How to feed your puppy a healthy diet

21 August 2023 - 6 min read

Being a puppy is hard work! There’s an awful lot of learning and growing that needs to get done in just a few short months. Good nutrition is essential if a puppy is going to grow into a happy, healthy adult dog.

The Importance of Proper Puppy Nutrition

Puppies aren’t simply smaller versions of their adult selves. Their rapidly growing bodies require a different balance of nutrients than what a fully grown dog would need, so vets recommend keeping them on a specific puppy food from around three to four weeks of age.

Before this, they should be drinking only their mother’s milk, or a milk replacer designed specifically for dogs. A reputable breeder should wean them slowly onto a solid food and then let you know what they’ve been feeding them when you take them home at eight weeks.

If you want to change the food, this should be done gradually over a minimum of 7-10 days, under the advice of your veterinarian.

Puppy nutrients

There are many great commercial brands to choose from when picking out the best puppy food for your furry friend. They’ll usually include:

  • Higher calories to meet their energy needs

  • Higher levels of protein to support muscle growth and maintenance

  • Antioxidants to support a developing immune system

  • Nutrients to support brain development, healthy bones and joints

Puppies are notorious for bolting their food, so their meals should be easy to chew and swallow. In some cases, considering adding a puppy safe ball or another small bowl turned upside down in their regular bowl can help slow the speed at which they eat, without being a hazard to their baby teeth.

Treats should only ever make up 10% of what you feed your dog, so while these are absolutely allowed (and are great for training) you should be mindful of the amount you reward them with. You can also use a portion of their regular dry food total for the day, and pull that out to use as rewards for training.

Commercial puppy foods are designed to take all your pup’s nutrient needs into account, so you shouldn’t need to add anything extra. Only add vitamins, minerals or supplements to your puppy’s diet if it’s been recommended or prescribed by your veterinarian.

Dog with carrot in its mouthThe Best Puppy Food

What should you look out for when picking a puppy food?

In the UK, good pet foods follow the guidance of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) and the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF).

The WSAVA recommends checking for the following things when it comes toa high-quality puppy food:

  • Does the brand employ a nutritionist? If so, they should be a PhD in animal nutrition or a board-certified animal nutritionist.

  • Who formulates the diet? They should be experienced and appropriately qualified - ideally a PhD in animal nutrition or a board-certified animal nutritionist.

  • What’s the quality control process? This should include ingredient (food and supplement) validation, final diet nutrient analysis, toxicology, bacteriology, and packaging/shelf-life screenings.

  • What kind of research and studies have been conducted? While this isn’t a requirement, it shows a food company is willing to go the extra mile to care for your pet’s wellbeing.

While these are excellent recommendations, this research can feel a bit daunting for pet owners. If you aren’t sure about a brand of food, you can and should ask your veterinarian or a certified pet nutritionist to help you evaluate a diet for completeness and safety.

There’s also an element of “you get what you pay for'' when it comes to puppy foods. High-quality ingredients often cost more. However, the most expensive puppy foods aren’t necessarily significantly better than more moderately priced options, but the cheapest foods often don’t provide optimal nutrition.

Large breed puppy nutrition

Pet parents of large and giant breeds puppies—those who are expected to be over 20kg or so when fully grown—need to pay extra attention to their dog’s diets. When big puppies grow too quickly, they are at increased risk for developmental orthopaedic diseases like hip dysplasia and osteochondrosis.

To maintain a healthy rate of growth and minimise the risk of developmental orthopaedic diseases, large breed puppy foods typically have a lower fat content and carefully balanced amounts of calcium and phosphorus. Look for foods that are specifically labelled as being for large breed puppies.

Different types of puppy food

Puppy food comes in many different forms — kibble, canned, semi-moist, frozen, refrigerated, dehydrated—new options seem to pop up every month! All these formulations can provide good nutrition for puppies. There are certain situations when one might be better than another, but for healthy puppies, pet parents can really pick the option that appeals most to them. Get nutritional guidance from your veterinarian, especially if your puppy is struggling with an illness or injury.

However, raw and freeze-dried puppy foods do pose a higher than average risk of food-borne illness in comparison to foods that have been cooked or processed in other ways to eliminate disease-causing pathogens. A puppy’s immature immune system makes them more susceptible than adult dogs to food-borne illnesses. People who handle contaminated foods can become sick too, so it’s important to consider these risks if you have very young, very old, or immunocompromised individuals in your home.

What about home cooking for puppies?

