Bringing a puppy into your home and your family is a wonderful thing! But it’s also a huge responsibility. You will take care of a fast growing “toddler”, who needs all the right things to thrive and develop into a healthy grown up dog. Above all your precious little furball, or perhaps long-legged hooligan ;-), needs the very best puppy food!
And this is where we at Thriving Mutts want to help. With so many brands, so many diets and so many well meaning advices from all around, it’s not an easy task to find out what is the right choice. Should you go grain-free? Organic? Is wet or dry puppy food the best? Do small breed and large breed puppies need different food? What if your pup has a sensitive stomach?
We will do our very best to answer all these questions and quite a few more in this article. We hope that you will leave feeling you know what is the best dog food for puppies of all kinds!
Puppies grow fast! Up to about the age of three months they need twice the amount of energy compared to an adult dog. This means their food has to have a high energy density and they need to eat more often. As long as the puppy nurses completely this regulates itself.
But you don’t want to overdo it either, a fat or chubby pup is not a healthy pup. You need to keep your puppy slim so it grows in a steady and calm pace. This is especially important for large breeds. That way it develops into a robust and healthy adult dog with a durable body.
A pup that is too heavy can suffer dire consequences, like skeleton and joint deformities. It also risks becoming overweight as an adult. Studies have shown that puppies carrying extra weight, no matter whether it is excess body fat or a weight belt, commonly develop skeletal problems like hip dysplasia. This is especially true for large breed puppies.
Small breeds grow up to the age of one year, and during this time they still have an enhanced need for energy although less than during their first three months.
Large breeds grow both faster and for a longer time period than small ones. During their first year of life they can increase their weight one hundred times. A growth rate that like that for a human infant would mean a 7 lbs baby would weigh 700 lbs by the time it turned one year!
An Irish Wolfhound puppy weighs about 1 lb at birth, and by the end of its first year has reached impressive 100 lbs.
Keep an eye on your pup's weight!
A good piece of advice is to examine your pup and weigh it a regular basis and compare its growth curve with an average for the breed. If you have a mixed breed you’ll have to use your common sense and look at and feel through your pup. A general guideline is that you should not be able to see but easily feel the ribs if you press very lightly on the rib cage. This goes for dogs of all ages.
Large breed dogs also continue to grow during their second year, as opposed to the small breeds who reach their adult size and weight after one year.
During its comparably short growth phase the puppy will build its entire body with skeleton, muscles, internal organs and tissues. It’s easy to understand that this requires the right kind and the right amount of nutrients. In short, the best food for puppies!
Puppies need more energy in their food than adult dogs. They also need different amounts of vitamins and minerals than a fully grown and matured dog do. During the puppy’s growth period it will develop all the structures needed in the body, like bone and teeth and cardiovascular system, and the quality of those will depend on the quality of the food. His or hers future health is dependent on the food given during that phase in the pup's life when body growth and development takes place.
So, the answer to the question above is no, puppies can not eat adult dog if you want to give them the best possible conditions for developing a healthy body.
As you now know, puppies need a lot of energy and nutrients to build healthy bodies. As long as they nurse solely, you only need to make sure that the dog mum gets enough to eat of a food that is adapted for a nursing bitch and her needs. The puppies will then get what they need and in the right amount from her milk.
When your pup comes home to you, usually at the age of 8 weeks or more, it will be weaned and eating solid food. Now you need to know how often to feed your sweet little pup. Below are general recommendations.
The answer to this depends on the breed.Toy or small breeds like Chihuahua and Miniature Schnauzer can be considered adults at the age of only 9 months. Large breeds like Great Dane or Irish Wolfhound on the other hand do not become adult dogs until they approach 24 months. Quite a difference!
This means that a Papillon can and should be fed adult dog food well before its first birthday, while a St. Bernard should stay on puppy food well past that point.
It’s important to not make the switch too early, since that may deprive your puppy of the right amounts of nutrients for its still growing body. It’s especially important for large breeds since that may put their skeletal health in jeopardy.
