Just like newborn babies grow, develop, and mature at a pretty rapid speed, so do young puppies. It’s amazing to watch their progress week after week. But as their teeth, bones, muscles, and organs continue to develop, one thing is clear: Puppies need sufficient nutrients to help them thrive. With that said, deciding what (and how) to feed your new puppy can feel overwhelming. I’ve been there!
Take a walk down the food aisles of your local pet store or do a simple Google search for ‘dog food’ and you’ll quickly realize there are so many choices! You may be wondering:
Should I feed kibble? Wet canned foods? Is fresh food worth the extra cost? What about the brand? Do I really need to feed a puppy formula or is that just a marketing ploy? How many times a day do I need to feed my puppy? Can I just let their food sit out all day, or do I need to portion out servings?
Let’s take a closer look, starting with how puppies eat from the time they’re born, all the way up until they hit their first birthday!
Puppy Feeding Timeline
1-4 Weeks Old
During a puppy’s first month of life, he’ll ideally be snuggled up against his mommy and getting essential nutrients from her milk. A mother’s milk provides everything her pups need to thrive within the first month of life.
Frequency: Generally, one-week-old newborn puppies nurse every two hours. As they grow and develop, the amount of time between each meal increases.
4-6 Weeks Old
Along with nursing momma’s milk, once puppies reach four weeks of age, they’re introduced to soft food. At this stage, puppies are generally given a combination of high-quality dry puppy kibble soaked in milk replacer and/or warm water. This mixture – referred to as gruel – is blended and then served.
After a puppy’s first week on gruel, the amount of liquid is decreased. Eating a thicker version of this mush helps prepare them for the next phase: Moistened solid food.
6-12 Weeks Old
Weaning off momma’s milk begins when a puppy is about four weeks old, and they should be completely weaned as of six-to-eight weeks. By this point, puppies are growing razor-sharp teeth. So, usually, breeders or caretakers will help transition the puppies from gruel to moistened solid food, and then to straight kibble.
Since growing puppies require more calories, protein, fat, and other essential nutrients per pound than adult dogs, any solid food fed to puppies must be formulated for their current life stage. We’ll talk more about this in a minute (stick with me, this is important!).
Frequency: At this age, puppies generally should be eating about 4 times a day.
3-6 Months Old
Ideally, puppies will stay with their mother and littermates until they’re about 12 weeks old. So, when you bring your puppy home, they should already have a solid food routine. Find out what your puppy is used to eating and stick with that for at least a few days, while your puppy gets used to his new home. Note: Abrupt food changes can lead to upset stomach and diarrhea. Instead, gradually replace your pup’s old food with their new food over 7-10 days.
During this feeding stage, you should notice your puppy’s adorable potbelly start to disappear.
Frequency: Regardless of the exact food, puppies should be fed three times a day. This should be a pretty easy schedule to follow since you can match it up to your own breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. Smaller meals are easier for puppies to digest, can help keep their energy levels steady, and help prevent obesity.
6 Months Old & Up
While 6-month-old dogs should still eat a puppy formula, you can transition them to twice-daily feeding. This is the schedule you’ll stick with all through adulthood!
Important Nutrients That Set Puppy Food Apart
Puppies have different nutritional needs than adult and senior dogs, and they’re at risk of deficiencies if they eat a diet formulated solely for adults. Here are some of the key nutrients that set puppy-formulated food apart.
One of the biggest differences between puppy food and adult dog food is protein content. Growing puppies need more protein, as it plays a vital role in growth and development. When selecting the perfect food for your puppy, keep this in mind: The highest-quality source of protein is always animal protein vs plant protein.
Incorporating the right kind, and ratio, of healthy fats is essential for developing puppies. The fat conversation usually surrounds Omega-3s and Omega-6s. Without getting too in-depth, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – which is a type of Omega-3 – is a particularly important element for a growing pup. The best sources of DHA include sardines, anchovies, or high-quality fish oil.
Calcium & Phosphorus
Calcium and phosphorus are responsible for a variety of essential bodily functions and, as such, are an incredibly important part of a puppy’s nutritional needs. Your puppy’s diet should provide calcium and phosphorus in a ratio of 1:1 up to 2:1, but the lower end of that range is ideal.
A Quick Word on Large Breed Puppies
Large breed puppies take longer to grow than small breeds and, as a result, their food needs extra consideration. Studies show that large breed puppies who grow too quickly are at risk of developing orthopedic diseases and obesity.
There are foods formulated for large breed puppies, which are slightly lower in fat, contain less calcium and phosphorus, and have a carefully balanced calcium to phosphorus ratio to help these dogs grow at a healthier rate.
Choosing The Right Life Stage
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the organization that sets all standards for pet food — including nutrient ratios, ingredient allowances, and the terminology that’s allowed on packaging (which we’ll talk about in just a minute).
When shopping for dog food, you want to look at bags marked as either “Puppy” or “All Life Stages.” Foods designed for All Life Stages means they meet AAFCO standards for both growth and maintenance. In other words, it has everything your maturing puppy needs to thrive, and you won’t have to transition to a new food once young Fido graduates to adulthood.
I personally feed my dogs fresh food vs kibble (I feed The Farmer’s Dog, to be specific), which is formulated for all life stages, including growing large breeds. This is also the case with other fresh food subscription services, like NomNomNow and Ollie.
