.Coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Mycotoxins, Aflatoxins, Heavy Metals, and Arsenic? Could you provide me with a Laboratory Analysis of this testing?
  9. What post-manufacturing testing do you do to ensure nutritional adequacy – do you do Guaranteed Analysis Batch Testing? Or do you send out for full AAFCO Nutritional Panels?
  10. Have your products ever gone through AAFCO feeding trials?
  11. Have your foods undergone Digestibility Feeding Trials, if so what is the Total Dry Matter Digestibility of your Dog Food?
  12. Have your products undergone palatability or other testing?
  13. Has your pet food company ever had a recall? If so, what was the recall for and how have you changed or modified your product/procedures to make sure it will not happen again?

Common Mistakes that Unbalance a Balanced Recipe

Most of the issues I usually see with puppies and calcium to phosphorus ratios comes down to over-supplementing, over-treating, and unbalanced DIY recipes – not actually issues with one puppy pre-made diet over another.

Replacing 50% of your dog’s balanced diet with just meat.

Over-Treating is a HUGE problem in puppyhood.

Mostly because we have a lot of training and bonding to do with our dogs in the first year or so of life, and thus we use a TON of treats! The problem is – most treats contain a lot of phosphorus (meat), and no calcium. So if you give excess treats – over 10% of the diet – then you can very easily unbalance the calcium to phosphorus ratio within your dog’s diet.

My Big TIP to combat this is to purchase multiple types/brands of food. I know many people that use a premade fresh food for main meals, and balanced freeze-dried, or kibble as treats while training (or vise-versa). Combination feeding is totally okay, and encouraged to keep your pup on a balanced diet!

Never Supplement without ASKING YOUR VET.

Most puppies will not require any additional supplements outside of their balanced diet during puppyhood. However sometimes vets may advise things like a probiotic, joint supplement or a fish oil supplement depending on your dog’s unique nutritional needs. But generally speaking – no – your dog does not need a multivitamin if your dog is already on a premade complete and balanced diet.

Unbalanced Recipes – A Oops with Long-term Effects

Unbalanced Homemade Recipes for Puppies are one of the scariest things I’ve encountered in veterinary medicine. Mostly because I know they are always done with the best intentions, but I also know that an unbalanced puppy food can cause lifelong health and bone abnormalities.

Usually I find people that end up with a puppy on homemade food either because they 1. Want what’s best for their pup, but lack education on how to do so, or 2. Have a dog that stopped eating at some point, and they started to just “add” to the bowl to get them to continue.

Both of these can be pretty easily remedied – for DIY for puppies, if you haven’t done it before I’d highly suggest a premade fresh food diet balanced for puppies or using a recipe created by a boarded nutritionist for puppies (links at the end of this post!). For finding a diet for a picky pup – check out these posts on picky dogs, and talk to your vet – “pickiness” can be a sign of a medical condition OR a behavioral condition.

Research on Common Causes of Orthopedic Disease in Puppies

Dobenecker, B., Kienzle, E., Köstlin, R., & Matis, U. (1998). Mal- and overnutrition in puppies with or without clinical disorders of skeletal development. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, 80(1–5), 76–81. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1439-0396.1998.tb00506.x

Just Food For Dogs offers two puppy recipes – a grain-free fish and a chicken & rice

Nom Nom has three grain-free and one grain-inclusive recipe that are balanced for puppies.

Pet Plate has four different recipes that are complete and balanced for puppies, including the growth of large breeds.

Puppy Food Tips:

  • Ignore the pictures on the Package – this is just marketing for YOU, it doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the product.
  • Do not rely on Dog Food Review Websites – contact the Pet Food Company Directly to get further questions answered.
  • Choose a Diet Labeled for Puppies on the AAFCO Nutritional Statement, if you have a large breed puppy choose a diet with a large-breed statement included.
  • Choose a Diet between 25-30% protein that is highly digestible.
  • Optimize Fat and Calories content for Ideal Body Condition. Do not overfeed.
  • Choose a Diet that Contains Fish Oils rather than FlaxSeed Oil as a source of Omega 3s.
  • Feed as many times a day as your dog needs, don’t rush to transition if your dog’s not ready.
  • Be careful to not accidentally unbalance your pup’s balanced diet by over-treating or over-supplementing.
  • Contact your pet food manufacturer for more information about their product manufacturing, formulation and quality control.

I hope you all found this breakdown on puppy nutrition, and how to choose a puppy food useful! I remember when I was choosing a puppy food and how overwhelmed I was with options – so hopeful this information will help you feel a bit more confident as your go through the options for your puppy. And if you do need some further tips, or have other questions feel free to reach out! I do offer consultations if you need further assistance.

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9 thoughts on “Puppy Nutrition Basics

  1. Diet impacts the health of our pets so much! I think it is easy to overlook the role that all of these nutrients play in our pets’ health later on in life. Thank you for the great reminders and tips for helping make puppyhood successful.

  2. Wow! This is a great in depth source of information for puppy nutrition basics. I’m a cat lover and I don’t own a pup however this is great information for the future. Hubby is thinking about adopting a puppy, so I’ll have to pin this post and save to refer back to later.

  3. Wow, terrific detailed information on how to properly feed a puppy. It certainly is important to feed a growing puppy according to it’s needs and you have provided the information to do that perfectly. Thanks!

  4. I don’t have a puppy BUT I tell you, if I did your post would be the only thing I would ever need to make sure my puppy was healthy and happy. I did not know that you had to watch how much fat a puppy consumes. I guess it’s obvious when you think about it but stating the obvious matters!

    There is so much information here that I would LOVE to see this as an ebook for puppy owners!

  5. Excellent post! It’s been a long time since I’ve had a puppy,. but I know food has changed. What many people don’t realize is that the nutritional needs for a kitten/cat are totally different than that of dogs.

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