What to Feed a Puppy and When to Switch to Adult Dog Food

May 25, 2012
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Reviewed and updated by Dr. Jennifer Coates on January 17, 2020

Properly maintaining a puppy’s growth and development is hard work, as puppies require specific nutritional support.

Young animals are especially sensitive to the effects of dietary deficiencies, toxins, and poor-quality ingredients, so it’s very important to choose the right foods to feed your puppy.

A puppy’s nutritional requirements will also change as they grow. Here’s a breakdown of what to feed a puppy as they develop from newborn puppy into their first year of puppyhood.

Food for Puppies 0-8 Weeks Old

Puppies are considered neonates until they are 2 weeks old. During this time, they are completely dependent on milk for all of their nutritional needs.

Due to the different nutrient levels provided by milk of various species, puppies must only suckle milk from their mother or be given canine milk replacer. If the puppy is not able to nurse or the mother is not around, your veterinarian can recommend high-quality milk replacers and can teach you how to bottle-feed properly.

Checking the newborn puppies’ weight daily is the best way to make sure they are getting the nutrition they need.

Weaning Puppies at 3-4 Weeks

At about 3-4 weeks of age, puppies can start transitioning to solid food. Several times a day, give them access to a mixture of warm water and a high-quality puppy food (wet food is easiest).

When they are 7-8 weeks of age, they should be fully weaned off of milk. Puppies at this age should be drinking water and eating a high-quality wet or dry puppy food completely on their own.

Food for Puppies 8 Weeks to Approximately 1 Year Old

The special nutritional needs of puppies don’t end at weaning.

First, let’s take a look at calories—the gas in the tank, so to speak. Puppies should eat a more calorie-dense food than would be appropriate for a typical adult dog.

For example, a high-quality puppy food might have 445 kcal per cup, while an adult food in the same line could have 375 kcal per cup.

That might not seem like such a big disparity, but the extra calories are very important in the long-term to support growth.

The nutritional needs of puppies and adult dogs differ in many other ways aside from calorie intake. Here are the minimum nutrient requirements for puppies and adult dogs, according to the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO):

 

You can see that puppies need more of important amino acids, fatty acids, and minerals (and more protein and fat in general) than adult dogs.

Puppies are at risk for nutritional deficiencies if they eat foods designed for adult dogs.

When to Switch From Puppy Food to Adult Dog Food

Once puppies have reached their adult height, it’s generally time to switch to an adult food.

This happens first in small breed dogs, sometimes as early as 10 months of age. Medium-size dogs tend to stop growing when they are around 12 months old, while some giant breeds continue to get taller until they are 24 months old or so.

Your veterinarian can make an individualized recommendation for your dog based on their particular needs.  

How to Choose the Best Puppy Food

No one food is best for every puppy, but here are some guidelines that will help you find a good option.

  • First, only look at foods that have an AAFCO statement of “nutritional adequacy” (also known as a “complete and balanced” statement) on their labels. It should read something like on of these below:

    • “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Food A provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth and reproduction or all life stages.”

    • “Food A is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth and reproduction or all life stages.”

  • Next, take a look at the food’s guaranteed analysis chart. If the minimum protein percentage is close to 22.5%, the lowest level acceptable to AAFCO, the manufacturer may be trying to cut corners.

  • Before narrowing down your options, talk to your veterinarian. They can provide you with recommendations tailored to your pup’s particular needs. Take a list of your top choices to the vet to discuss which is best for your puppy.

Choosing a Puppy Food for Large Breeds

Owners of large-breed puppies have an additional concern when picking out foods—developmental orthopedic diseases. An abnormally rapid growth rate is a major risk factor for hip dysplasia and similar conditions.

Diets designed for large-breed puppies should have lower fat content and a lower caloric density than those meant for small and medium-size puppies.

Eating a food with too much calcium and phosphorus, and a high calcium to phosphorus ratio, also increases the odds that a large-breed puppy will be afflicted by a developmental orthopedic disease. That’s why responsible manufacturers carefully balance the amount of calcium and phosphorus in foods designed for these large-breed puppies.

Whether your puppy is going to be the size of a Chihuahua, a Mastiff, or somewhere in between, make sure you pick a food that provides perfectly balanced nutrition for the puppy stage. It should be made from wholesome, natural ingredients for a lifetime of good health and well-being.

 

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Featured Image: iStock.com/jarun011