If you notice your dog gaining weight even though you follow the feeding recommendations on the bag of your puppy food, it might be time to switch to adult dog food if your dog is near the supposed age of maturity. Remember, it's important that your dog does not get obese!
Some say it's wet food, and others say dry food. Yet another source claims a mix between the two is optimal. We here at Thriving Mutts don't think either one is necessarily the best choice.
What matters is instead the composition of the food. What are the ingredients? What is the protein source? How is the ratio between fat and proteins? What kind of fats are in the food? What is the amount of carbohydrates in the food?
This is what you want to see in the ingredients list:
We are strong advocates of grain-free puppy food. Grains are not a part of the diet that canines have evolved to thrive on. Even though dogs have developed the capacity to tolerate and process grains, they do not need it. However, there are few brands that have gone all the way and actually excluded grains altogether from their puppy food. We have compiled a list of the brands that do the best job! Read about the best grain-free puppy food here (link coming soon!).
Why we like it:
Since large breed puppies grow both faster and for a longer time compared to small or toy breeds, their bones must form and change fast, which puts them at greater risk of developing deformed joints. It's a good idea to use a food that is designed to meet their needs specifically.
So what do you need to look out for then? Contrary to common belief it’s not about protein levels. There is actually no evidence to support the statement that a high protein intake should have anything to do with skeletal problems in dogs of a large breed.
The main issue is instead overfeeding, since obesity in the growing pup can cause bones and joints to form improperly.
Also, the calcium and phosphorus levels are important. Not too low, but also not too high. The digestive tracts of puppies are not fully matured, and feeding them an excessive amount of calcium can cause their bodies to absorb too much leading to skeletal problems.
The best puppy food for large breeds is therefore less dense in energy and contains less calcium and phosphorus. The recommendations from AFFCO is 1.2 to 1.8% calcium, 1.0 to 1.6% phosphorus and a calcium-to-phosphorus ratio of 1:1 to 1.8:1.
So do you need to scrutinize the nutrient list on every package to be able to choose the very best large breed puppy food? Actually, no. What you do need to look out for is the so called Nutritional Adequacy Statement.
It’s essential that the statement says that the food meets the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO for “All life stages” (ALS) or “Growth”.
BUT is extremely important that is also says “including growth of large size dogs”. This means that the levels of calcium are on the safe side for your puppy. Do not settle for only ALS and/or Growth, since that may mean the food contains unhealthy levels of calcium for a giant or large breed puppy.To make it even better, we have put together a list of the brands and the products we like and think meet our criteria for a dependable and nutritious food for a lareg or even giant breed puppy. You find it here!
Why we like it:
Now we know what large breed puppies need, so what about the li'l ones?
Puppies need the same kind of nutrients that adult dogs do, but not in the same ratios. Just like with the energy content in the food the levels of nutrients need to be adapted to the demands of a growing pup.
These are the groups of nutrients the food must (not altogether true for one nutrient group actually!) include (unprioritized order):
Let’s look at the importance of these nutrients and what they do in the puppy’s growing body.
In society in general fats are considered bad. Nothing could be more wrong than this. Good quality fats are essential for several functions in the puppy's body.
Fats and oils are the main and most concentrated source of energy in the diet.
Fats are built from fatty acids. The fatty acids are building blocks for important substances that are necessary to maintain normal and healthy cells. These are examples of functions in the puppy’s and dog’s body where fat plays an essential role:
Fats are also vital for the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
There are two so called essential fatty acids (EFAs) that it is considered that the dog must get through the food. This is because the dog’s body cannot synthesize those from other fatty acids, and thus has to eat it. These are omega 6 – LA (Linolenic Acid) and omega 3 – ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid).
From these two essential fatty acids the dog’s body can build the other fatty acids it needs.
Omega 6 – LA is available from many vegetable sources. In the wild wolves and wild dogs probably get those from the stomach contents of their prey. With our domestic dogs and puppies, we must make sure that their food contains ingredients that will supply the omega 6 – LA.
