Puppyhood is a critical time for growth and development — your puppy’s nutrition in those first weeks and months can impact his health for the rest of his life.
And while those early days with a puppy can seem VERY long — house training, socializing, teething — the weeks and months of puppyhood and adolescence is a relatively small window. Puppies change so much in that first year, and their nutritional needs do too.
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The Importance of Puppy Nutrition
Puppy nutrition starts with their mother. For the first weeks of life, pups rely entirely on their mother’s milk for their nutritional needs, until they’re fully weaned by around 6 to 8 weeks.
Puppies get essential antibodies from their mother’s milk, important for fighting off infections and developing a strong immune system. Most experts recommend feeding pregnant and nursing dogs puppy food in order to provide the extra nutrients and energy the mother and her pups need.
Once they’re fully weaned (after around 6-8 weeks), they can make the switch to puppy food.
A high-quality puppy food will provide the precise amounts of key nutrients to support healthy growth and development and avoid problems later in life. So it’s very important to choose a high-quality food made specifically for this lifestage, and establish healthy eating habits early on.
Essential Nutrients for Puppies
Puppies and adult dogs have very different nutrient requirements. And even between puppies of the same age, large and small breeds can have entirely different needs.
This is why it’s crucial to choose a food formulated specifically for puppies — and if your pup is a large or giant breed — to choose a food appropriate for their growth. More on large breeds below — for now let’s look at some of the key ways puppy and adult food differ.
Calcium and phosphorus most be fed in precisely the right amounts and proportions to support healthy bones and teeth. Puppies need about twice the amount of calcium as adult dogs too. If they’re fed a diet too low in calcium they can develop soft, easily broken bones. However, calcium has to be carefully monitored in puppies, especially larger breeds. Too much or too little can cause abnormal bone growth and joint problems like hip dysplasia.
Protein and fat content tends to be higher in puppy food, in order to support adequate muscle growth. In addition to overall protein content, each amino acid (the building blocks of protein) must be present to promote healthy growth.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that plays an important role in brain and eye development. Fish oil is a good source of this ingredient and is often included in puppy food to support neurological development, memory and learning.
Sodium and chloride (salt) levels are usually higher in puppy food. These nutrients work together to support proper nerve and cell function.
Some puppies and certain dog breeds may need higher or lower levels of these or other nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Bear in mind though, healthy puppies and dogs generally do not need supplements, especially if they’re provided a complete and balanced, lifestage appropriate commercial diet. When given in excessive amounts, certain nutrients can cause toxicity, or even death.
How Much Should Puppies Eat?
The correct amount to feed your puppy will depend on their current weight, age, and breed.
Overfeeding can cause serious long-term consequences, including obesity and bone and joint problems. On the other hand, underfeeding can result in nutritional deficiencies, so it’s important to be precise.
Be sure to read the labels on your puppy’s food, especially if you’re switching formulas. Remember that the calories in one cup of food can vary widely depending on the brand, formula, and whether it’s dry or canned.
Finally, don’t forget to factor in treats as well — these can quickly add up. If you’re feeding many treats during training, you may want to choose lower calorie options, or reserve a portion of your pup’s food to use during training sessions.
Puppy Feeding Chart
At Puppo, we do all the calculations for you, and print the precise amount of food for your pup right on your bag, so there’s never any guesswork. You tell us about your pup — we do the rest.
You can also use the chart below as a general rule of thumb for your puppy’s caloric needs.
How Often Do Puppies Need to Eat?
Puppies have small stomachs, but high calorie needs, so they need to eat frequent small meals often throughout the day. These smaller meals are easier to digest and help keep their energy levels more stable.
By around three or four weeks, puppies will start to become interested in solid food, and they should be given access to puppy food in addition to nursing at will.
After weaning, or around eight weeks of age, your pup should be fed three or four meals per day, about every four hours. By around four to six months, this can be reduced to two meals per day.
Once your puppy reaches adulthood, some owners switch to one meal a day. However, dogs who eat one meal a day have a more inconsistent metabolism which can lead to weight issues and abnormal begging behaviors.
Free-feeding (making food available at all times) is also generally not recommended by experts.
Instead, establish good eating habits early in your puppy’s life by sticking to a consistent meal schedule. This will make it easier to housetrain your pup, teach good meal manners, avoid resource guarding, and make it easier to monitor their appetite for changes (often an early indicator of illness).
Large vs. Small Breed Puppies
Large and giant breed dogs have specific needs when it comes to food, especially during the crucial growth window. Small and toy breed puppies reach their adult size much faster, and have their own set of unique needs.
