Caitlin UltimoNutrition / Pet Diet Tips

Puppy Feeding Guide

While it is always important to feed your dogs well, it is especially important for puppies to get a good start in life with the proper nutrition. Their growing bones, muscles, brain cells and all their tissues require extra nutrients — and all in perfect balance. Not enough calories, too many calories, over supplementing or under supplementing can all cause permanent damage to your pup.

From Birth Through 4 Weeks Of Age

The perfect dog food for your puppy’s first month of life is the milk from his mother. That milk will have the best balance of nutrients for a growing puppy. Dog milk has a different blend of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals than other species’ milk.

It is especially important that puppies nurse on their mother for the first day. That early milk is called colostrum and has antibodies, which will help with disease protection. For the first 24 hours of your puppy’s life, the intestinal tract is open to absorbing larger protein molecules, such as antibodies. Mother’s milk is full of antibodies to diseases she has been exposed to or vaccinated against. Think of this as the perfect disease protection for your newborn puppy! After that first day, the puppy’s intestinal tract starts to break down the larger proteins and no more protection is absorbed.

In the past, it was traditional to supplement a puppy that was falling behind the growth curve of his litter with a formula made for puppies. Now it is believed that those pups should simply be given extra nursing time alone while the bigger puppies get supplemental formula. No formula is quite as good as mother’s milk. If you must raise or supplement puppies, a formula specifically made for puppies is the best option. Don’t substitute a kitten formula.

Puppies should be weighed daily with a very accurate scale. While a pup may not gain weight the first day, there should be steady weight gains after that. If a puppy loses weight or fails to gain, contact your veterinarian. Make sure the mother is getting plenty of excellent and extra nutrition, too. She needs it to produce milk for her puppies.

Weaning Begins

Around 5 weeks of age or so, most dog breeders start to wean their puppies. Some dog breeders start weaning as early as 3 to 4 weeks of age, especially with a large litter. The mother may still nurse them for another couple of weeks, but nursing puppies is a huge drain on her. Puppies switch over to “real food” quite easily, although it can be a messy rodeo at first!

Weaning formulas vary dramatically. There are “family recipes” handed down for generations involving things like goat’s milk, raw hamburger, etc. Your best and safest option for your puppies is to use a commercially made, balanced food for puppies. Kibble should be softened with water or broth to a soupy texture at first.

To get the puppies interested, dip your finger into the mush and then let them lick it. Puppies quickly learn to lap up the food. Be prepared to bathe or at least wipe off each puppy after a meal. At first they wear as much food as they consume! Make sure each pup is getting his fair share. Separate dog bowls given under supervision is ideal: Offering food in a muffin pan with pups spread out around the edges works well, too.

If you prefer to home cook or feed your puppies a raw diet, extra effort is required. Food hygiene needs to be excellent. In addition, contact a veterinary nutritionist for a recipe that is puppy-specific. Things like the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio must be perfectly set and balanced in the diet, or your puppy may end up with deformed bones.

While feeding your weaning mix, there is no standard set of directions for how much to feed. Continue to weigh your puppies daily. You want pups that are growing but not overweight. There should be a “waist” when you look down from above. The really round pups you see photos of are often overweight or have parasites.

If the puppies are still nursing a bit, figure on offering them three or four meals a day. Toy and small breed pups may need some extra snacks, as they are susceptible to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Puppies eating from a muffin tin with food measured out in the four corners.

A muffin tin with food measured out in the four corners can work well to feed multiple puppies at once. Courtesy of Deb Eldredge, DVM

A Puppy’s Diet After Weaning

Once puppies are fully weaned, continue to watch their diet and their weight. Puppy foods are specifically formulated for ideal growth, including supplements for best brain development. DHA, the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid, has been shown to maximize healthy brain development in puppies. This is found in fish oil and is now added to most complete puppy foods.

Commercial puppy foods are complete and balanced for growth. Beyond that, some companies have developed formulas for different groups of puppies. For large- and giant-breed puppies, the amount of calories, protein, calcium and phosphorus has to be perfect to maximize a slow but steady growth and avoid any orthopedic problems. You don’t want your Great Dane to grow too fast. Many large- and giant-breed dogs don’t reach adult size until they are more than a year of age.

Small- and toy-breed pups need a nutrient-dense food because they reach mature size so quickly and can’t physically eat large amounts of food. These “mighty midgets” are often at adult size by 9 to 12 months of age.

It is very difficult to get an ideal balanced diet for growth through home cooking or raw food, but it can be done with extra effort. Be prepared to pay a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a diet for you, and expect that the diet may need to be tweaked as your puppy grows. Many people who cook or feed raw also feed some kibble. If you travel with your puppy or need to board your puppy, this makes feeding much easier and safer.

