By Samantha Drake
From nutritional needs to training rewards, here’s how to keep your puppy happy and healthy.
Growing puppies love to eat. These little bundles of energy, with their big, soulful eyes and furiously wagging tails, could easily convince you to let them eat anything they can get their paws on, including whatever you’re eating.
But you must be strong. A puppy’s diet should be carefully monitored to make sure he or she is getting balanced nutrition and gaining weight at the proper rate. Among other things, that means no unhealthy table food and no overeating.
Here are a few guidelines to keep your puppy on a healthy track to adult doghood, no matter what growth stage your puppy is in.
When to Wean Your Puppy
Weaning should begin around three to four weeks of age when puppies can be offered wet puppy food while still nursing from their mothers, says Dr. Heather Loenser, veterinary advisor in professional and public affairs for the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) in Lakewood, Colo.
At six to eight weeks, mothers will decide it’s time for their puppies to start looking elsewhere for food, so puppies will become more interested in the wet food, she explains. The transition could take several days or several weeks. Smaller breed puppies, such as Chihuahuas and Yorkshire Terriers, are much more fragile than larger breeds, so they should remain with their mothers for at least eight weeks, adds Loenser.
Read the Labels on Puppy Food
It’s important to read the label on a can or bag of puppy food to decide what’s best for your pet. “Aside from your veterinarian’s recommendation, the label on the bag is the best guide for what’s in the bag, says Loenser.
Puppies grow very quickly during their first nine months, so be sure to feed him or her a high-quality, veterinarian-recommended food made for puppies. Loenser adds, “Be sure the food label says ‘For Growth.” Large breed puppies also benefit from eating a food specifically designed for them. Look for a “Large Breed” designation on the label of appropriate foods.
Pet food labeling is regulated at the state level by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which monitors the ratios of key nutrients like protein, fat, fiber and moisture in pet food. “If AAFCO states that a food ‘provides complete and balanced nutrition,’ it means that if that’s all you feed your puppy, he will be getting all of the nutrients he needs,” Loenser points out. Dog food bags also provide information about how much to give your puppy based on weight, she says.
What to Avoid
Puppies should never be given certain foods that are toxic to dogs including onions, grapes, raisins, and chocolate. Food waste like corncobs and peach pits can cause stomach or intestinal obstruction, so keep your garbage can behind a closed door or covered with a secure lid, Loenser recommends.
What about homemade dog food? Homemade diets should be evaluated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, says Loenser, to make sure all key nutrients, vitamins and minerals are included in the right amount for a growing puppy.
Make Food Fun for Your Puppy
How and when you feed your puppy are also important steps to his or her development, notes Aishe Berger, owner of SF Puppy Prep in San Francisco, which specializes in training and socializing puppies.
Food can be used to motivate and reward puppies during training, Berger says. But it’s important not to rely too much on special “treats.” Instead, Berger recommends giving puppies a few pieces of their regular kibble as a reward during training times. But always make sure to account for any “extra” food used as a training reward and subtract that amount from the next meal to avoid overfeeding.
Giving your puppy part of his or her meal in a puzzle toy, such as a Kong or a feeding ball, will also help keep him or her mentally stimulated, not to mention occupied for a while. “They enjoy working for their food,” Berger adds.
Berger also recommends feeding puppies at set times as opposed to having food constantly available. “You’re going to motivate them so much more if food isn’t available all the time,” she says. In small amounts, pieces of turkey and chicken can be a very effective motivator for a puppy learning something new, explains Berger.
But people food must be allowed only in certain contexts. Offering puppies food from the dinner table is a big no-no. Giving in to your adorable puppy’s pleading eyes will result in a lifetime of begging and an increased risk of obesity, says Loenser. “With over 50 percent of all dogs being overweight or obese, this is a lesson that still must be taught to our pet parents,” she notes.
Partner with Your Vet
A strong relationship with your veterinarian is an important part of raising a healthy puppy. The AAHA recommends that a puppy be examined by a vet every three to four weeks for the first few months to monitor the puppy’s growth rate and receive any needed preventive care like vaccines and deworming. Regular vet visits are a good opportunity to discuss your puppy’s diet and growth needs, and make adjustments accordingly, says Loenser.