The first six to twelve months of your pup’s life is a very important time. This is when you lay the groundwork for future good health and behaviour. Careful training and socialisation will result in a well-adjusted, well-mannered dog, and the correct diet will provide all the nutrition they need to allow them to develop into a healthy adult.
Part of feeding your pup properly is choosing the right food. Pups need a balanced diet that provides all the essential nutrients in the correct proportions. Excesses or deficiencies of these nutrients can lead to ill health, poor growth, and joint problems. The easiest way to provide this is with a commercial puppy diet, and there are a number of brands and varieties for you to choose from.
How much do I give them?
This is primarily influenced by your pup’s age and breed. It makes sense that older pups need more food than youngsters purely because of their greater body weight. However, the expected adult size of your dog is also very important1. Different sized dogs have different rates of growth, with smaller and medium sized breeds growing faster and reaching physical maturity at a younger age than larger dogs. Large and giant breeds need more energy to grow, however if they grow too fast they can suffer from developmental orthopaedic diseases. If you share your life with a large breed puppy, choose a puppy food that’s specifically formulated for giant breeds. These foods still meet all their nutritional needs but are designed to slow down their growth rate for better joint health.
Mother’s milk for young pups
Your pup’s first food is their mother’s milk. This is the perfect food for babies: it’s nutritionally balanced, it’s easily digestible, and the antibodies in the colostrum, or first milk, protects them from diseases. It’s also available ‘on tap’ and at the perfect temperature.
Sometimes, pups don’t have access to this milk. Perhaps their mother has died or has rejected her babies. Under these circumstances, pups can be fed a commercial milk replacement formula. Although there is some variation between brands2, these formulas are closely matched to the nutritional content of dog milk and can be fed to puppies right through to weaning. There are instructions on the packaging that explain how much formula to feed a pup and how often.
When can I start weaning my pup?
Pups can start being weaned from their mothers when they’re three to four weeks old. They can be offered a good quality dry puppy food; that has been softened with warm water until it is mushy so it’s easier for them to eat. Alternatively, pups can eat puppy canned food blended with a milk replacement formula that has been warmed up. The key is to make their first meals soft and easy to chew and swallow. In the early days pups can eat any puppy food, but at around seven or eight weeks old giant breed pups can be transitioned onto a giant breed formula for the next 12-18 months.
They may need feeding four times a day in the early stages, and be prepared for some mess while they figure out how to eat properly. Sometimes it will look like they’re wearing more food than they’re swallowing.
Perfect post-weaning nutrition
After weaning, pups can continue to eat a complete and balanced commercial puppy formula for 12-18 months depending on breed. They can have extras like dinner leftovers, vegetables, and fruits as long as they don’t make up more than 10% of their diet. It’s a good idea to expose pups to a wide variety of tastes and textures so they don’t develop fussy eating habits, however there are some foods that are dangerous for them and should be kept right out of their dinner bowl — chocolate, garlic, onions, grapes, or foods containing the artificial sweetener xylitol being examples.
Avoid leaving food out for your pup to help themselves, too. Studies have shown that pups that have their meal size carefully controlled, so they don’t eat excess calories, have a lower incidence of osteoarthritis in their hips, elbows, and shoulders as they get older3,4. They also enjoy a longer lifespan5. To properly regulate how much your pup eats, you need to become familiar with body condition scoring in dogs. This is a method of evaluating whether a dog is at an appropriate size and weight, and relies on a hands-on and visual inspection of their torso both from above and beside. Body condition is scored from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (morbidly obese), and you should aim to keep your pup at a score of 4 to keep its wellbeing well balanced. Do this by adjusting the amount of food they’re given up or down depending on how they look and feel.
While the diet you feed your pup stays consistent throughout their growing years, the amount will change as they mature. By choosing the right food and feeding them the right amount, you’ll give them the best opportunity to grow up into a lean and healthy adult.
1Dobenecker, 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. 2Heinze, CR, Freeman, LM, Martin, CR, Power, ML, Fascetti, AJ, 2014. Comparison of the nutrient composition of commercial dog milk replacers with that of dog milk. J Am Vet Med Assoc., 244(12), 1413-22. 3Runge, JJ, Biery, DN, Lawler, DF, Gregor, TP, Evans, RH, Kealy, RD, Szabo, SD, Smith, GK, 2008. The effects of lifetime food restriction on the development of osteoarthritis in the canine shoulder. Vet Surg, 37(1), 102-7. 4Smith, GK, Paster, ER, Powers, MY, Lawler, DF, Biery, DN, Shofer, FS, McKelvie, PJ, Kealy, RD, 2006. Lifelong diet restriction and radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis of the hip joint in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc., 229(5), 690-3. 5Huck, JL, Biery, DN, Lawler, DF, Gregor, TP, Runge, JJ, EVans, RH, Kealy, RD, Smith, GK, 2009. A longitudinal study of the influence of lifetime food restriction on development of osteoarthritis in the canine elbow. Vet Surg., 38(2), 192-8.
Author info: 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.