Omega 3 – ALA is found in grazing animals and fatty fish like salmon. However, the meat from both of these animals also contain the long chain omega 3 fatty acids that are formed from ALA. Because of this it’s actually being debated whether omega 3 – ALA is indeed an EFA for dogs. Do you need to care about this? Not really, as long as you make sure your pup’s food contains meat from grazing animals or fatty fish.
A problem with many modern dog foods is that they often contain a lot of vegetables and refined vegetable oils. The most common oils in dog foods are corn oil, sunflower oil and canola oil. This causes an imbalance in the proportions between omega 3 and omega 6, with too much omega 6.
That imbalance can cause problems with skin and hair, fatigue and muscle and joint pains. Also renal problems may be caused by an excess of omega 6 in proportion to omega 3.
According to advocates for a natural meat based diet the optimal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is about 3:1 for dogs and puppies. This means slightly more omega 6 than omega 3.
So you see, this is an important nutritional factor to consider when choosing a healthy puppy food.
Puppies have a higher demand for fat in their diet than adult dogs. According to petmd.com, AAFCO and other sources puppies need a minimum of 8.5% fat in their food (dry weight). You can compare this to 5.5% for an adult dog. This is one of the reasons why adult dog food is not appropriate for a puppy.
Proteins have three main functions in the body. They are primarily building blocks and enzymes but they are also energy.
Just like fats are built from fatty acids, so are proteins built from amino acids. And also like fats, some amino acids are essential, meaning that the dog cannot make them in its body but has to eat them.
When the puppy eats food with proteins, the digestive tract breaks down the protein molecules so the amino acids become free. One protein may consist of anything from a few to several thousands of amino acids.
The free amino acids can then be used where they are needed in the body. The body has the ability to build new proteins from the available amino acids.
So what do the proteins do in the puppy’s body?
Puppies need more proteins in their diet than an adult dog. Not surprising, since they grow rapidly. The amount of protein needed lessens with age during the first year because the growth rate lessens. While a young puppy below the age of 14 weeks needs a minimum of 22% protein (dry weight) in its diet, an adult dog needs a minimum of about 18%.
A very common question is if it is dangerous to feed a dog, puppy or adult, too much protein. In general the answer to this is no. The protein that the dog’s body does not have use for is metabolized and used as energy. Please note that if your dog suffers from any kind of kidney disease protein intake must be monitored and you should your veterinarian's advice.
The myth that the puppy will grow too fast if it gets too much protein is simply that, a myth. The growth rate is determined by genetic factors. All that will happen if you overfeed your young dog giving it too much energy in the food is that it will become overweight.
Especially large breed puppies that gain weight too quickly because of excess energy in their food risk abnormal joint development. This can cause problems like arthritis later on.
Not all protein is equal in regard to how valuable it is in the food. An important factor is the so called biological value. This tells how much of the protein can actually be used by the dog’s body. Egg has the highest value that is 100, fish meal has 92 and beef (that is meat that has not been processed) around 78. Bone and meat meal and wheat have a value around 50 and corn as low as 45.
One also has to consider what kind of amino acids the protein in the food consists of. For example, bone and most vegetables are not sufficient when it comes to the amino acid composition.
All this means that just because the food has a high proportion of protein it is not necessarily a high quality feed. You have to evaluate the protein sources used for the food. To do this you need to read the ingredients on the package and note the order in which they appear. The ingredient that has the highest content in the food is listed first. If this is corn or wheat it is probably not a high quality food for your puppy.
Phew, this is a lot to think about! How on earth will you ever be able to determine what is the best food for you puppy? Stay calm, we have you covered. We will provide you with the guides you need to make an informed choice. But let’s move on and look at the next group of nutrients!
This nutrient group is the third and final one that contributes to the energy content in the food. They are important for… wait a minute, what was it now? Actually, they are not that important! There is no required minimum level for the carbohydrate intake, neither for adult dogs nor for puppies. According to a trustworthy source, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, carbs are not considered an essential part of a dog’s or puppy’s diet. In short, they don’t need them.