Large Breed Puppy Nutrition
While there isn’t a universal classification, a large breed is generally defined as a dog weighing 50-60 pounds at adulthood. Giant breed dogs are usually classified as those heavier than 100 pounds.
Large breed pups grow very quickly, but they take longer to reach their full adult size and maturity than smaller breeds. Bigger breeds tend to reach their adult height and weight between 10 and 18 months of age, though some may not reach full size and maturity until 24 months.
They also tend to have shorter lifespans, and are prone to certain health problems due to their size. However, controlling the rate of growth through proper nutrition can help to mitigate problems down the line.
Diets designed for large breed puppies often have lower fat and calories to promote slower, steady growth. They may also have lower calcium and phosphorus levels. Adult foods and all-lifestage foods tend to have higher levels of calcium, which can cause abnormal skeletal development in large breeds.
If your puppy is a large or giant breed, check with your vet to determine if a food designed specifically for large-breed puppies is appropriate.
Small Breed Puppy Nutrition
Small and toy breeds typically weigh less than 20 pounds as adults. These tiny pups have smaller stomachs, smaller mouths, and need smaller amounts of food.
But, they also have very high metabolic rates and have higher caloric requirements per pound than their large breed cousins. In order to meet their nutritional needs and promote healthy growth, diets formulated for small breed puppies and dogs are more calorically-dense.
The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University describes it as “like feeding a mouse versus feeding an elephant.” By unit of bodyweight, the number of calories a mouse needs to eat is proportionally much greater than a larger animal. So foods for small breed dogs and puppies tend to be more energy and nutrient-dense.
Because small breed pups have lower fat stores, they’re susceptible to hypoglycemia when their energy needs aren’t met through their diet. This can cause weakness, lethargy, muscle tremors, seizures, and even death.
Likewise, if a diet fills up your pup’s tiny stomach too quickly, but isn’t nutrient-dense enough to meet their needs, it can cause abnormal skeletal and muscle development and impaired growth.
Tiny pups may also need smaller kibble sizes and may need to be fed three or four small meals for longer than large breed puppies to prevent hypoglycemia. But, they’ll also reach their full adult size faster, around 8 to 12 months of age. At that point, it’s best to switch to a food appropriate for small breed adults, to prevent obesity.
When Should You Switch to Adult Dog Food?
When puppies reach around 80% of their expected adult size, their rate of growth slows down. This is usually around 12 months, though it may be sooner for small breeds. Most veterinarians recommend feeding puppy food until puppies reach age 12 months, but you’ll want to check with your vet to determine what’s right for your pup. Some vets recommend keeping giant breeds like Great Danes on puppy food until they’re finished growing — as old as 24 months.
Because puppy food is higher in calories and fat, it’s important to monitor portions and avoid overfeeding. Older pups can easily gain weight if they continue to eat puppy food when they’re no longer growing at the same rate.
While that chubby puppy belly may look cute, being overweight can cause a host of long-term problems — bone and joint problems in particular. Monitor your puppy’s weight and check with your vet if you think he may be overweight. The best thing you can do for your puppy’s lifelong health is to keep him lean.
Puppy Food Transition Guide
When you’re ready to switch to adult food, use the food transition guide to make the switch gradually and avoid stomach upset. Keep a close eye on your pup’s poop, and slow down the transition if needed.
Choosing the Right Food for Your Puppy
Walking through the pet store aisles can be overwhelming — there are so many options available!
To ensure your puppy’s unique needs are met, it’s best to choose a complete and balanced commercial food, formulated specifically for puppies. If you have a small or large breed dog, choose a food designed for their growth.
The right choice for your puppy will come down to their expected size and breed, as well as their tastes. Make sure your pup likes the food you choose — finicky pups who refuse to eat can end up with impaired growth and other problems.
Likewise, monitor your pup’s food intake, and make sure to adjust the portions you feed as your puppy grows in order to avoid overfeeding.
If you suspect your puppy has a food allergy or sensitivity, work with your vet to identify it and choose an appropriate food — but stick to a complete and balanced diet that meets all your puppy’s nutritional needs during this crucial growth period.
Puppo makes it easy to find a breed and lifestage-appropriate food your pup will love! We have smaller kibble sizes for tiny teacups, and bigger ones for your gentle giant. We factor in your pup’s favorite flavors (and any sensitivities) to create a formula he’ll happily eat. Plus, your smart feeding schedule learns your pup’s eating habits and adjusts as needed, so you always have food on hand.
Give Puppo a try by taking our fun quiz and discover your puppy’s secret formula for healthy growth!