Selecting the right dog food is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a new puppy owner. The food you choose will impact your puppy’s growth, development, health and behavior. With so many dog food options on the market, it can be overwhelming trying to decide what’s best for your furry friend. This comprehensive guide will walk you through how to choose a high-quality puppy food that will set your dog up for success.
Outline of Key Factors in Choosing a Puppy Food
When evaluating puppy food options, there are several key factors to consider:
- Macro and micro nutrients needed for growth and development
- Calcium and phosphorus levels for bone growth
- DHA for brain development
- Antioxidants for immune health
- High-quality animal-based proteins as first ingredient
- Whole foods over by-products
- Limited carbohydrates from fruits/veggies
- No artificial preservatives or additives
Life Stage Appropriateness
- Formulated specifically for puppies under 12 months old
- Provides extra calories for growth and activity
- Small kibble sizes appropriate for small mouths
- Produced in facilities with strict quality control
- Rigorous testing for contaminants and nutritional adequacy
- History of producing quality products
- Strong track record of sourcing quality ingredients
- Transparent about manufacturing processes
Your Puppy’s Needs
- Breed size – small, medium or large breed
- Activity level – active or more sedentary
- Any health conditions needing special diet
This article will explore each of these factors in-depth to empower you to find the healthiest diet for your pup.
Why Puppy Food Matters
Feeding your puppy a diet designed specifically for their life stage is crucial during the first year. Puppyhood represents the most rapid phase of growth and development, during which puppies can increase their body weight by 10-15 times in just a few months!
This exponential growth puts immense nutritional demands on puppies that adult or all life stage foods simply can’t meet. Puppy diets are formulated to provide:
- More total calories and protein – Fuel for accelerated muscle growth and higher activity levels
- Different calcium/phosphorus ratios – To support bone formation and development
- ** Higher fat content** – For energy needs and brain development
- Special supplements – Like DHA for cognitive maturation and antioxidants for immune health
Puppy food also uses more easily digestible ingredients and smaller kibble sizes tailored to a puppy’s digestive system and mouth size.
Feeding adult food too soon can deprive your pup of key nutrients needed for healthy development. On the flip side, sticking with puppy food for too long can lead to obesity and joint issues.
That’s why feeding a diet designed specifically for puppy growth and transitioning at the right time is so important.
Assessing Your Puppy’s Nutritional Needs
While all puppies have enhanced nutritional needs compared to adult dogs, there can be some variation depending on factors like:
- Small breeds (under 20 lbs as adults) – Require more calories per pound of body weight. They also need phosphorus levels controlled to prevent bone issues.
- Medium breeds (21-50 lbs) – Have moderate calorie needs and growth rates. Require balance of nutrients.
- Large/giant breeds (over 50 lbs) – Prone to developmental bone issues so need controlled calcium and calories. Slower growth is healthier.
- Active, working or sporting breeds – Require more protein, calories and joint-supporting nutrients.
- More sedentary breeds – Have lower calorie needs and benefit from controlled growth.
- Dogs prone to allergies – May require limited ingredient or novel protein diets.
- Dogs prone to joint issues – Benefit from controlled calcium, phosphorus and antioxidants.
- Dogs prone to obesity – Need lower fat diet with lean proteins.
Consider your pup’s expected adult size, temperament and health tendencies when choosing a food. Fortunately most quality puppy foods are designed to be flexible for different breed types and activity levels.
Puppy Nutrition 101 – Key Components of a Balanced Diet
Nutrition during puppyhood reaches far beyond calories alone. Here are the key components puppy foods must provide for full-body health and development:
Protein provides amino acids that serve as the building blocks for muscles, organs and immune system development. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommends a minimum of 22% protein for growth.
Highly digestible animal-based proteins like chicken, lamb, beef, turkey, fish and eggs should feature prominently in the ingredients list. Protein quality also matters – whole meats rather than by-products, and meal forms for concentrated nutrition.
Puppies need higher fat levels to meet energy needs for growth and play. Fat supplies fatty acids for brain development and skin health. The AAFCO minimum for puppies is 8% fat, but most puppy foods provide 18-22% fat – primarily from animal sources like chicken fat or fish oil.
