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Puppy Feeding Guide

Puppy Feeding Guide

The question of what you should feed your puppy, is perhaps the question most commonly asked by new dog owners.  

Whatever puppy diet you feed, it is essential that the diet is complete and balanced.  That is true for adult dogs as well, but is even more critical for puppies, and even small deficiencies or imbalances of nutrients in the diet can lead to life-long problems if that diet is fed during growth.

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During growth, a puppy requires more of the essential nutrients than an adult of the same size.  For instance, your puppy is not just maintaining healthy bones, but it is also growing bone, which requires a lot more calcium and phosphorus.

The growth of muscle, internal organs, and even skin requires a lot more protein than is necessary for maintaining a healthy adult.  And all the other essential fats, minerals and vitamins are required in greater amounts to account for the demands of growing and developing the organs in the body.  A diet that is deficient in essential nutrients can lead to stunted growth, a poor coat, bone weakness, poor immunity and increased risk of infection, and many other problems.

Like other mammals, puppies grow rapidly to begin with, but their growth rate gradually slows as they get older (Figure 1). As the puppy nears its mature adult size, the requirements for nutrients gradually reduce, until the puppy reaches the adult requirements.  Thus, there is a much greater difference between the requirements of an 8-week-old puppy and a 6-month-old puppy, than there is between a 6-month-old puppy and a 1-year-old adult.

Figure 1. The normal growth curve of puppies.  The rate of growth slows gradually as the puppy nears the mature adult weight.

Figure 1. The normal growth curve of puppies. The rate of growth slows gradually as the puppy nears the mature adult weight.

However, more is not always better.  A puppy that eats excessive amounts of food during growth may grow too quickly, which increases the risk of serious bone and joint diseases later in life, and increases the risk of obesity, which causes many other problems.  

Additionally, if the diet contains excessive amounts of certain nutrients, it can lead to deformities or diseases.  Whilst a puppy needs more calcium than an adult, excessive calcium also leads to bone and joint diseases that can be as serious as those caused by feeding a diet that does not contain enough.

So, although a puppy needs more energy, protein, and essential nutrients than an adult at the same weight, you should not simply feed more of an adult diet.  Puppies require a different proportion of nutrients in their diet to an adult, and many adult diets will cause serious problems if fed to a growing puppy.  

To ensure you are feeding your puppy a well-balanced diet, ensure that it has been formulated specifically to meet the requirements for growth.

How much should I feed my puppy?

Calculating the amount of food to feed your puppy can be complicated, daunting, and can rarely be done with any accuracy.  If you want to know more about calculating the amount of food to feed an animal, see our section on “Calculating the amount to feed my pet”.    

  • In the first few weeks after weaning, when a puppy is very young, it will require twice as much food as an adult would at the same bodyweight, with the same activity.  
  • Once the puppy is approximately 50% of its adult weight, it will require 1.6 times as much as an adult at that weight. 
  • Once the puppy is 80% of its adult weight, it will require 1.2 times as much as an adult at that weight.  And once the puppy has reached its adult weight, it should be fed as an adult.  

Many pet food manufacturers have tried to simplify the process of feeding puppies by providing feeding guides for their particular diets.  Some of those are valuable, but some are inaccurate or not precise enough to be helpful.  

If you want to calculate how much food to feed your puppy, use our online feeding calculator guide.

Whatever method you use to initially decide how much food to feed your puppy, you should always adjust the amount depending on your puppy’s body condition. Although your puppy is growing, you should make sure that your puppy stays at a lean body condition.  Obesity in dogs is a problem that we must strive to avoid at any age, but it can be even more harmful during growth.  

The term “puppy fat” is an archaic and unhelpful term, that suggests that it is “ok” for puppies to be overweight.  It is important that your dog remains lean throughout its life, and when puppies become overweight it can have long term consequences.  It is not “ok” for puppies to be overweight.  

It is recommended that once a week, you assess the body condition of your puppy and ask yourself; “Is my puppy in the correct body condition?”. 

How often should I feed my puppy?

  • 8 and 12 weeks of age, the total daily food allowance for your puppy can be split into 4 feeds.  
  • 12 weeks old, the number of meals can be reduced to two per day, and continued twice daily until it is an adult.  

Please note: Some puppies may need to be fed more frequently until they are older than 12 weeks, so if you find your puppy cannot consume its food in two meals, increase the number of meals per day.  Similarly, some puppies will easily be able to consume their daily requirements in a single meal once they are 6 months old, especially if you are feeding a dry diet.  There is no strict rule!

Treats and training

Using food to help train a puppy is very effective, and puppies will learn quickly when food is used as the reward.  However, it is easy to overfeed your puppy, or create an imbalanced diet if treats and rewards are given excessively.  

The simplest method to avoid overfeeding is to set aside some of the daily food allowance and feed that to your puppy by hand as a reward during training. 

Large breeds and small breeds

Large breeds of dogs, such as Great Danes, are very sensitive to the amount of calcium, phosphorus, and energy in the diet.  A diet that might be adequate for a toy poodle puppy, can lead to serious bone and joint diseases in a Great Dane puppy.  So, for the very sensitive large breeds, it is extremely important that you feed a diet that has been precisely formulated to fit within their narrow range of tolerance.

That is not to say that their requirements are actually different, but rather that they are more sensitive to low and high calcium and phosphorus contents in diets.  Therefore, a diet that is ideal for a Great Dane would be theoretically perfect for a poodle, but a poodle could grow normally on a diet that would cause problems in a Great Dane.  

For those reasons, pet food manufacturers have created separate diets for “Large Breeds”.  If you own a “Large Breed” puppy, you should definitely make sure that you feed a diet that has been carefully formulated for large breeds.  That importance has been shown for a few breeds, but certainly not all, and we do not know exactly how big a dog breed needs to be for that to be important.  As a general guide, we recommend that breeds of dog that are greater than 25kg when adult, should be considered to be “Large Breeds”.  

Supplements

A dietary supplement is a food or nutrient that is added to the diet in order to make the diet complete, or to enhance it.  If you are feeding a diet that is already complete and balanced, then there is no need for any supplement to complete it.  If extra nutrients are added to a complete and balanced diet, it may be excessive, or lead to an imbalance in the essential nutrients.  Problems caused by supplements are especially problematic during growth.  Supplements that contain significant amounts of calcium or phosphorus are likely to cause problems with bone and joint development, and can be catastrophic in large breed dogs.  Other supplements may provide an unnecessary number of calories and lead to inappropriate weight gain.

It is strongly recommended that if you are feeding a complete and balanced diet, dietary supplements are unnecessary, could be harmful, and should be avoided unless your veterinarian has recommended them.

Nick Cave graduated from Massey University (NZ) in 1990 with a BVSc, and worked in general practice for 6 years until 1997, when he returned to Massey for a residency in small animal internal medicine, and graduated with a Masters in Veterinary Science in 2000. 

He is on the editorial board for Veterinary Quarterly, is an associate editor for Frontiers in Veterinary Science, has authored more than 60 peer-reviewed articles, several textbook chapters, and is a frequent commentator in public media.

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