This being said, let’s look at what positive or negative effects carbohydrates might have for the puppy’s body and healthy growth.
Carbohydrates can be divided into simple and complex. The simple ones are different kinds of sugars, in for example table sugar, fruits and honey. They are easily digested and absorbed from the small intestine as glucose. A dog and especially a puppy has no need for these. As is indeed the case also for humans, these kinds of carbohydrates risk making the puppy fat.
Complex carbohydrates are further divided into starch and dietary fibers. Starch is the portion of the complex carbs that the dog can use as energy. It is found in grains, potatoes, peas and beans. These are not bad for the puppy in small quantities, but they are not needed either.
The other portion of the complex carbs, the dietary fibers, cannot be used for energy by the dog. They can still be beneficial though.
The soluble fibers are fermented in the large intestine, the colon, which helps maintaining a healthy bacterial flora which in turn is a part of the immune system in the colon. Natural prebiotics! The bacteria breaks down the soluble fibers to short chain fatty acids that can be used as an energy source for the cells lining the colon. Kind of a two-in-one effect.
In short, soluble fibers keep the “good” bacteria happy and thriving, thus minimizing the growth of the “bad” bacteria.
The fibers that are insoluble pass through the intestinal canal largely unchanged. Their contribution is to increase the volume of the food as well as the stool. If your dog or puppy has become obese, this can be a way of making your dog feel full without adding extra energy to the food. But don’t overdo it, an excess of fibers can cause diarrhea.
In short, puppies can tolerate but do not need carbohydrates in their food. Nor does an adult dog. So why do the dog food industry continue to stuff their products with large amounts of carbs from wheat, rice, corn, potatoes or barley and the like? The answers have nothing to do with puppy health:
Holy moly, yet another factor to take into consideration when choosing a healthy puppy food! Stay tuned, we promise to take you by the hand and lead you through the nutritional jungle. You will come out on the other side with the knowledge you need to provide your sweet canine youngster with the healthy food it needs!
We all know that vitamins are important, but I don’t think we quite realize just how important they are. Vitamin deficiency when the dog is still a growing pup can cause lifelong health problems. But, it can be just as detrimental or even worse to overdose some vitamins, especially vitamin A and D.
Let’s go through the vitamins, where to find them and what their job is in the puppy’s body:
Vitamin A* is a fat soluble vitamin. The main sources are fish, eggs, liver and some vegetables like carrots, spinach and sweet potatoes. Dogs and puppies need vitamin A for a healthy vision and for well functioning immune system. It’s also important for growth and cell function. Since it’s fat soluble it is stored in fatty tissues and in the liver. This means it has the potential to reach toxic levels. Overdosing vitamin A from food is hard, but you should only give supplemental vitamin A under veterinary supervision.
Vitamin B is actually a group of vitamins, all water soluble:
And we are finally done with the vitamin B complex! Let’s move on to the next and last water soluble vitamin.
Vitamin C is as important to dogs as it is to humans. It is needed for the synthesis of collagen, the most abundant protein in the dog’s body. It is the main structural protein, in blood vessels, skin, muscles, tendons and bowels. It’s what makes skin elastic and strong. It’s also an important antioxidant.
Dogs have a huge advantage over people when it comes to vitamin C, since they can produce it themselves in the liver. That’s how wolves only feeding on meat can still thrive! This also means that dog food do not have to contain vitamin C, and it is indeed not included it in AAFCO’s nutrient profile for dogs.
In some cases, under veterinary supervision, supplementing vitamin C is considered beneficial.
Vitamin D (Calciferol*) is a fat soluble vitamin. It is needed in the pup’s body to promote calcium absorption, which is necessary for developing healthy bones and teeth. It’s also involved in heart regulation, thyroid function and blood clotting. Many animals, including humans, produce most of the needed vitamin D in their skin when exposed to sunshine (UV radiation). Dogs need to get their vitamin D through their diet, they produce very low levels in their skin. Dietary sources are meat, especially organ meat, and fatty fish. Like B12, vitamin D is only found in animals, there are no vegetable sources.