Carbs provide glucose for energy. Carb sources like rice, barley or oats also supply B vitamins and fibre for digestion. Since puppies have lower carb needs, these ingredients should come later in the list. Limit high glycemic carbs like potatoes.
Calcium and Phosphorus
The right balance of calcium and phosphorus is crucial for proper bone growth and development. Excessive or deficient levels can cause lifelong skeletal issues. AAFCO minimums are 1% calcium, 0.8% phosphorus, with a 1:1 to 1.2:1 ratio. Large breeds need lower total amounts than small breeds.
Omega-3 & Omega-6 Fatty Acids
These healthy fats support skin, coat, brain and immune system development. Good sources include fish oil and chicken fat. Omega-3s are especially important for neurological development.
Vitamins and Minerals
A variety of micronutrients like vitamin E, zinc, copper and iron provide antioxidants, maintain metabolism and support enzyme function. Quality puppy foods include a broad spectrum of vitamins and chelated minerals.
An omega-3 fatty acid needed for cognition, vision and nerve development. DHA levels around 0.15% are recommended for puppies.
This covers the major nutritional components needed, but high-quality foods also include pre- and probiotics, glucosamine and other supplements to support overall health.
Reading the Ingredient List
The best way to assess the nutrient quality of a puppy food is to read the ingredient list. By law, ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight.
Ideally the first 1-2 ingredients will be specific whole meat proteins like deboned chicken or turkey meal (concentrated chicken). Whole meats contain more natural moisture though, so they can shift down the list after cooking.
Avoid generic terms like “poultry meal” and make sure there’s minimal plant protein like corn gluten meal. Also look for whole food sources of carbs and fats rather than processed sources like corn oil.
Whole foods ingredients and limited synthetic supplements demonstrate higher quality and digestibility. Ingredients to avoid include:
- By-product meals
- Artificial colors or flavors
- Propylene glycol
- BHA, BHT or ethoxyquin preservatives
- Corn, soy, wheat fillers
Reading the fine print will prevent unwanted fillers from sneaking into your pup’s diet.
Comparing Puppy Food Formats
Puppy foods come in a variety of forms including kibble, canned, dehydrated and raw. Here’s an overview of the formats:
Kibble is the most popular and convenient option. Pros:
- Easy to scoop and feed
- Promotes dental health
- Usually more affordable per ounce
- Lower moisture means lower risk of spoilage
The downside is kibble’s higher carb content. Look for grain-free or low glycemic options.
Wet foods have a high moisture content – usually around 75-78%. Benefits include:
- Easier to digest
- Contain more animal protein
- Lower carb content
- Stronger taste that fussy eaters may prefer
- Convenient option for small meals
The drawbacks are higher cost per ounce and potential for spoilage after opening.
Dehydrated and freeze-dried foods have had the moisture removed. Perks are:
- Maintain more nutrients since they’re gently processed
- Contain whole food inclusions like raw fruits/veggies
- Just add water for softer texture puppies prefer
They can be pricier than kibble though and have higher moisture content.
Raw diets aim to mimic a wolf-like ancestral diet. They contain:
- Raw whole meats, bones and organ meats
- Raw fruits/veggies
- No grains or carbs
- No cooking that destroys natural enzymes
But raw diets have high safety risks if not handled properly. They also require formulation by a canine nutrition expert to ensure balance.
Any of these formats can be nutritionally complete if formulated to meet AAFCO guidelines. Consider your pup’s unique preferences and the convenience factor for your lifestyle.
6 Key Questions to Ask About Any Puppy Food
The best way to evaluate a puppy food is to look beyond the marketing claims and ask questions about the quality and nutritional standards. Here are 6 key questions to ask:
1. Is the food AAFCO approved for growth and reproduction?
AAFCO sets nutritional standards that pet foods must meet to legally make the claim of “complete and balanced”. This includes testing the food through either a feeding trial or by formulating the diet to meet published nutrient profiles. Look for this statement of nutritional adequacy.
2. What quality of animal proteins are used?
Whole meat, fish and egg ingredients are ideal. Avoid generic terms like “meat meal” and instead look for specifics like “chicken meal”. The more details, the better.
