There’s no one perfect dog food. Each dog, at every stage of life, has unique needs that make a type of food – or a protein, or formulation — better for them at that moment. Puppies are no different.
The most critical decision to make when deciding on a puppy food is about the formulation, not wet or kibble. Puppies need a food that is formulated specifically for them, or one for “all stages of growth”, that meets the nutrient guidelines set out by the Association of American Feed Control Officials.
Puppy food should contain a minimum of 22 percent protein and 8 percent fat. Large and small breed puppies have slightly different nutrition requirements than the average puppy, so you may want to consider formulations created specifically for these two ends of the spectrum. Foods formulated for adults don’t necessarily contain the right amounts of protein and fat for growing, and your pup will miss out on essential nutrients.
If your puppy is new to you and you’re buying your first round of food, don’t stock up in case your puppy doesn’t like your choice, it upsets your puppy’s tummy, or it causes your puppy to gain or lose too much weight. Try one food for a few days before committing to it.
Overall, you want to choose the best quality dog food you can reasonably afford. It should be high in protein and fat. Look for something with limited ingredients, and avoid foods that have long lists of unrecognizable non-food ingredients.
You may also want a puppy food with some extra supplements.
“Additives such as DHA have been said to support a puppy’s brain, heart, and eye development,” according to PetMD. “DHA is a fatty acid which is plentiful in oily fish, so salmon or other fish-based puppy diets may not need additional supplementation.”
Even better? You don’t have to commit to either kibble or canned. You can mix wet and dry food, or rotate types of food.
The benefits of dry puppy food
Dry puppy food, which also refers to kibble, dehydrated, and air-dried foods, are easy to measure and easy to store.
Kibble, in particular, lasts a long time and can be purchased in bulk. That isn’t to say kibble never goes bad — it can, and it can attract bugs that find it as delicious as your puppy does. Vast quantities might not be recommended if you want to avoid an infestation. Store it in a sealable container once it’s open.
Kibble is also known for being relatively less expensive, but as you move into other types of dry food — dehydrated, air-dried — the price starts to creep up. Many air-dried proteins are very close to single-ingredient protein and can be quite expensive per serving.
Some kibble or dry products also claim to clean a dog’s teeth. Read the ingredients to see if this is because of an altered formulation (look for sodium tripolyphosphate, zinc, or green tea polyphenols), or if the claims are based on the shape or texture of the food. It might be both.
If your puppy isn’t a good chewer and gulps its food, any dental cleaning properties will be instantly negated. The claim that kibble can clean teeth isn’t supported universally either — some vets say only raw meaty bones provide any sort of dental benefit because they act like a gentle abrasive and help remove food stuck between your pup’s teeth.
Kibble is more fun for your dog. If your puppy is eating kibble, it’s easy for it to ‘play’ with its food. You can put kibble into food dispensing balls or other games and dispensers that engage your dog’s brain while it’s eating. Using a food puzzle toy or food dispensing ball also prevents your puppy from gulping dinner. Fast eaters can sometimes throw their meals up, get an upset tummy or choke.
The drawbacks of dry puppy food
If your puppy has a sore mouth, it might turn its nose up at hard kibble. You can always soften food with some water until your pup has recovered.
Kibble’s lower price point is often driven by the quality of ingredients. Some products contain high levels of carbs like corn or rice, which help bind the food during the manufacturing process. There are a lot of cheap fillers, like cellulose, that can be hidden in kibble. Of course, those ingredients aren’t really hidden — pet owners do need to dig through the ingredient list on the packaging to figure out what’s in any specific brand or formulation of kibble.
At the lower end of the spectrum, kibble often contains ‘meat,’ and ‘meat or animal by-product meals’. One of the potential pitfalls of these ingredients is they are non-specific — you don’t know for sure what protein makes up the meals and it can only be any combination of cattle, pigs, sheep, or goats. Similarly, poultry meal can mean solely chicken, or turkey, or chicken, and turkey.
Meat meal, or poultry meal, is the rendered product from mammal tissues. Anything labeled ‘by-product’ can include heads, feet, or viscera. As a puppy owner, it’s nice to know exactly what type of protein your pup is eating so you know what to cut out of their diet if they develop food allergies or sensitivities down the line. So avoid ‘meals’ or generic ‘meat’ if you can.
Always look for a protein taking the top couple spots in the ingredient list so that you know you’re getting a protein focussed food for your puppy.
Some kibbles also contain artificial coloring — puppies don’t need their food to come in pretty colors. Colored food is entirely about satisfying the human that is purchasing the food. Food dyes are complicated and controversial — the FDA writes extensively on the history and approval of food dyes.
Dehydrated food, which is kibble shaped, is often (not always) formulated and marketed as grain-free. Some pet owners are steering clear of grain-free foods after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported it was looking into a connection between grain-free foods and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Between Dec. 1 2018, and April 30 2019 the FDA got 219 reports of dogs with DCM. These dogs were eating foods that contained a high proportion of peas, lentils, and other legumes or potatoes. Estimates suggest there are over 70 million dogs in American households, so only a small number of pets were impacted. However, it’s something for dog owners to consider. DCM is a serious illness that can be fatal.
The benefits of wet (canned) puppy food
Wet canned food more closely resembles meat, so some dogs love it. Generally, wet food is considered more palatable than dry food because of texture and smell. On the other hand, dogs often eat poop, vomit, dirt, grass, and garbage and may not be fussy enough to turn away from a bowl of kibble.
“Wet dog foods contain significantly higher moisture content than dry kibbles, which can be important for dogs with urinary tract conditions, or dogs who don’t drink enough water on their own,” according to PetCareRX.
Because wet food is soft, if your puppy is teething or recently hurt its mouth while exploring the world (sticks are sharp!) it can be much easier to eat. If your puppy isn’t getting enough water by drinking, wet food is one way to get more water into its system.
Puppy owners don’t think about themselves when selecting a puppy food. If you are particularly sensitive to smells, wet (canned) and air-dried food can smell extremely unpleasant — for people anyway. Smell varies from brand to brand.
The drawbacks of wet (canned) puppy food
If your puppy isn’t eating a can in one meal (which may be the case, especially with small breed pups), wet and canned food needs to be refrigerated. Once open, the canned food won’t last long. If your pup is off its food for a day or two due to illness, you might end up throwing out open and uneaten food.
Wet food can be more expensive, and doesn’t keep as long as dry food. If you plan to travel a lot with your pup and won’t have access to a refrigerator, consider an alternate source of food — at least for the duration of your trip.
If your puppy hasn’t developed any bowl manners, wet food can make quite a mess on the floor for you to clean up. At least you know your puppy enjoyed dinner!