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I love seeing the excited, hopeful faces of people who bring their new puppy to the vet clinic for the first time. Everyone always wants to make sure they’re doing everything right to help their puppy be happy and healthy. Choosing the best dog food for puppies is extremely important and we are so fortunate to have many great options these days.
How to Choose the Best Dog Food for Puppies
The best puppy food is one that is nutritionally complete, balanced and meets AAFCO standards for the growth phase of a dog’s life. Your puppy’s anticipated adult size should also be considered. Small and medium breed puppies can eat standard puppy food or food rated for all life stages. Large breed puppies should eat food specifically made for them.
It’s a good idea to check the label’s ingredient list before you buy. Be aware of ingredients that indicate a lower quality product, for example, corn, soybean meal, unnamed meat meal, and wheat middlings as the first few listed ingredients.
High-end puppy foods have premium ingredients with at least one specific animal protein near the beginning of the list. Look for named proteins like chicken rather than just “poultry” or “meat and bone meal.”
Keep in mind that ingredients like chicken meal might not sound as good as whole chicken or “real chicken” but it is considered highly nutritious and is a perfectly acceptable ingredient.
I want to make a statement about the following food recommendations. While the links I show here may earn a tiny commission, my recommendations are based on what I actually tell my clients in the real world.
In my clinical work, I don’t make any money at all from selling food. I recommend products I trust and would feed my own pets.
What Is Puppy Food?
In the United States, the Association of American feed control officials (AAFCO) publishes guidelines and recommendations for the nutritional makeup of pet food. AAFCO has recognized only two different life-stages for dog food: growth/reproduction and adult maintenance.
Food labeled as appropriate for all life stages is a recent trend. That means the food is okay for puppies as well as adults, but it’s not an officially recognized life stage.
As of 2017, AAFCO requires food manufacturers to state whether any food labeled for growth/reproduction OR all life stages food is appropriate for large and giant breed puppies.
There are a few major distinctions between puppy food and adult maintenance food. Differences include the amount of protein, calcium and phosphorus in the food. AAFCO recommends higher levels of all three of these for puppies.
Owners of large and giant breed puppies expected to be 70 pounds or more as an adult should make some special considerations.
Big puppies grow fast, sometimes so fast that their bones can’t keep up with their muscles. Orthopedic diseases like osteochondritis dissecans are painful and often cause lifelong problems. Early nutrition is one determining factor in whether a pup develops one of these problems.
Researchers have confirmed that large breed puppies have a much higher risk of orthopedic problems when they consume too many calories and if their calcium phosphorus levels are not optimal. (1)
And getting puppy nutrition right isn’t crucial only for large breed pups. Even a medium and small breed puppy can experience lifelong consequences when they eat too much or too little of an important nutrient.
Can Puppies Eat Dog Food for Adults?
It’s best to feed puppies food labeled for growth and reproduction instead of adult maintenance dog food. The protein and mineral requirements for puppies are different than those of adults. The biggest risk is to large breed puppies who are prone to developing serious orthopedic problems with the wrong nutrition.
Some dog food meets the nutritional standards of ALL life stages and should be fine for puppies. However, if you have a large breed puppy make sure you check the label to find out if it’s okay for a large breed puppy.
I strongly recommend feeding large breed puppies food made specifically for them. If you must use regular puppy food or food for all life stages, be careful not to overfeed your pup. Keep him on the lean side (body condition score 4/9)-get your vet’s opinion on your pup’s weight.
But don’t worry if you have a pup and an older dog. It’s not going to hurt your puppy if he eats a little bit of your older dog’s food. As long as he’s eating at least 75% of his nutrition in the form of puppy food or food fit for all stages of life, he will be fine.
Choose the best for your bestie… Vet-Recommended Healthy Dog Food
When to Switch Puppies to Dog Food
As a general rule, you should feed your puppy food labeled for growth reproduction or all life stages until the puppy reaches about 80% of its anticipated adult weight. For example, let’s say you have a beagle puppy whose adult weight is expected to be 20 to 30 lb. 80% of your pup’s adult weight would be 16 to 24 lb.
This might be tricky to determine if you have a mixed breed puppy of unknown ancestry. If this applies to you, get some input from your veterinarian. They should be able to take a good guess at your pup’s adult weight based on her estimated age, appearance and current weight.
