Puppy Nutrition: What is the Best Puppy Food & More

PetMD Editorial
Written by:
PetMD Editorial
Published: April 13, 2011

Nowadays, there are literally hundreds of brands and types of dog foods to choose from, which can make it doubly hard for a pet owner to know which is best. While it is all but impossible to create a comparison of each pet food brand out there, there are a few fundamentals that you can use as a guide for choosing the right food for your puppy. 

What Exactly is Puppy Food?

Puppy food is designed specifically for the nutritional needs of young and still growing dogs, with twice the daily nutritional requirements that a mature dog needs. Puppies are growing and developing rapidly -- in their bones, muscles, joints, internal organs and immune system, to name but a few of the developmental needs that are being met by nutrition. A well balanced puppy food contains those nutrients that a puppy specifically need for this purpose, nutrients that are not necessary once the puppy has finished growing into a dog and that are not added to adult formula dog foods. For example, to build a strong body, puppy food contains about 30 percent protein, as well as the vitamins and minerals that are needed for a puppy to be healthy. Puppy food also contains a high fat content for energy, which is why it is not recommended for adult dogs.

How Do You Know How Long to Feed a Puppy Puppy Food?

Dogs are considered puppies until they reach their expected adult size. Ideally, a puppy should be fed puppy food until he reaches 80% of his expected adult size, which is is about a year old for most dogs. There are rare instances when you may need to stop giving puppy food before then; especially if the puppy is developing too quickly and your veterinarian is concerned of complications (e.g., long bone disease and panosteosis are two growth diseases of concern). In cases such as this you will need to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations.  

What is the Best Puppy Food?

Dog food is divided into three types: moist, semi-moist, and dry kibble. Among the three, the best one to use would be the dry type of puppy food because it contains more meat protein. It is also more practical, cost-effective, better for keeping the teeth clean, and easy to digest. Moist puppy food is also easy to digest, but it is more expensive and spoils more rapidly if not stored properly. In addition, moist foods are commonly composed of 75 percent water, so they contain fewer nutrients. Another concern with moist puppy food is its affect on the teeth. 

The best option is usually to feed your puppy a combined diet of dry kibble with moist dog food. You may either mix them together or vary them from meal to meal.

Semi-moist puppy food is also a good option, as it is easy to digest and practical to use (i.e., it has measured packaging and does not need to be refrigerated). The downside is that it can be expensive and does not have any dental benefits. Semi-moist food is also believed to lead to obesity and hyperactivity in some dogs because it contains high levels of salt, preservatives and sugar.

What is the Best Brand of Puppy Food?

The best brands of puppy food should be chosen based on their ingredients, and how they compare to the guidelines set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the National Research Council. In fact, puppy and dog food standards should meet or surpass the minimum guidelines set by these groups.

Many generic brands meet the very minimum of requirements and may lack some of the nutrients your puppy needs, leading to poor growth or even malnutrition. However, that is not to say that the most expensive brand is automatically the best.

How Many Times Should a Puppy be Fed?

A puppy should be fed three times a day until she reaches about six months old. In many breeds, growth slows down around this age, so unless your veterinarian recommends otherwise, you should reduce her meals to twice a day only -- in the morning and in the evening. Twice-a-day meals will remain the feeding guideline for the life of your dog.

What are the Other Guidelines on Feeding?

Meals should be given at the same time every day, ideally in an area where she will not be disturbed while eating. When using dry kibble, you might mix it with a little canned food, plus some warm water to add moisture. You can also alternate the canned food with cooked egg or cottage cheese. 

If there are times when your puppy does not have an appetite, let her be. It is fine to skip an occasional meal, as long as the puppy is showing a normal energy level and does not skip more than one meal. Place the uneaten food inside the refrigerator (or closed container, if it is dry food) so that it does not spoil and offer it to her again after a few hours have passed.  

If your puppy refuses to eat entirely, do not force or coax her into eating by offering meats or foods from your table, or any other type of food that is out of the normal range of dog approved foods. These foods will not provide adequate nutrition, and will only lead your puppy to expect to be given “people foods” from the table. She will never get into the habit of eating the appropriate foods if she knows that you will feed her the “good stuff” as long as she holds out for them. You will need to stand your ground and only offer the types of foods that you will be giving to your puppy/dog over the long term.

It is very rare for a dog to ignore the food that is being offered until it becomes a health issue (e.g., malnutrition, starvation). Once she gets hungry enough, she will eat the food you are placing in front of her. However, you do not want many days to pass before you consult with a veterinarian. If your puppy appears to want to eat but cannot hold the food in her mouth, or only seems to be able to take a few bites from the dish, there may be an underlying condition that needs to be diagnosed. If that is the case, you will need to immediately take her to a veterinarian.

You Can Feed Your Dog Some “People Foods”

While there are some foods that are safe for dogs to eat, you should refrain from feeding your puppy (and dog) with food from your table while you are eating. Dogs will very quickly learn to expect food from the table, even after only one time, and while this may not be a big deal to you when you are eating alone, it may be a big deal when you have company and the dog is sitting at your guest’s feet staring expectantly. Dogs do not know the difference between a casual dinner and a dinner with guests. In some cases, dogs will even help themselves to whatever is on the table, so it is best to train the dog early on not to expect food from the table -- or even the kitchen counter.

If you do have some dog-safe leftovers that you want to share after your meal, take the food to the kitchen, away from your eating and meal preparation areas, and place the leftovers into a dog food bowl. The dog does not need to know that the food came from your plate to be happy that you have given him good food to eat.

To better avoid the prospect of having your dog stare and whine for table scraps, or refuse to eat his own food in favor of waiting for your leftovers, arrange to have his meal times before yours, so that he is not hungry while you are eating, and do not give him leftovers unless he has eaten his own dinner first.

What is the Ideal Amount of Food to Give a Puppy?

The amount of food that your puppy requires will depend on her breed and on her nutritional needs. Puppy food packaging usually indicates the recommended amount of food for puppies, but it can still depend on how much you think is enough to satisfy your puppy, or how much she needs for growth and development. Some large, or higher energy dog breeds need more calories than smaller, or a laid back, low energy dog breeds. With that in mind, you must also be careful not to over-feed your puppy, so that she does not become overweight. For example, Labrador retrievers are especially prone to becoming overweight. This is often due to their seemingly constant hunger, leading their owners to feed them more than necessary, but this can also be true for almost any breed.

Overweight puppies will commonly develop health problems as they mature. If you are concerned about whether you are feeding your puppy enough, you can check above the waist line to make sure her ribs are not protruding. If that is the case, you will need to take her to a veterinarian to have her checked for a possible parasitic infection. Of course, there are some breeds that are genetically slim and that have defined rib bones that appear to jut out. The Greyhound is an excellent example of this. We are not referring to those breeds.

Should a Puppy Have Drinking Water Available at all Times?

Puppies need plenty of water, but it is not advisable to have a bowl of water laid out for him all the time. Having water always available will encourage the puppy to drink more than he needs, making housetraining a potential issue. Give him water at scheduled times of the day, and take him outside shortly after so he can relieve himself. As he gets older and is able to master his bladder functions -- waiting until you get home to go outside -- you can leave water for him to drink on demand.

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