Dog owners typically get their new puppy when it’s about eight to 12 weeks old and already weaned. One of the most pressing and immediate concerns with this new family member is how much to feed it. This can be especially stressful for first-time dog owners. The first trip to the dog food aisle or your favorite online retailer can be overwhelming. There’s so much choice! You need to choose a food — or foods — then figure out how much your wriggly puppy needs to eat.
Puppies need a lot of calories to support their growth. Puppy food tends to be more calorie-dense than adult food. But at the same time, you don’t want your puppy to grow as fast as possible. These two things may sound like they’re contradictory, so let’s look at the difference between maximum growth and optimal growth.
Veterinarians recommend that you ensure your puppy grows at an optimal rate. This doesn’t mean as quickly as possible — it means slow and steady is the best approach. In particular, large breed puppies are at high risk for health issues if they grow too fast. If your puppy has come from a specialized breeder, the breeder will have advice on the best growth rate for your dog.
“Pups grow up, but it is important that they grow at the proper rate,” writes veterinarian Lynn Buzhardt for VCA Hospitals. “The framework of the body is composed of muscle and bone which have to grow in synchrony. Rapid growth rates can stress developing bones and joints resulting in skeletal malformations.”
She notes that some skeletal problems are genetic and not within a dog owner’s control, but that diet can also have a big impact on development. Diet is something dog owners can control.
Puppies need a well-rounded diet of protein, carbs, minerals, vitamins and fat. The safest bet is to choose a food that is specifically for puppies. If you have a small breed or large breed pup, there are also food options targeted specifically at these two groups. Large breed puppies need a diet that is lower in calcium and fat than an average dog. Small breed pups can benefit from smaller kibble sizes sometimes found in small breed-specific dog food. Small breed puppy food is sometimes formulated to offer more calories per bite than regular puppy food because small breed pups are at a higher risk of hypoglycemia.
Another option is to find food labeled for “all stages of life”. In both puppy food and in food that is suggested for all ages, there are two specific things to look at in the ingredients list: protein content and fat content.
The American Association of Feed Control Officials sets the guidelines for the nutrient profile of puppy food. Puppies need a minimum of 22 percent protein and 8 percent fat. These are minimums — most quality dog foods will offer higher levels of both fat and protein, which are necessary for healthy bone, skin, teeth, and coat growth, not to mention brain development. Fat is more calorie-dense than protein, which is why food formulated for large breed puppies may contain less fat than regular puppy food.