3. What sources of carbohydrates are included?
Choose grain-free or premium grain sources like rice, barley, oatmeal. Avoid high glycemic carbs like potatoes. Limited carb sources overall are preferable.
4. What is included for brain development?
Key ingredients to nourish neurological growth include DHA omega-3s from fish oil, ARA and antioxidants. Quality fats are also crucial.
5. Are probiotics, prebiotics and digestive enzymes included?
These supplements support gut health and improve digestion and nutrient absorption. Natural sources are best.
6. Is the food made in the United States in company-owned facilities?
Foods produced domestically in company plants generally have stricter quality control standards, unlike co-packed or imported products. Made in the USA is preferred.
Getting specific answers demonstrates transparency about quality and standards. Research beyond the label claims.
Evaluating Your Puppy Food Options
To make the food selection process more concrete, let’s compare some popular commercial puppy food brands using the criteria we just covered:
| Product | Protein Source | Carb Source | Calcium/Phosphorus | DHA/EPO Inclusion | Made in USA? |
| Purina Pro Plan Puppy | Chicken, chicken meal | Brewers rice, corn | Yes | Yes | Yes |
| Hill’s Science Diet Puppy | Chicken meal, pork meal | Brown rice, corn | Yes | Yes | Yes |
| Fromm Puppy Gold | Chicken, chicken meal | Oatmeal, barley | Yes | Yes | No |
| Orijen Puppy | Fresh chicken, turkey, eggs | Lentils, navy beans | Yes | Yes | No |
| Royal Canin Puppy | Chicken meal, brown rice | Brewers rice, corn | Yes | Yes | Yes |
This table demonstrates how you can break down key components and manufacturing to directly compare foods. Prioritize options with quality animal proteins, controlled carb sources, balanced calcium and phosphorus, and DHA for brain support.
Deciphering Dog Food Claims
With clever marketing and labeling tactics, it can be tricky discerning truth from hype about many dog foods. Here’s the reality behind some common pet food claims:
Grain-free is a popular trend, but grains themselves don’t inherently cause allergies. Ingredients like corn though provide little nutrition. Avoiding corn, wheat and soy is perfectly fine, but other grains like rice and oatmeal are quality carb sources.
While the idea of a more “natural” raw food diet is appealing, raw diets are not proven to be healthier and have risks like bacterial contamination. Following safe handling guidelines is essential, yet challenging. Few commercial raw diets are truly balanced without supplements too.
This simply means the ingredients are approved for human consumption, but it doesn’t guarantee higher quality or digestibility. Terms like “premium” and “natural” are similarly unregulated. Assess the ingredient list specifically.
While vet endorsements may build credibility, most major brands can make this claim by having veterinarians on staff. It’s not necessarily an unbiased, third party recommendation.
Made in the USA
Foods manufactured domestically do adhere to stricter quality standards in most cases. But a USA source doesn’t automatically equate to higher safety or ingredients. As with any claim, look holistically at the overall diet quality.
Be a smart shopper by analyzing ingredients and nutrition rather than general packaging claims. Don’t get swayed by labels and hype.
Considering Your Budget for Puppy Food
Premium quality puppy foods that meet stringent nutritional standards do come at a price. Here are some tips for affording a healthy diet on a budget:
- Prioritize investing in quality food now while your puppy is growing rapidly. It’s a short term cost.
- Look for deals like free shipping/autoship promotions and buy larger bags to lower cost per pound/oz.
- Consider alternating a premium kibble with a more affordable canned version to stretch dollars.
- Don’t fall for “value” brands that fill food with corn, by-products, and plant protein. Low cost means low nutrition.
- Switch to an adult food around 12 months old for cost savings, once puppy growth is slowing.
Feeding your puppy right does require a financial commitment. But the long-term payoff of better health, less vet bills, and avoiding costly diet-related diseases makes it well worth the investment.
Transitioning Puppy Foods
To avoid digestive upset, you’ll want to gradually transition your puppy to a new food over 5-7 days. Follow these tips:
- Slowly mix increasing amounts of the new food into the previous food.
- If stool becomes loose, go back to the previous ratio for a few days.