Small and Medium Breeds
Dogs of a small or medium breed such as Maltese, Corgi, Border Collie, and French Bulldog usually reach at least 80% of their adult weight by the time they are 12 months old. So when these pups hit their first birthday they are ready to start making a gradual change to adult maintenance dog food or food labeled for all life stages.
Large and Giant Breeds
As I’ve been saying throughout this article, large and giant breed puppy nutrition requires some special consideration. Dogs from breeds such as Great Dane, Mastiff, Bloodhound, Golden Retriever, and Bernese Mountain Dog continue to grow longer than small and medium-breed dogs.
These big guys won’t reach 80% of their adult weight until they are around 18-24 months old. So keep feeding them their large breed puppy food until they’re 1.5 to 2 years old to give them the best chance of avoiding orthopedic problems.
I’ve heard the recommendation from breeders to transition large breed puppies to adult dog food at one year of age. Veterinarians do not recommend this practice. Adult maintenance food has a different energy concentration and inappropriate calcium and phosphorus concentrations for large and giant breed puppies. Please just use a large breed puppy food until your pup is at least one and a half years old.
It’s not absolutely required that you transition your puppy to adult maintenance food at these exact times. It’s OK to keep feeding puppy food longer than this as long as the pup is not becoming overweight.
How Much to Feed a Puppy
I’ve been asked how much to feed a puppy so many times and I still can’t give a perfect answer to this question because it depends on so many factors. To answer, I need to know exactly what the pup is fed including meals and treats, his activity level, his age and his expected adult weight.
I always advise people to consult the label of their puppy’s food to see how much it recommends to feed based on the puppy’s age and weight. You should check the label every week for the first 6-12 months of your pup’s life. A growing puppy need more food than you might think. But at some point, the amount will level out. Dog food labels are pretty good at giving you a rough estimate of how much to feed but you have to make some judgement calls based on how your pup is doing.
There are equations to calculate the approximate number of calories your puppy should eat. But even these equations have a large margin of error.
Your best bet is to start with the amount recommended on the food label and adjust up or down depending on your pup’s body condition score. If you have any doubts, please get your veterinarian’s opinion on whether your pup is too skinny, just right, or overweight.
How many Times a Day Should You Feed a Puppy?
Puppies under four months of age have a hard time regulating their blood sugar because their livers are not fully mature. This is especially true in toy breed dogs.
Try to make sure your very young toy breed puppy eats at least a couple bites of food three to five times a day. Some people use sugary pastes like Nutri-Cal to get a few calories into tiny puppies but I’d rather see them eat real food. Only use Nutri-Cal as a last resort.
Medium, large and giant breed pups should eat at least three times a day until they are six months old. After that, you can feed them twice a day, or once a day if you really must. But I think twice a day is better for several reasons. First, feeding time is a big deal for many dogs who live in houses and may be bored quite a bit of the time. Feeding two meals a day gives them something to look forward to!
I think that smaller meals are probably a little easier to digest. But there is no real technical reason why you absolutely shouldn’t feed your dog once a day. Wild dogs are known to eat fewer and larger meals so they should be able to handle once-a-day feeding.
Homemade Food for Puppies
I don’t recommend using a homemade diet for puppies, especially not for large or giant breed pups. Since puppies are growing and developing so fast, you don’t have any margin for error with their nutrition. If you mess up your homemade food recipe for even a couple of weeks, there could be lifelong consequences for your pup.
My advice is to use a commercial puppy food until your buddy is finished growing then transition to homemade food if you still want to.
If you insist on making your puppy’s food from scratch, please enlist the help of your veterinarian and/or a veterinary nutritionist. You’ll need to stick to the recipe exactly and not add or remove any ingredients. You should also see your vet every few weeks to monitor your pup’s growth and make adjustments to your recipe.
Dr. T.’s Puppy Food Recommendations
Best Food for Small Breed Puppies
Small breed puppies can eat standard puppy food or food suitable for all life stages. Some small breed puppies are finicky about food or have a sensitive stomach.
You’ll probably come across plenty of food products labeled as being specifically for small breed puppies. In reality, there is no officially recognized class of food for a small breed puppy, this is more about marketing.
As with any dog food, I recommend choosing products from a reputable national brand. If the label states the food passed a feeding trial, that’s the gold standard. But many products have not been tested with a feeding trial due partly to the expense of running them.
