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A canine nutritionist's perspective on optimal feeding for puppies - and finding the right puppy foods and proper nutrition for your puppy.
Often when someone gets a new puppy, the pup is around the eight-week mark in terms of the puppy's age. It's typical for a puppy to come from a rescue or breeder, or sometimes other less than perfect situations. Taking into consideration the whole viewpoint of the puppy, it’s important to consider where this puppy came from.
Being in rescue, I’ve seen young puppies in a malnourished state because they were strays or their mother was also malnourished and therefore unable to provide for her puppies. Or if a puppy comes from a puppy mill via a puppy store or similar situation, the mothers are often not well nourished. At the same time, most rescues do a great job with pregnant moms and giving their puppies a strong launch nutritionally.
As puppy owners, the key is to know as much as possible about your pup so you can adjust for what's needed. For the first 2-4 weeks of the puppy's life, the pup can get everything needed from his/her mother as long as the mother is in good health.
Why it matters
If the puppy was found as a stray or is from an ill mother, then the puppy could have immune system and overall health complications moving forward. The first two weeks of life with the mom are critical in terms of immune system development as a foundation through puppyhood.
If you know or can learn about your puppy's earliest weeks of life nutritionally, that is useful in planning the additional nutrients you give your puppy from the start with you.
Setting up your puppy for health in puppyhood - and beyond
Puppyhood is critical in setting up dogs for an overall healthy life as they age and become adult dogs. If your puppy's nutritional background is unknown, then it might be a good idea to feed your puppy nutritional products such as Puppy Gold, a formula that provides essential nutrients similar to a mother’s milk and aids in development as your puppy grows.
I fed this to our dog Jayne when we first started fostering her since I didn’t know her history. (Breeders also sometimes recommend this during the transition from them to the new home.)
Puppies affected by stress?
It might be hard to imagine these cuddly little guys having a care in the world, but when you think about it, once they get to you, absolutely everything is new and unfamiliar. A puppy's entire world has been turned upside down. They were taken from their mother (and sometimes siblings, too), and all they’ve ever known is now no more.
My earlier Dogly guide on "oxidative stress" in adult dogs applies to these little pups too. This kind of stress can cause gut issues, so it’s important to remedy that as well with the help of a light probiotic or canned pumpkin. Gut health is critical at all stages of life for dogs and humans but especially as a dog’s GI system and immune system are still developing.
As you might already know, more than 80% of a dog’s immune system is located in the gut. That's why providing a puppy with the foods and supplements to create a strong immune system can have a lasting positive effect.
Thinking holistically - especially for puppies
Many many years ago, before I began to think holistically with my dogs, I didn’t take into consideration where or who they had come from. This thinking might have changed their overall growth into healthy adult dogs for the better. I’ll never know, but I take a proactive approach to my dogs' health now.
When we recently adopted Jayne about a year ago, I took these holistic aspects into consideration and immediately got her on the Puppy Gold product, a raw diet, and probiotics. Since she was a stray and only around 4 months old, getting her on a product that mimicked what she would’ve gotten from her mother was critical in my eyes.
She stayed on it until she was about 10-11 months old. I also utilized what I will be teaching you below about a puppy's essential needs in terms of energy and calories for growth, body condition score, and nutrient requirements.
Feeding puppies for growth
What makes puppies and their nutrition so different from adult dogs and adult food is they are in high growth mode and need the fuel to support that growth.
Puppies grow at a rapid rate from birth to about five months old, then they start to lose momentum in their growth at around six months old. They will continue to develop anywhere from 12-24 months of age. Larger and giant breed dogs usually are the ones who continue developing well after 12 months of age.
A growing puppy has major needs in terms of calories, usually twice as much is necessary and oftentimes it can be difficult for puppies to even take in enough calories, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals in order to meet their needs. That’s why how much food, the nutrients in puppy food, and a puppy feeding schedule of frequent meals multiple times a day is so important.
How often should you feed your puppy?
Here’s a general guide for a puppy-feeding schedule, showing how many meals to feed your puppy throughout the day. We'll get into calories and nutrients shortly so you can see how it all relates.
Puppy feeding chart by age/frequency
- 6-12 weeks: 4x a day
- 3-6 months: 3x a day
- 6-12 months: 2x a day (adolescence stage)
- Giant breeds up to 24 months: 2-3x a day depending on body score
What's your pup's body shape?
Body condition score (BCS) is a term used by vets and nutritionists to keep an eye on healthy body weight and fitness for dogs, and it's something you'll want to keep track of as you’re raising a puppy too.
Become familiar with your pup's body shape, check to know if your puppy has pudgy rolls and skin, or if there's thinning out and you can start to feel his/her ribs. Give your pup a once-over frequently, so you know your dog's body and can be alert to changes as your puppy grows.
Why it matters
You want to be aware of changes to your puppy's body so you can adjust your puppy's food to stay in tune with development nutritionally.
Give me an example
The American Kennel Club notes that during the 3-6 month stage you could decrease feeding your puppy to three times a day unless your pup is still "roly-poly" or pudgy, and if so, you’d continue feeding your puppy four times a day as your puppy’s body has not matured into the next stage.
This BCS chart from the Global Veterinary Nutrition Committee shows ideal body condition from different angles and what you’re looking for your puppy to ideally look like at a healthy weight as he/she grows. At the ideal BCS, you want to be able to easily feel your dog's last few ribs with your hand.
Puppy feeding that meets your pup's calorie & nutritional requirements
I’m assuming that feeding a general puppy chow is not going to be your go-to puppy food, since you're here to find the best options for your puppy's nutrition and overall health needs.