Don’t Fall For THESE Dog Food Marketing Tricks …
While I don’t want to overload you, if you’re new to the dog food world then it’s important to mention labels can be incredibly misleading. They’re filled with meaningless marketing buzzwords that make pet parents feel like certain foods are way healthier than they really are. Here are some important things to keep in mind when shopping for dog food:
First Ingredient (It’s Not As Impressive As You Think) – AAFCO requires food manufacturers to list ingredients in order of weight. So, naturally, you may think the first ingredient is the most prominent. But, not so fast! These labels are created before the product is cooked and processed. Since meat holds a lot of water, it weighs significantly more prior to cooking. So, if you spot a food label that lists meat first and then various grains as the second and third ingredient, there is likely more grain in the food than meat.
Ingredient Splitting – Another common way marketers sneak meat into that #1 spot is by deceptively dividing up ingredients. For example, you may see a label that looks like this: chicken, chicken meal, brown rice, white rice, rice gluten, rice bran, split peas, pea protein, potato, potato starch. But that same label could also look like this: rice, peas, chicken, potatoes. That second version isn’t as appealing, right?
The Ingredients – If a dog food bag shows photos of healthy hunks of meat and fresh vegetables, that doesn’t necessarily mean those ingredients are packed inside.
- Foods labeled with words “Dinner,” “Nugget,” or “Formula” only have to contain 25% actual meat.
- Foods labeled “with chicken,” “with beef,” or “with” any other protein only have to contain 3% meat.
- “Flavor” is perhaps the worst term. Dog food bags labeled with the word “Flavor” don’t have to contain any real meat at all.
Natural – Consumers love the word “Natural”. But, when it comes to pet food, this word doesn’t mean what you think it does. Actually, it’s a pretty useless term. Here is the formal definition of “Natural” from AAFCO. Read it carefully and don’t miss that last line!
“A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemical synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.”
Complete – You’ll often see the words “Complete and Balanced” on pet foods. But, what the heck does that mean? According to AAFCO, the term “complete” means the product contains all of the nutrients it’s supposed to. But that doesn’t mean those nutrients come from quality sources!
Red-Flag Ingredients To Avoid
- Dangerous Preservatives: Butylated-hydroxyanisole (BHA), Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), Ethoxyquin, Propylene Glycol
- Cheap Filler Ingredients: wheat, corn, soy
- Other Red Flag Ingredients: Animal by-products, nondescript fats (i.e. animal fat), high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), artificial flavors, artificial colors/food dyes
Is Fresh Food Worth The Extra Cost?
If kibble is all you can afford then opt for the highest quality kibble you possibly can (keeping in mind the tips mentioned above). But, if it’s within your budget, fresh food is the clear winner. And the earlier you start your puppy on fresh, the better!
To clarify, by “fresh food”, I mean either lightly cooked or raw foods that are made with whole food ingredients. Filled with real meats and Fido-friendly veggies, these are considered the most species-appropriate for our canine companions.
Transitioning from processed kibble to fresh food offers a lot of benefits:
- Stronger Immune System & Less Risk of Certain Diseases – Diet plays a large role in many diseases, such as diabetes and even cancer. The sad reality is, the majority of processed kibbles are filled with questionable preservatives, cheap fillers, corn syrup, and artificial ingredients. Fresh food offers better nutrition, which is the clearest path to a healthier and longer life!
- More energy – Overly processed diets, such as kibble, can be hard for a dog’s digestive system to fully break down. That means they don’t fully absorb and benefit from the nutrients. So, in essence, it goes in one end and out the other. That’s not the case with fresh ingredients. With so many more nutrients being absorbed into their system, they’re left fueled with energy.
- Better digestive health – In general, dogs who are fed a fresh food diet will produce smaller poops because the food is being more effectively absorbed into their body. On the flip side, if your dog’s food is filled with cheap fillers and excessive amounts of fiber, he may not be properly absorbing the nutrients from his meals. This will result in large and bulky stools.
- Healthier body weight – Kibble is pretty easy to pour into a bowl and leave out for your dog to graze all day. Free feeding can easily lead to overeating, which leaves your dog with a few extra lbs. Instead, fresh meals are properly portioned out and quickly gobbled up!
- Not as thirsty – Dogs who eat dry kibble tend to become excessively thirsty and will likely need more water because of the lack of moisture in their food.
- Healthier skin and shinier coat – Fresh food is filled with essential fatty acids and healthy fats that nourish your dog’s skin and transform their coat from dull to shiny.
If you choose to home-cook for your dog, consult with a canine nutritionist to ensure your meals are properly balanced. For peace of mind and convenience, there are plenty of reputable fresh food subscription services where meals are formulated by vet nutritionists and prepared with your dog in mind.
How Much Should My Puppy Eat?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t black and white. The amount of food your puppy needs will depend on a lot of factors, such as age, size, breed, and activity level. Plus, the type of food you’ve chosen to feed also matters.
If you’re feeding dry kibble, you can reference the back of the bag to see how many cups or scoops are recommended. However, keep in mind this number is relatively broad and leaves room for error. It’s better to figure out how many calories your puppy needs, which you can determine with some help from your vet and online tools (like THIS ONE from the Association For Pet Obesity Prevention).
If you are feeding fresh food from a subscription service then the company will do this work for you! You simply fill out an online form, sharing your dog’s breed, current weight, goal weight, age, lifestyle, and eating habits. Then, based on your answers, the company will calculate how many calories your dog should eat each day.
Most importantly, always keep an eye on your dog’s body shape to determine if they’re underweight, ideal, or overweight. See the key signs to watch for HERE!
As I mentioned above, finding the right puppy food to feed your fur kid can feel overwhelming. My advice: Do as much research as you can, always check ingredient labels, and don’t be afraid to call or email the manufacturer if you have questions!