At the very least, make sure the company uses a veterinary nutritionist to help formulate its food. You can also check the FDA’s website to see if the company has had many food recalls in the recent past.
Take a look at the Royal Canin line of puppy foods designated for various small breed dogs. The small kibble size appeals to very small puppies. All the RC puppy foods are nutritionally complete and balanced. This international company has a long track record of nutrition research and food safety-although no company is perfect!
Best Food for Large Breed Puppies
Be extra careful when choosing food for large and giant breed puppies. Overfeeding big breed puppies can cause lifelong problems with their bones and joints (1).
While you can feed these big guys standard puppy food, I recommend you choose food made specifically for large and giant breed puppies. These foods make it easier to avoid overfeeding big puppies. They accomplish this partly by having a larger kibble size so there are fewer calories per cup of food.
Some of my top choices in this category are from Purina, Royal Canin, Hill’s Science Diet, and Eukanuba. This one from Nutro also has a nice ingredients list and is formulated for large and giant breed puppies:
The first 10 ingredients in this food are: Chicken, Chicken Meal, Whole Brown Rice, Brewers Rice, Rice Bran, Whole Grain Oatmeal, Chicken Fat, Natural Flavor, Salmon Meal, Lamb Meal.
It’s a bit pricier, but I think the premium ingredients and formulation for large and giant breed puppies is worth it.
Best Wet Dog Food for Puppies
You can feed wet puppy food by itself or as a topper to improve the flavor of kibble for reluctant eaters. While canned food costs more than dry food, as long as it’s labeled for the growth stage of life and is nutritionally complete and balanced, there’s no reason you can’t feed your puppy 100% canned food.
The standards for choosing wet food are pretty similar to those for choosing dry dog food. It should come as no surprise that I recommend choosing a dog food brand from the same large national manufacturers I’ve already mentioned above.
I’m not a fan of raw food for puppies. There are a couple of raw brands that seem to have decent quality control and meet AAFCO standards but I still think the risk of bacterial contamination is too high for puppies and their owners. And I’m even leerier of small regional producers of raw dog food.
If I were choosing wet food for my small or medium breed pup today, I would probably choose Purina Pro Plan Development wet puppy food. Purina is a reputable national brand and the food contains a good mix of ingredients including chicken, liver, salmon and rice. I like that the protein level is about 34% on a caloric basis. It also has higher omega 3 fatty acid content that aids the development of brain, nerve and eye tissue (2,3).
Best Dry Dog Food for Puppies
Most dog owners in the United States feed their dogs dry kibble because it’s affordable and convenient. It’s likely your new puppy will already be eating dry puppy food when you adopt him or her.
I’ve watched my clients feed practically every kind of dry kibble puppy food you can think of. And although most choose puppy food from national brands, some people are attracted to the more exotic offerings of small boutique pet food manufacturers. This makes me worry.
I don’t think it’s a great idea to start a puppy on exotic proteins like ostrich or alligator. Save limited ingredient diets for adult dogs who are highly allergic to standard ingredients.
I’m also concerned about smaller companies maintaining good quality control over a long time period. If you choose to go this route, make sure you ask a lot of questions based on the WSAVA recommendations for choosing pet food. In a nutshell, ask the company rep:
- Do they employ a nutritionist?
- Who formulates the diet?
- What is the quality control process for ingredients and finished products?
- What kind of product research or nutrition studies have been conducted? Is it published in peer-reviewed journals?
So much for that, let’s talk about the best dry puppy foods I’d choose for my own pup. This will depend somewhat on your budget, but if you can afford to buy premium food, I’ve always been a fan of Eukanuba products. I fed Eukanuba dry food to my dog for many years and she ate well and maintained great health.
Common Puppy Feeding Questions
My Puppy Won’t Eat
What if you adopt a new puppy and find that he won’t eat after you bring him home?
You are right to be concerned, but rest assured that it’s not uncommon for a puppy to be too stressed to eat on his first day with you. Moving to a new home, leaving his previous dog and human family, and getting a lot of attention all of a sudden is pretty overwhelming for a little baby!
Young puppies are famous for doing two things: eating and sleeping (and pooping). If possible, continue your new puppy on the same food he/she had been eating before coming to live with you. Avoid excessive excitement and make sure the puppy has plenty of quiet time and privacy to rest.