Let's start with what matters most in how you feed your puppy... Whether it’s a commercial or formulated raw or homemade diet, dehydrated, freeze-dried or dry kibble, we have to think about puppy feeding in terms of energy output, calorie needs, and nutrient requirements.
Analyzing puppy food
If you’re feeding a commercial balanced puppy food diet, then your puppy's minimum nutritional requirements will be met if the puppy food has AAFCO approval as complete and balanced for a puppy. A general adult dog food diet or some commercial raw diets that contain minimal ingredients will not meet the requirements of a growing puppy.
For healthy development, puppies should be eating only puppy food formulated specifically for puppies or an all-life stages diet approved by AAFCO. This is key - without the nutrient requirements for a puppy being met in a balanced diet some serious damage can be done as the puppy tries to grow and develop.
AAFCO, The NRC, and FEDIAF all have nutrient requirements for puppy food that are relatively similar in terms of what puppies need at a minimum. Another thing to note when it comes to nutrients is not overdoing how much food you feed as that can cause issues if you’re overfeeding a puppy. (Here are the AAFCO requirements.)
How to figure out the calories your puppy needs
Calories and nutrients together really matter in a puppy's diet. Puppies are constantly in a state of growing and developing, so their energy output is significantly more than that of an adult dog.
That’s why most people who formulate individual diets for adult dogs or puppies use the MER (Maintenance Energy Requirement) method to figure out the amount of kcals (calories) a puppy needs. Even if you aren’t doing a homemade diet for your puppy, this is still great information to have so you can really nail down how many calories your puppy consumes and needs to consume in a day.
What is your dog's Daily Energy Requirement (DER)?
To calculate your puppy's DER, we first figure out your pup's Resting Energy Requirement (RER), the minimum amount of energy in kcals or calories, a dog requires to live in a resting state. This is the minimum amount of kcals your dog would need if he or she were not doing any activity. Additional activity and, in this case, growth for puppies means you’d refer to the DER (Daily Energy Requirement).
How do you calculate RER?
You can use this simple formula to calculate your puppy's RER.
- Weigh your puppy at home or at the vet
- If in lbs, convert to kilograms (kg) by dividing by 2.2
- Multiply the weight in kg by 30, then add 70
Now that you have your puppy's RER, you can calculate your DER - the Daily Energy Requirement of kcals necessary for your puppy to grow to optimal weight. DER is a great way to know what your puppy needs to thrive in this growth phase.
So, how do you figure out your puppy’s DER?
The simple equation combines age + RER.
- Under 4 months of age you feed 3 x RER
- Over 4 months of age you feed 2 x RER until your puppy maintains his/her ideal weight
I also really like this calculator that gives you another way to get a good look at comparing life stages and the DER for each. You enter the weight of your puppy in lbs or kg and get great information on what the DER is.
These calculations are a starting point and you always need to take into consideration the age of your puppy (is the pup 8 weeks vs. 8 months), BCS, neuter/spay status, does your pup need to gain weight, or do you have a giant or large breed puppy?
Also to note in this calculator in parentheses for puppy MER there is a % of adult body weight. This is because it is recommended to feed a puppy based on what their adult body weight is predicted to be - if you have history on your puppy that gives you that breed/type information.
If you'd like an additional reference point, here is the Merck Veterinary Manual’s chart on DER.
What about puppies who are large breed dogs vs small breed dogs?
A note on puppies who are larger/giant breed dogs - if a puppy is a breed like a Great Dane or Mastiff then you do need to approach feeding a bit differently as feeding too much energy can accelerate a dog's growth too quickly which is not ideal especially for large/giant breeds who take longer to reach their complete growth.
For these types of pups it is super important to check weight regularly, refer to the BCS, and keep their diet at a moderate growth rate.
Good options to start feeding your puppy:
- Formulated growth diet done by a certified canine nutritionist (this will likely be be multiple diets as the pup grows over time)
- A commercially made puppy food formula that has been AAFCO (or FEDIAF for UK) approved where all the nutrient requirements have been met for growth
- A commercially made all-life stages diet that has been AAFCO (or FEDIAF for UK) approved where all the nutrient requirements can be met for growth at the recommended feeding amount
- The commercially made diets can be fresh food, raw, dehydrated, freeze-dried or kibble as long as they’re meeting your puppy's requirements
My recommendation for the strongest puppy food options for most puppies
I might be biased in my recommendations on the superior type of diet for puppy feeding but I've ranked my recommendations below. Keep in mind that I do understand not all puppies, let alone all dogs, can handle a raw diet and that is totally ok if they can’t. You do what is best for your pup then.
- Raw or fresh food (lightly cooked)
Keep in mind that a balanced diet meeting nutrient requirements is superior to a diet that does not, especially when it comes to growth diets. You’re better off feeding a puppy-formulated commercial kibble dry food than an unbalanced raw diet.
We’ve covered a lot in this guide for this very important life stage, so if you have any questions on any aspect of nutrition for your pup, just ask in the Community discussion in the Basic Nutrition Channel here on Dogly. Enjoy your puppy!
Next up in the Life Stage Feeding Channel on Dogly
Now that you know how best to feed your puppy, you're ready for the adult dog and senior dog feeding guides. Or you can always continue expanding your nutritional knowledge for your dog in learning which nutrients your dog could be missing in his/her diet or why feeding your dog for life stage matters.
Hop over to the Life Stage Feeding Channel if you'd like to ask a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Puppy Feeding, Adult Feeding, or Senior Feeding. And if you ever need more personalized nutrition guidance, please reach out!