What Should I Feed My Puppy? A Puppy Food Breakdown

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13 Minute Read
Updated April 3, 2021

As pet parents, we do our best to provide for our precious puppies. When it comes to their food, we often rely on brands to tell us what products are best for them. When you see a pet food labelled ‘Puppy Food’, it’s easy to assume that this diet offers everything your puppy needs, but is that really the case?

What Should I Feed My Puppy?

Is all puppy food the same? How do you know if your puppy is thriving? What about foods labelled all life stages?

In this article, we are going to break down the nutritional requirements of your puppy and help you determine how to best supply them with all the nutrients that they need to grow strong and healthy on a proper feeding schedule.

What Does My Puppy Need?

What Does My Puppy Need

In nature, puppies eat what their mom eats, so why do we need separate formulas for adults and puppies when it comes to domesticated pets? And exactly what should I feed my puppy?

While an average adult dog food will supply sufficient amounts of nutrients for most dogs, puppies have higher requirements of many nutrients during their growth and development stages. Just like human babies, puppies have higher requirements for certain nutrients compared to adults and require a complete and balanced diet.

While many of their nutritional needs can be met with adult, or maintenance, foods, there are a few key nutrients that may be lacking.

Omega 3’s

Omega 3’s

The first nutrient that must be considered when feeding your puppy is omega 3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA. EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA, docosahexaenoic acid, are both types of omega 3 fatty acids that are vital to ensure proper cognitive development and health.

This means that they are necessary for brain development during the time in the puppy’s life that their brain is developing the most. While EPA and DHA are typically present in many dog foods, those levels are added to support the needs of adult dogs, not puppies.

EPA and DHA can only be sourced from animal-based omega 3 sources, like fish oil.

Dogs are capable of synthesizing these two essential fatty acids from another omega 3 called ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid, but not very efficiently. In fact, approximately 5% of dietary ALA is able to be synthesized into EPA and DHA by your dog’s body. That's not nearly enough for a puppy.

To learn more about the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids check out this blog.

Skeletal Support

Skeletal Support

The next nutrients that are required by your puppy for growth and development are Calcium and Phosphorus. Both of these minerals are the foundation of their skeletal system.

During the puppy stage, bones grow very quickly. Excesses and deficiencies can both lead to future skeletal problems and conditions, so having the right quantity of both is very important for puppies.

While it may seem appropriate to supply more calcium for puppies in growth stages, this needs to be done in moderation and must remain properly balanced with your puppy's phosphorus intake. 

For most adult dogs, the ratio of calcium to phosphorus, according to AAFCO standards, is 1:1, but in puppies, that balance should be slightly altered to ~1.2-1.4:1. Phosphorus is abundantly sourced in meat, so meat-rich or high protein diets often require a higher calcium content to maintain an appropriate ratio. 

Increased Calories

Increased Calories

While they are rapidly growing, puppies will require a higher than average caloric intake. It’s common for puppy formulas to be more calorie-dense, but where those calories are coming from is important. Once you are able to say I know how much to feed my dog, you can feel confident they are getting the nutrients they need.

Calories should be sourced from meats and fats to help build muscle mass and to provide energy for the brain. Carbohydrates provide energy to the body for activity, but should not be a significant source of the diet.

Foods with a moderate level of whole grains or low glycemic legumes will provide better energy than quick sugary ingredients like corn or rice,

For many puppies, larger or more frequent feedings may be required to meet their caloric requirements. Feeding guidelines will constantly change throughout their first year, or until they have reached at least 80% of their full size and weight. It is fair to say, however, that puppies require at least three meals a day starting out. As they progress to three and six months of age keeping your dog healthy requires changes in diet.

Try our calorie calculator for dogs to find out how much you should be feeding your pup.

Dog Food Calorie Calculator 

Do I Have to Feed Puppy Food?

Do I Have to Feed Puppy Food

Technically no, you do not need to feed a food specifically marketed towards puppies. There are many types of diets that are suitable for any age of dog, you just need to know what you are looking for.

Raw diets are often designed to meet the needs of all life stages. They mimic the natural diet of wolves and are highly digestible, offering a greater variety and quantity of nutrients than cooked commercial diets.

Cooked diets, like kibble, are formulated based on AFFCO nutrient profiles to meet the needs of individual life stages, so a food designed for an adult dog may be lacking in the extra nutrients your puppy will need. 

For multi-pet households, it can get complicated to feed pets of different life stages separate foods. To help make mealtime easier, many kibble manufacturers have started to make all life stage diets. 

What is an all-life stage dog food?

In nature when an animal is weaned from their mother, they eat what she eats. They eat the same proteins, the same fats, and the same fruits and veggies. This leads us to the conclusion that an all-life stage food is appropriate for puppies, so long as that diet meets the nutritional requirements for omega 3’s, minerals, and calories.