If you can’t get your puppy to eat anything at all, especially if it’s been more than 24-hours, contact your veterinarian. This is especially critical for puppies younger than 4 months old.
Check out my article on the topic of how to get a reluctant puppy to eat better.
My Puppy Is a Picky Eater
Some puppies will eat only particular foods or they only eat small amounts.
The first thing you should do is make sure your picky puppy doesn’t have a health problem like parasites or something more serious. I always recommend new puppies have a fecal test to check for parasites as soon as they get to their new home. This is true whether or not they’ve already been checked for parasites and regardless of whether or not they’ve already had a dewormer. GI parasites are super common and definitely can affect a pup’s appetite.
Be careful if your puppy is a picky eater, it’s possible to make the problem worse by tempting him with lots of strongly flavored human foods. Try to stick with puppy food and avoid switching around on those, too.
Consider this: I’ve found that some people worry excessively about their puppy’s appetite when in reality the puppy is eating enough to maintain a normal weight. Ask your vet for help-they’ll be able to tell you if your pup is a normal weight.
My Puppy Is Always Hungry
On the flip side of the coin, some puppies seem to be ravenously hungry at all times. I’ve seen this more in certain breeds like Labrador Retrievers and in puppies who haven’t been fed very well before being adopted. Many times their ravenous hunger will calm down after they’ve gained some weight on high-quality puppy food.
Avoid the temptation to indulge your puppy with too much food as that can lead to long-term problems just as much as feeding them too little. Unless your pup is underweight, stick to feeding the recommended amount of food and engage him in other activities to get his mind off his obsession with food.
Patience is a virtue when it comes to dealing with the ravenously hungry puppy!
My Puppy Eats Too Fast
Eating too fast or “wolfing” down their food is another common puppy issue. It’s not unusual for fast eaters to vomit their food right after they eat because their stomachs can’t handle the sudden food intake.
I recommend hand feeding so you can control the amount they take and the rate at which they take it. This also gives you a chance to bond more with your puppy and do some easy obedience training.
You can also try a food dish with obstacles in it so that the puppy can’t wolf down the food so fast. I’ve had clients tell me they made a homemade version of these slow feeders by pudding a large rock in the center of their puppies dish. You’d want to use a rock that’s far too large for the puppy to bite or swallow. The large rock will make them have to sort of chase the food around in the dish which prevents fast eating.
My last suggestion for puppies who bolt their food is to use interactive toys to feed them their meals. These really only work well with dry dog food, but most puppies find them highly entertaining and it keeps them from bolting their food.
Try the Orbee Tuff Snoop ball shown below- it’s the most popular interactive food toy amongst all the dogs I’ve ever offered it to!
I recommend you choose a puppy food from a major national brand with a good track record for nutritional research and quality control. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive food available to provide what a growing dog needs nutritionally. There are plenty of affordable options available in grocery stores and pet food stores.
Check the label of any food you are considering for a statement that the food meets the AAFCO standards for either growth and reproduction or for all life stages. If you have a large breed puppy, I recommend feeding puppy food made specifically for large breeds.
You can start transitioning your pup to adult dog food once he’s reached at least 80% of his predicted adult weight. Your veterinarian can help you figure out when your pup is ready to make the change.
- Dämmrich, K. (1991). Relationship between nutrition and bone growth in large and giant dogs. The Journal of nutrition, 121(suppl_11), S114-S121.
- Heinemann, K. M., & Bauer, J. E. (2006). Docosahexaenoic acid and neurologic development in animals. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 228(5), 700-705.
- Kelly RL, Lepine AJ, Shyan-Norwalt MR, Burr JR, Reinhart GA. Nutrition and DHA. Impact of maternal and post-weaning nutrition on puppy trainability.
All Dog Food & Nutrition Articles on NPHQ
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- Vet-Recommended Dog Food for Allergies (Prescription & OTC)
- Vet-Recommended Dog Food for Bad Teeth
- Best Dog Food for Picky Eaters: 10 Surprising Vet’s Picks
- Vet-Recommended Best Dog Food for Puppies
- Vet-Recommended Best Dog Food for Urinary Health (Rx & OTC)
- Are the Best Recipes for Homemade Dog Food Safe?
- Vet-Recommended Best Weight Management Dog Food
- Ask a Vet: Cat Treats for Dogs–Which Ones Are Safest?
Last update on 2022-11-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API