Home cooking for adult dogs can be tricky, let alone for puppies and their extremely specific dietary needs. Most dog food recipes that you can find online or in books don’t provide complete and balanced nutrition. While poor nutrition is dangerous for adult dogs, it can be downright catastrophic for puppies. Pet parents who want to prepare their puppy’s food at home should only do so under the guidance of a board certified veterinary nutritionist.

Dog with carrot in mouth

Watch how your pup responds to their diet

Once you find a food that appears to be a good choice for you and your pup, feed it for a month or so and watch how your dog responds to it:

  • Are their poops firm and relatively small? This usually indicates that a dog is tolerating the diet well and that the food’s proteins and carbohydrates are highly digestible.

  • Does your puppy look forward to meals and is maintaining a healthy weight? Higher quality foods tend to taste better and have nutrients that are more easily absorbed than those made with lower quality ingredients.

  • Is your puppy’s energy level high? When puppies aren’t napping (recharging for another round!), they’re full of energy. A puppy who seems lethargic may be sick or not getting the nutrition they need.

  • Is their coat glossy and not shedding more than normal? Coat and skin problems are some of the first signs of poor nutrition.

If your pup looks and feels great after eating a new food for about a month, you’ve found a diet that works well for them.

How much should I feed my puppy?

Overfeeding or underfeeding the healthiest of foods can still lead to serious health problems. Determining how much to feed a puppy is just as important as determining what to feed a puppy.

Start by taking a look at the feeding guide on the label of your puppy’s food. You should find feeding instructions based on a puppy’s weight and age. This will give you a good starting point but remember the amount you feed will change as your pup grows so keep checking that chart! It’s also a good idea to weigh the portions for complete accuracy.

If in doubt, ask your vet for a recommendation. They will be able to assess your pup’s current weight, their body condition score and take any health conditions into account to help you fine-tune the amount you offer every day. After all, no feeding guidelines will ever be completely right for any individual dog.

Remember, because getting the nutritional balance right is very important, you shouldn’t adjust the amount you’re feeding your puppy without professional support. If you think they’re becoming overweight, or underweight, check in with – you guessed it – your veterinarian before making any changes.

Most puppies do well eating three meals a day until they’re around six months of age, with the exception of toy breeds. Tiny dogs are at risk for developing dangerously low blood sugar levels if they don’t eat frequently.

Feed toy breed puppies (Chihuahuas and Maltese, for example) at least four meals a day until they are at least four months old. By six months of age, most puppies can be switched to two meals a day—three for the toy breeds.

When can a dog eat adult food?

Puppies grow up so quickly! Before you know it, you’ll be thinking about when to make the switch from puppy food to adult dog food. Most dogs should start eating adult food when they’ve reached their full adult height. They still have some filling out to do, but their bones are done growing. This happens at different ages based on a dog’s size:

  • Toy Breeds: Around 10 months

  • Small Breeds: 10 to 12 months

  • Medium Breeds: Around 12 months

  • Large Breeds: Around 18 months

  • Giant Breeds: 18 to 24 months

Factors other than size will sometimes come into play as well. For example, a puppy who is becoming a little overweight may benefit from making the switch to adult dog food a little earlier than one who is struggling to keep weight on. As always, your veterinarian can provide you with advice tailored to your pup’s particular needs.

Any time you make a change to your dog’s diet, do it slowly. Rapid changes can lead to gastrointestinal upset and food refusal. Take a week or so to gradually mix increasing amounts of the new food in with decreasing amounts of the old. If at any point your puppy’s poop becomes too loose or they lose interest in eating, go back to their original diet for a few days and then restart the process more slowly.

Never to feed your dog these foods

After spending so much time figuring out what and how to feed puppies, let’s end with a reminder of the foods that dogs should never eat because they can cause serious health problems:

  • High-fat foods can lead to pancreatitis

  • Chocolate can cause vomiting, diarrhoea , restlessness, increased urination, a high heart rate, seizures, and heart failure

  • Grapes and raisins are linked to kidney failure in dogs

  • Onions, garlic, and leeks can damage red blood cells

  • Wild mushrooms may be toxic

  • Xylitol (a sugar substitute) can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels and liver damage

  • Caffeine and alcohol have no place in a dog’s diet

  • Raw bread dough may expand in and damage a dog’s stomach

  • Bones, even those that have been cooked, can break teeth and injure the gastrointestinal tract

While determining what and how to feed a puppy is no easy task, providing your pup with good nutrition is certainly worth the work. A good diet is essential to a healthy life! Talk to your veterinarian if you have any questions about your puppy’s food or wellbeing.

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer, Editor, and Consultant

Dr. Jennifer Coates is a writer, editor, and consultant with experience in veterinary medicine, science, animal welfare, conservation, and communications. She has written for outlets including petMD, Chewy, and ManyPets.