All life-stage foods are intended to meet these requirements.

Although adult dogs do not require the same quantities of nutrients that puppies do, when fed in appropriate portions, all life stage foods are fine for dogs of any life stage in any body condition.

Portion control is the key to any all-life-stage formula. Feeding guidelines for puppies can be 2-3 times higher than the feeding guidelines for adult dogs.

Feeding Guidelines*

Puppies (1.5 - 6 months) Adult Dogs
Weight (lbs) Cups/day Weight (lbs) Cups/day
1 - 10 ½ - 2 1 - 5  ¼ - ½
10 - 20 2¼ - 3½ 5 - 10 ½ - 1
20 - 30 3½ - 4¾ 10 - 15 1 - 1¼
30 - 50 4¾ - 6 15 - 20 1¼ - 1½
50 - 100 6 - 7½ 20 - 30 1½ - 2

*sample taken from Open Farm Dry Dog Food

A caution in feeding all life stage foods is that it isn’t an exact science, so monitoring your puppy's weight gain is vital. You may need to add to or reduce feeding guidelines depending on their development. To learn more about how much to feed your puppy, check out our dog food calculator in How Much Should I Feed My Dog?

Check out Rawwble, Fromm, or Primal for some high-quality all-life stage options for your pet. 

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Although all life stage foods may seem perfectly ideal, for some dogs, a puppy-specific formula, or a more calorie-dense formula is preferred.

Large breeds and high-energy breeds may warrant a puppy food for at least the first six months, which is the most important part of their growth stage.

A formula specific to large breed puppies, like Acana Heritage, is a good option to try. 

What Happened to All the Puppy Food?

What Happened to All the Puppy Food

The last time you walked the aisles of your pet store, you may have noticed that many brands don’t even have puppy formulas. Lots of brands have adopted the all-life stage philosophy. Why is this?

Well, the first reason is for simplicity's sake, for both you, the consumer, and for the manufacturer. If they can make one food that serves the purpose of three, then why wouldn’t they? If you only need to buy one food for multiple dogs, then why not?

This strategy not only simplifies their products but also keeps costs down.

While this seems pretty straightforward, sadly, there are still many brands that are peddling sub-par foods, and with or without that ‘puppy’ tag, these foods are nutritionally weak.

Look at your ingredients, and where the nutrients are coming from.

All foods, regardless of age, should be meat-rich and low carb, with plenty of natural ingredients, like fruits and vegetables, in place of synthetic additives to meet minimum nutritional requirements. Check out Horizon Legacy's puppy formula. It's a great example of quality puppy food. 

To learn more, check out How to Read and Understand Pet Food Labels.

How do I know if my puppy is on the right food?

Check Their Food

Take a look at their current food. The ingredient list should show at least two named meat sources as the first ingredients, followed by low-glycemic grains, legumes, or fruits and veggies.

Check Their Food

Avoid refined or partial grains that offer fewer and less digestible nutrients, like white rice or oat hulls. An ingredient list that shows multiple parts of the same carb source is often a sign of ‘ingredient splitting’ to trick you into thinking there are fewer carbs in the food than it appears.

Foods that have very few real ingredients, and a long list of synthetic vitamin and mineral additives, are not going to provide enough usable nutrition for your puppy's growth stage.

Check Their Stool

What comes out of your puppy is a good indicator of what’s going on inside. Puppies often have sensitive stomachs as a result of their immature digestive systems. Bathroom habits can give the first warning sign that your puppy’s body is struggling and that you might need to make a change.

Keep a close watch on your puppy for signs of digestive distress. Take note of stool consistency to determine how well your dog is digesting their food. The stool should be firm and formed, but not too hard.

Check Their Stool

If your puppy is straining to ‘go’, then something is not right. It could indicate constipation, slow digestion, or an inappropriate balance of nutrients like fibre, protein, or carbohydrates. Soft stool indicates poor digestion, malabsorption, or poor gut health.

Check out Dog Food for Sensitive Stomachs for more tips on dealing with digestion issues.

The frequency and size of stool can also tell you if your puppy is eating the right food.

If Lil’ Fido is producing large steamers every couple of hours, that indicates that his diet is lacking highly digestible proteins and may instead be filled with poorly digested ingredients, such as plant fibres (cellulose), animal by-products, or corn.

Poorly digested ingredients pass quickly through the digestive system without being properly processed. Excessive waste means that many of the nutrients in their food are not being utilized.

Another possible reason is that they are simply being overfed. This is quite common, as the feeding guidelines on your pet's food are relatively vague and should be adjusted to suit your puppy's breed and activity level.

Pets fed an appropriate and nutritious diet should have regular, smaller stools that have a defined shape, and are not overly soft or hard.