- For puppies under 4 months old, transition more slowly over 10-14 days.
- Keep meals consistent during the switch and observe for signs of intolerance.
- Ensure puppy is drinking enough water as increased fiber can dehydrate.
Take your time to allow their digestive system to adapt to the changes in protein, fat and fiber sources.
Feeding Guidelines for Growing Puppies
How much to feed will depend on your puppy’s size, energy needs and the calorie content of the selected food. Here are some general feeding guidelines:
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- Small breed puppies – 1/2 to 1 cup per day, divided into 3-4 meals.
- Medium breed puppies – 1 to 2 cups per day, divided into 3-4 meals.
- Large breed puppies – 2 to 4 cups per day, divided into 3-4 meals.
Follow label guidelines based on projected adult size and adjust as needed to maintain ideal body condition – lean and fit with visible waist when viewed from above. Supplying the right portions will help support healthy growth. Monitor weight weekly.
Spotting Signs Your Puppy’s Food is Not Working
While each pup will adjust to new foods differently, watch for these possible indicators of intolerance or an unbalanced diet:
- Chronic loose stool or diarrhea
- Increased gas or vomiting
- Itchy skin, hot spots, or ear infections
- Lack of energy, acting lethargic
- Insufficient weight gain
Limited ingredient diets, probiotic supplements, or switching proteins can help resolve issues. Always consult your vet to rule out medical conditions.
Puppy Feeding FAQs
Still have questions about finding the ideal diet for your growing puppy? Here are answers to some common puppy feeding questions:
Should I give puppy vitamins or supplements?
Answer: If feeding a complete and balanced commercial puppy food, additional vitamins are generally not needed and can actually cause toxicity if overdone. But probiotic supplements can provide added digestive and immune support. Discuss any supplement plans with your vet.
How often should puppies eat?
Answer: Young puppies do best with 3-4 meals spread throughout the day to accommodate their small stomachs and high energy needs. At around 6 months old, you can transition to 2 meals a day. But continue 3 meals if your puppy acts hungry between feedings.
When should I switch to adult dog food?
Answer: The ideal time to transition is between 10-12 months old, when puppy growth is slowing down. Large and giant breed pups should switch earlier at 8-10 months to avoid developmental issues.
Can I feed human food or raw meat?
Answer: While appealing, most human foods and raw meats are not complete or balanced sources of nutrition without supplements added. They can lead to deficiencies or digestive upset.
Is it okay to feed large breed puppies a small breed formula?
Answer: No, large breed puppies have different nutritional requirements, especially around calcium and phosphorus levels. Feeding a small breed formula can put them at risk for bone and joint abnormalities. Choose a diet specifically formulated for large breeds.
What should I do if my puppy is a picky eater?
Answer: First rule out any health issues. Then try tactics like warming the food to bring out aroma, adding a bit of water to soften kibble, or mixing in a tablespoon of wet food. Avoid changing foods excessively. Be patient and keep mealtimes low-stress. With time, they will eat when truly hungry.
Is grain-free food better for puppies?
Answer: Despite marketing claims, there is no evidence grain-free diets are healthier. They can even have unintended consequences like heart disease if containing legumes. Many puppies do fine with quality whole grain carbohydrates like rice and barley. Focus more on meat-based proteins.
Should I give puppy milk replacer?
Answer: Mother’s milk provides the ideal nutrition, but after weaning milk replacers are not needed. They can even cause diarrhea. Instead transition to moistened kibble with warm water or broth for a mushy texture. A complete and balanced puppy food has all the nutrition they require.
How do I store puppy food properly?
Answer: To maintain freshness after opening, store dry food in a sealed container in a cool, dry place. Canned food can be refrigerated for up to 5 days after opening. Discard any food that smells off or is past expiration date. Proper storage prevents spoilage.
Following the guidelines provided in this article will ensure your puppy gets a nutritional foundation to thrive on. Trust your veterinarian and pet food company’s feeding instructions, observe your puppy’s needs and energy levels, and adjust portions to maintain ideal growth and body condition. Feed a high quality puppy diet, transition formulas gradually, watch for intolerance signs, and enjoy this special time watching your fur baby blossom into a healthy, happy dog!