Vitamin E (Tocopherol*) is also a fat soluble vitamin, which means it is possible to overdose since it is stored in the liver and the fatty tissues in the dog’s body. But don’t get me wrong here, vitamin E is most certainly an important vitamin! This vitamin helps defend your puppy’s body against oxidative damage. Deficiency can cause cell damage to the heart, liver, nervous system and muscles. Vitamin E promotes fertility, skin and coat health and boosts the immune system. Food sources for dogs are mainly organ meats like kidney and liver, but also ostrich and sardines (perhaps ostrich is not the most common meat to feed your dog though). Grass-fed meats contain about four times the amount of biologically available E vitamins compared to grain-fed. Food for thought!
Bored with all the vitamins? Relax, we have come to the last one!
Vitamin K (Naphthoquinone) is another vitamin that the dog (as indeed humans) can synthesize internally. Vitamin K is produced by the bacteria that inhabits a healthy intestinal tract. And just like vitamin C it therefore not included in food nutrient profile for dogs by AAFCO. However, should your puppy have gastrointestinal problems or has undergone antibiotic therapy (killing the vitamin producing bacteria in the gut) you should consult with a veterinarian on whether a vitamin K supplement is needed. Vitamin K is also available in eggs, liver and sardines. Vitamin K is not only important for but actually required for blood clotting. It also helps in bone formation.
If a dog has swallowed rat poison containing warfarin, treatment with vitamin K is necessary. The warfarin blocks the synthesis of vitamin K in the dogs intestines, and the dog may die from internal bleeding if not treated. This must always be done under supervision of a veterinarian!
Minerals are inorganic substances or compounds that plants absorb from the earth. No animal can synthesize minerals, but have to eat plants or animals that have eaten the plants.
Never give minerals as a supplement unless your veterinarian has approved, since overdosing of some minerals can be toxic for your dog. In some cases the balance between different minerals is also very important and not to be experimented with.
Minerals are usually divided into macrominerals that are required in larger amounts in the puppy’s diet than the microminerals. Microminerals are also sometimes called trace minerals, and are needed in much smaller amounts.
Calcium* is probably the most well known mineral. It is necessary for bone and teeth formation, and for plenty of other functions in the body such as regular heartbeat and nerve impulse transmission. Main sources for a puppy should be raw bones or bone meal in the food.
Phosphorus* works together with calcium to form and maintain bone and teeth. It’s also involved in cell growth, kidney function and heart muscle contraction.
Magnesium* is also involved in the formation of bone and teeth (and this is where the balance is so important!). It is also important for cellular metabolism, that means every cell in the body needs it.
Sulfur aids in wound healing and the formation and maintenance of healthy claws, skin and coat. It also helps to detoxify the body.
Potassium* and Sodium* are stablemates in the body. Together they regulate fluid balance in all body cells. They are needed for the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
Chloride* is needed to maintain the acid-alkaline balance in the body. It is a part of the hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
We will not describe the function of each of these minerals separately here, but that does not mean they are less important. Microminerals are boron, cobalt, copper*, fluoride, iodine*, iron*, molybdenum, silicon, manganese*, selenium* and zinc*. Quite a bunch! Examples of what they are needed for are transport of oxygen in the blood, formation of bone and collagen, growth and metabolic rate regulation, and assisting many of the vitamins.
Although needed in small amounts, microminerals are not to be neglected in your puppy’s diet.
Minerals can be hard for the puppy's digestive tract to absorb. This means they may pass though the canal and get wasted in the stool. To improve the absorption of some of the minerals that are the hardest to absorb, a process called chelation can be used.
Simply put, this means that the minerals are attached to an organic compound like amino acids or complex sugars. This is especially beneficial when it comes to some of the trace minerals like zinc, copper and iron.
If you find the term chelated minerals in the ingredients list for your puppy food, this is a good thing that will improve the uptake of those important nutrients in your pup's body. It is also a sign that the dog food manufacturer strives towards producing a high quality food.