It’s hard work being a puppy. Their days are full of playing, sleeping, and eating. Because young dogs are growing and developing quickly, it’s essential that they are fed a diet that provides all the nutrients they need in the right proportions. A deficiency or excess of nutrients can result in poor growth, bone abnormalities and neurological disorders1,2
Too much calcium in the diet of growing puppies can increase the incidence of bone diseases, while too little results in soft bones that don’t properly support the pup’s weight. Some nutrients are essential for skin health; the main deficiencies of essential fatty acids, zinc, and vitamin A in particular can result in skin disorders. Thiamine deficiency is characterised by mental dullness. It’s not common in dogs, but it can occur.
With so many commercial foods available for puppies, it can be difficult for a pet owner to know which one to choose. And it’s even more challenging for those who wish to feed their new canine family member a homemade diet. So, how do you choose?
Commercial vs home-made meals
There are a number of advantages to feeding your pup commercial food. These foods are nutritionally balanced so you know they are getting everything they need to grow up strong and healthy. Some pups find them a bit unpalatable when compared to home-made meals, but to counter this you can add some commercial canned or semi-moist food to make their meal taste a little better. It’s fine to add some fruit and vegetables, and even some leftovers from your meal to your pup’s dinner bowl, but this should make up no more than 10% of their daily calorie intake or you can run the risk of making their diet unbalanced.
You’ll notice your pup’s water intake will vary depending on the food they’re eating, too. Pups on a predominantly dry food diet will drink more than a pup eating canned or moist food. This is because the latter pups are taking in part of their water requirements in their diet.
Some pet owners have concerns about what’s actually in commercial foods. This is a valid concern because one study suggested that there can indeed be a disparity between what meats were included in a pet food and those that were listed on the label3. It’s fair to say that premium foods that cost a little more are likely to have better quality ingredients.
Are home-made foods any better for your pup though? Not necessarily. These menus are much more likely to be unbalanced, and increase the risk of nutrient related health issues. One study found that out of 200 recipes for home-cooked dog food, only five could be considered nutritional enough for dogs4.
In spite of that, there are advantages to this method of feeding puppies. These foods tend to be very tasty, pups eat them with gusto, and pet owners know exactly what’s in these foods.
What, and how much, to feed your puppy
Because correct nutrition is so critical during a puppy’s period of rapid growth, the ideal option is to choose a commercial food that’s from a reputable manufacturer and that’s specifically formulated for puppies. If you do prefer to feed your pup a homemade diet, then it’s essential you seek advice from a veterinary nutritionist. Many nutrition specialists won’t formulate homemade recipes for puppies because even subtle mistakes at this life stage can have long term effects. Their suggestion, therefore, is to give your pup a commercial food for the first 12-18 months of their life, and when they’ve finished growing you can then look at a wider range of feeding options.
You do need to take into account your pup’s breed and size when choosing a food for them because this will influence the amount of energy they need in their diet, too5. Giant breeds should be fed a giant breed formula of puppy food. This is because these foods have a balance of nutrients and energy that controls their growth rate and thus reduces the risk of orthopaedic conditions6. Smaller breeds reach physical maturity at a younger age so have a shorter period of growth. This means they’re less likely to be affected by the health issues associated with rapid growth rates.
Another important factor in feeding your growing puppy is how much to put in their dinner bowl. Dog foods have feeding guidelines printed on their packaging and this can be used as a starting point. You can then adjust how much your pup is fed depending on their body condition. If they’re losing weight, then give them a little more. Conversely if they’re getting a little too cuddly and you can no longer feel their ribs, then cut back on how much you feed them. You should be able to feel their ribs and see a nice tucked up tummy.
Scientists don’t yet know everything about dog nutrition, but what they do know is that how you feed your dog in their first 12-18 months of life can have a massive impact on their future health.
1Becker, N, Kienzle, E, Dobenecker, B, 2012. [Calcium deficiency: a problem in growing and adult dogs: two case reports]. [Article in German]. Tierarztl Prax Ausg K Kleintiere Heimtiere, 40(2), 135-9.
2Hutchinson, D, Freeman, LM, McCarthy, R, Anastasio, J, Shaw SP, Sutherland-Smith J, 2012. Seizures and severe nutrient deficiencies in a puppy fed a homemade diet. J Am Vet Med Assoc., 241(4), 477-83.
3Hsieh , MK, Shih, PY, Wei, CF, Vickroy TW, Chou CC, 2016. Detection of undeclared animal by-products in commercial canine canned foods: Comparative analyses by ELISA and PCR-RFLP coupled with slab gel electrophoresis or capillary gel electrophoresis. J Sci Food Agric., 96(5), 1659-65.
4Stockman, J, Fascetti, AJ, Kass, PH, Larsen, JA.2013. Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242(11), 1500-1505.
5Dobenecker, B, Endres V, Kienzle E, 2013. Energy requirements of puppies of two different breeds for ideal growth from weaning to 28 weeks of age. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl), 97(1), 190-6.
6Larsen, J, 2010. Focus on nutrition: feeding large breed puppies. Compend Contin Educ Vet, 32(5), E1-4.
Dr Audrey Harvey is a graduate of the University of Queensland, Australia, and has worked in small animal practices for 25 years. She is particularly interested in obesity management and the role of exercise in resolving behaviour problems in dogs.