Oral Health

Everyone has experienced ‘puppy breath’, but the wrong type of food can make those nasty odours worse. Sugar and carb-heavy foods can feed bad breath causing bacteria.

Oral Health

Kibble diets only provide minimal dental maintenance, so a dental health routine is recommended, even for puppies. Brushing your dog’s teeth regularly can reduce much of the harmful bacteria circulating your dog's mouth and prevent that bacteria from affecting the rest of the body.

Raw food diets are ideal for dental health. The enzymes in raw meat actually help to reduce oral bacteria, much better than the dental effects of kibble diets.

To learn more about caring for your puppy's dental health, check out our Complete Pet Dental Guide.

Muscle Development

Puppies have a lot of growing to do in their first year, and if they are not provided with enough calories or the right nutrients, your pup will struggle to build muscle mass to support their bones and joints.

Inappropriate diets that limit muscle development can affect energy levels, further decreasing your dog's ability to build new muscle.

If you are concerned that your pooch is not building enough muscle, consider a higher protein diet and increasing activity levels.

Removing excessive carbs can also help. Amino acids are required to build muscle and most plant proteins do not provide sufficient levels of essential amino acids. Meat-rich formulas will provide a fuller spectrum of amino acids and accommodate muscle development and growth.

Weight

Weight

Puppy bodies don’t always grow uniformly. Like babies, puppies can be a bit pudgy or even lanky and skinny at certain stages of their development. They may look a little funny, but it’s totally normal in most cases. Large dog breeds for example, often have exaggerated features like larger-than-life paws or ears down to the ground.

Many large breeds can get very tall and skinny in their first eight months and then build the bulk of their muscle mass in the last 4-8 months of their growth stages. We often see this in breeds like german shepherds and boxers, who can sometimes look underweight during growth stages.

On the other hand, some dogs are built to be stocky and muscular right from the start, like bulldogs and pugs.

A dog's weight can put a lot of strain on the skeletal system, and if they are consistently overfed during their important growth stages the extra weight can lead to skeletal issues like hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis, even in small breeds.

Monitoring your puppy's growth is important in preventing excessive weight gain.

Feel your dog for muscle development. Muscle is firmer than fat and should cover the skeletal system. Important areas include hind legs, shoulders, chest, neck, and flanks.

Weight gain without muscle development is a sign of excessive food intake, particularly quick-digesting carbohydrates, and low activity levels. For overweight puppies, high-protein, low-carb diets are recommended to boost metabolism and help reduce fatty deposits.

Ask yourself, Is My Dog Fat? If you are concerned, then you should adjust feeding guidelines and determine if the diet you are feeding is supplying the appropriate amount of protein, fat, and carbs.

Skin and Coat

Dull coats and flaky dry skin can be a sign that your pup is not getting enough fats, oils, and vitamins in its diet.

Fatty acids and antioxidants are used to help the body make new healthy tissue and heal damaged tissue. Diets lacking in these beneficial nutrients can leave the skin and coat looking dull, dry, and unhealthy.

Feeding a diet with natural sources of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, like salmon oil, flaxseed oil, and kelp, as well as other nourishing fats, such as coconut oil, will condition the skin and coat, leaving it shiny and healthy-looking.

coconut-oil-bowl

Antioxidants and vitamins from fresh fruits and vegetables provide protection and prevent or heal skin conditions by assisting in the production of healthy new cells.

These nutrient-dense ingredients will help rejuvenate your dog's skin and coat from the inside out.

Raw and fresh diets provide highly digestible nutrients to aid in skin and coat health. Try incorporating some raw or fresh ingredients into your puppy's existing diet. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

The Right Food For Your Puppy

The Right Food For Your Puppy

You may need to try a few different foods before you find the right fit, and rotating animal proteins is a good way to provide the most balanced nutrition. Every protein has a different nutrient profile, and regularly swapping between a few different foods will provide the benefits of all of them.

Always transition your puppy slowly, over the course of at least a week, to minimize digestive distress. Expect some changes to stool quality during any transition, and monitor and track your pet’s bowel movements during food changes.

As your puppy grows and develops, its weight, size, eating habits, bathroom habits, and energy levels are going to fluctuate. Don’t be alarmed if a dietary change sparks some of these age-related developments, as they will settle down once your puppy has been fully transitioned.  

Whether you are finding a solution to a problem or just looking to improve your puppy's quality of life, look to their diet for answers.

What diet does your puppy thrive on? Let us know in the comments below!

Written by

Krystn Janisse

Krystn is a passionate pet nutrition enthusiast. She has worked in the pet industry for over a decade and loves to share her passion for animal welfare with others. She loves all animals but is currently channeling some crazy cat lady vibes with her four lovable, but rebellious cats.

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