A Closer Look At Puppy Food Ingredients

When you compare a puppy food to an adult dog food, you will notice some differences. Guidelines established by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) require more of almost every ingredient for puppy food versus adult food. The exception is vitamins, which can easily be overdosed. The minimum protein requirement for puppies is 22 percent on a dry matter basis, while 18 is the minimum for adult dogs. One percent calcium with 0.8 percent phosphorus is listed for puppies, while adult dogs need 0.6 of calcium and 0.5 of phosphorus. Puppy foods will contain more fat and often have DHA added for brain development.

As with a top-quality adult dog food, look for puppy diets with meat proteins listed first. (Dog food ingredients are listed by weight, so if meat is right at the top, you know your dog is getting some good nutrition). In dog food, you tend to get what you pay for. Premium foods will be more expensive, but over the long run, you will end up feeding less because the food is more nutritious and digestible.

First Days Home With A Weaned Puppy

When you bring your puppy home, the breeder will usually send some of the food your puppy has been eating home with you. A rescue or shelter should be able to tell you what food your puppy has been eating so you can duplicate that at first. Your puppy is already facing enough changes and challenges, so feed what he is used to for the first week. You can then gradually change over if you wish to try a different food.

Don’t fall into the trap of leaving food down at all times for your puppy to graze on at leisure. Set up meal times and leave a dish of food down for 10 minutes. This prevents a puppy from overeating and helps with housebreaking, because most pups will eliminate shortly after eating. With set meals you also know exactly when your puppy last ate and how much. If he has a problem, you will be aware of it right away.

Tips For Changing Puppy Food

A recommended schedule for diet changes is to use 25 percent of the new diet mixed with 75 percent of the current diet for three days. Then switch to 50/50 for three days. After that, go to 75 percent of the new diet with 25 percent of the old diet for three days. At that point you can go to feeding only the new, chosen diet. This same changeover schedule will work when you shift your puppy to an adult food later on.

Determining When A Puppy Graduates To Adult Food

When to shift your pup over to adult food will depend partly on his size and growth rate. Many toy- and small-breed dogs and mixed breeds have their full size by 10 to 12 months of age. While a very active small dog may benefit from an extra snack during the day, he can start the change to an adult diet. Large- and giant-breed dogs may not reach full growth until 18 months or older. Consult your dog’s breeder and veterinarian for guidance about switching to adult food. Follow the tips for changing to a new diet to make the switch to adult food.

A happy puppy being walked outside in a garden by its owner.

At 12 weeks of age, a puppy should be fit and have a slight “tuck up” in front of his rear legs. Courtesy of Deb Eldredge, DVM

Puppy Feeding Schedule

Most puppies do best with three meals a day until 6 months of age, then switching over to two meals a day. For toy- and small-breed dogs, four meals a day until 6 months, then three meals a day may be best. Obviously you will have to set up your puppy’s schedule around your schedule, but it can be done. That extra midday meal is only necessary for a short time. A sample puppy feeding schedule would be:

  • Breakfast at 6 a.m., followed by a short time outside to eliminate and then a walk 30 to 60 minutes later
  • Lunch at noon, followed by a quick pee walk, some quiet time and then another walk
  • Dinner at 6 p.m. or 5 p.m. depending on your schedule, followed by a short time outside and then a walk 30 to 60 minutes later

Note: For toy and small dogs, offer another meal or planned snack about 10 p.m. At 6 months of age, the noon meal can generally be dropped.

Water Needs For Puppies

Your puppy should have access to fresh, clean water most of the time. It can help to remove water an hour or two before bedtime, just to help with sleeping through the night. When you are away during the day, water should always be available. Many puppies will play in and spill their water. Good options are a large drinking tube – like a rabbit would use — or freezing water in a bowl, so it will slowly melt over the day.

How Much Food To Feed Puppies

How much to feed your puppy is an art as well as a science. You want your pup to get adequate nutrients but not get overweight. The packaging for your pup’s diet will have suggested feeding amounts. Those really are “suggestions.” Even within the same litter, one pup may be more active while another may be quiet but a real “chowhound.”

Your best guidance for how much to feed is following a body condition score program such as the Purina 9 point score. Ideally you want your puppy at a 4 to 5 score. That means an obvious “waist” from above with a “tuck up” in front of the hind legs from the side. His ribs should be easy to feel. Use something to accurately measure the food like a scale for weighing out portions or a measuring cup. “A handful” can really vary in amount depending on whose hand is involved.

Treats For Puppies

Treats are an inevitable part of every puppy’s life. Limit treats to 10 percent or less of his diet. Stick to healthy dog treats — you can use some of his regular kibble, treats made just for puppies or special things like small pieces of cooked chicken breast. You can use these same types of treats for training class with your pup.

At first, feeding your puppy may seem a bit overwhelming. Common sense along with some good advice from your veterinarian and your puppy’s breeder can make smooth sailing for healthy development.

By: Dr. Deb M. Eldredge

Featured Image: Laures/iStock/Thinkstock