What's a healthy diet for your puppy?

November 11, 2021 - 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 and healthyadult dog.

Dog food bowl

The Importance of Proper Puppy Nutrition

Puppies aren’t simply smaller versions of their adult selves. Their bodies function differently and eating an adult dog food simply won’t meet their unique nutritional needs. This is most obvious when pups are very young. Up until two weeks of age or so, a new puppy should only be drinking their mother’s milk or a milk replacer designed specifically for dogs. At three to four weeks of age, they can start the process of gradually transitioning to solid puppy food.

When puppies are around six to seven weeks old, they’re ready to drink only water and eat only puppy food (and the occasional treat, of course!). While they’ve come a long way from their newborn days, their rapidly growing and maturing bodies still have different nutritional requirements than adult dogs.

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Puppies need:

  • More protein to support muscle growth and maintenance. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) minimum protein level for puppy food is 22.5% on a dry matter basis in comparison to 18% for adult dog foods. Some puppy foods provide significantly higher levels of protein than this AAFCO minimum.

  • Higher levels of certain amino acids—the building blocks of protein

  • More calories to fuel growth and activity

  • More fat to supply energy

  • Essential fatty acids like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to promote optimal brain and eye development

  • More calcium and phosphorus to build bone

The take-home message here is simple. Puppies should eat foods formulated specifically for puppies. And don’t add extra vitamins, minerals, or other supplements to your pup’s diet unless your veterinarian has made a specific recommendation to do so. Vitamins and minerals added to an already balanced diet can, at best, waste a lot of money and, at worst, result in potentially dangerous nutrient excesses and imbalances.

Dog with carrot in its mouth

The Best Puppy Food

But all puppy foods are not the same. Which is best for your pup?

First, make sure your puppy’s food has a statement of nutritional adequacy printed somewhere on the label. It will read something like one of these two sentences:

Puppy Food A is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth and reproduction/all life stages.

Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Puppy Food B provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth and reproduction/all life stages.

Foods with an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy for growth and reproduction or all life stages on the label will, at the very least, meet a puppy’s basic nutritional needs. This is crucial to avoiding nutrient deficiencies.

Higher quality puppy foods go further by striving for ideal rather than minimal nutrient levels. For example, a puppy who eats a food that contains the AAFCO minimum of 22.5% protein will not be deficient in protein but still may not be getting enough to truly flourish. Many quality puppy foods contain 25% to 32% protein on a dry matter basis and have increased levels of DHA to optimize brain and eye development.

There is an element of “you get what you pay for” when it comes to puppy foods. High-quality ingredients simply cost more. 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.

Man holding a dog

The Special Nutritional Needs of Big Pups

Pet parents of large and giant breeds puppies—those who are expected to be over 50 pounds 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 orthopedic diseases like hip dysplasia and osteochondrosis.

To maintain a healthy rate of growth and minimize the risk of developmental orthopedic diseases, large breed puppy foods have a lower fat content and carefully balanced amounts of calcium and phosphorus. Look for foods that are specifically labeled 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 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.

Man and dog with leash

What About Home Cooking for Puppies?

Home cooking for puppies is extremely difficult. Most dog food recipes that you can find online or in books do not 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 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 able to maintain 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.

Corgi Puppy Sitting at a Dog-Friendly Restaurant

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!

Next, use your puppy’s body condition score to fine-tune the amount you offer each day. After all, no feeding guidelines will perfectly fit every dog; your pup's body condition will help you determine what kinds of portions to put in their food bowl. Puppies should remain slim, so if you see that they’re getting a bit chunky, cut back. Too skinny? Slightly increase the amount you offer at each meal or add an extra meal each day. Remember that treats have calories too. Treats, including those used for training, shouldn’t provide more than 10% of your pup’s calories, so cut back if you’re overdoing it.

Most puppies do well eating three meals a day until they are 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.

Talk to your veterinarian if you have any questions about how much or how frequently you should be feeding your dog.

Dog begging with big eyes

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 have 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 is 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.

Dog chasing her tail

Foods Never to Feed Your Dog (Regardless of Age)

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, diarrhea, 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, especially 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.