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Introducing a new puppy into the home is an exciting time. You’re getting to know each other, starting to bond, discovering all sorts of fun activities along the way. One of the things you’re likely looking into is the best diet for your new friend. Puppies grow up fast, and they need the right balance of nutrients in their food to fuel their growth and ensure proper development.
While there are tons of options out there, not all commercial puppy foods are created equal. Just because a product is nutritionally balanced doesn’t mean it’s made from high-quality ingredients. Since puppies aren’t great at reading, you’ll have to be the one to understand your puppy’s nutritional needs and to identify a food that’ll meet those needs in a healthy way.
Read on to learn more about your puppy’s nutritional requirements and how to discern high-quality puppy food. You’ll also find our picks for the best food for puppies.
Canine Nutrition Basics
According to Dr. Gary Richter, award-winning veterinarian and member of Rover’s Dog People Panel, “All dogs are of the species Canis familiaris and as such have very similar nutritional needs.” Regardless of breed, protein is key to a puppy’s healthy diet, as it supports growth and development. Fat is a concentrated source of calories that’ll help your pup absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Your puppy has no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates, but they do need a mix of vitamins and minerals which can come through healthy sources of carbohydrates.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is in charge of determining the minimum requirements for key nutrients in dogs. AAFCO recommendations state a minimum of 22% protein and 8% fat for canine growth and reproduction—that means for young dogs and lactating females. Note that these numbers are higher than what’s recommended for adult dogs. Puppies require more protein, calories, and other nutrients than adult dogs because of their developing bodies and greater caloric expenditure.
You can meet AAFCO’s recommendations by feeding your puppy a high-quality puppy food made with real, whole-food sources of protein and fat. Animal protein, like meat or poultry, should be the focus, with a higher than average fat and limited carbohydrate content. If you’re looking at calorie content, make sure to compare the calories per cup based on the feeding recommendations for your dog’s age and weight.
AAFCO is key in setting minimum standards for commercial pet food products—but your new puppy deserves more than the bare minimum. Checking for an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy on the label is a good way to weed out the really bad dog foods, but it does not guarantee high quality. For that, it’s important to understand how to decode dog food.
Puppy Food: Specific Nutritional Needs
Breed and size play an important role in what you feed your puppy. Small breeds and large breeds, in particular, have different nutritional requirements based on their bodies’ size and function. For example, small dogs reach maturation more quickly than large breeds. Puppies generally transition to adult food once they’ve reached 80% of their expected adult size. For small dogs that usually happens around 9 to 10 months; for medium and larger dogs, it’s 12 to 16 months.
Your puppy will be an adult dog before you know it, and the decisions you make about their food today could have consequences both now and in the future.
Too many calories and calcium, along with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium, can promote overgrowth and hinder bone and cartilage development. This can contribute to hip dysplasia, a health condition that typically affects large breed dogs. Developing strong bones is critical in puppyhood, so you’ll also want to examine the vitamin content of your dog’s food carefully. In her guide, “Hound Health Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Keeping Your Dog Happy, Healthy & Active,” veterinarian Betsy Brevitz recommends between 1% to 1.5% calcium in your puppy’s diet.
Conversely, small breed puppies can be at risk of not getting enough calories. Hypoglycemia occasionally affects small breed puppies, according to Brevitz, and though it may not be a common occurrence, it can be fatal and requires immediate veterinary attention. Hypothermia is also another related consideration. Small breed puppies are susceptible to these issues because their bodies have a much higher metabolic rate and energy requirement than large breed dogs. They also have tinier stomachs, so they need smaller meals that are densely packed in calories, protein, and fat to keep up with their speedy metabolisms and ensure they’re getting enough nutrients.
Puppy Food: Wet vs. Dry
According to the Clinical Nutrition Service (part of Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University), wet food can be easier for dogs to chew and swallow and is also a good option for picky eaters. Canned food also has higher water content, which can be beneficial for doggos with certain health considerations. Fat and protein are more prevalent in wet food, so this may be a good option if your puppy requires a higher protein diet, but not a good choice for puppies who need to watch their fat consumption.
Dry food tends to have a higher carbohydrate content than wet and, for small breed puppies especially, kibbles can be challenging to chew unless they are sized accordingly. Dry food, however, does have the advantage of being more affordable and less messy when feeding and cleaning up after mealtimes. It also has a longer shelf life than wet (be sure to check the date on the label before buying). According to PetMD, dry food has been found in some cases to help maintain dental health in dogs alongside regular teeth cleanings and dental chews.
Puppy Food: To Grain or Not to Grain
Whether to go grain-free or not is another factor to consider in your puppy’s diet. Some owners prefer grain-free, since it’s closer to the traditionally carnivorous Canis genus diet and can be easier on a dog’s digestive system, especially if your dog has certain allergies or sensitivities.
However, grain-free diets have been potentially linked to heart issues in canines by the FDA, so it’s best to check with your veterinarian before switching or starting your dog on one. Single, whole-grain dog food is another potential option and it is exactly what it sounds like: dog food made with a single whole grain (as opposed to a compound of different grains).
Best Puppy Food Picks
Now that you’ve learned a little more about dog food and what ingredients are best for your puppy, you might be a bit overwhelmed. But don’t worry—we put together a list of some of the best puppy food options available for purchase.
Dry Puppy Food
Though not formulated for any particular breed size, this grain-free recipe is made in the U.S. and is packed with protein from numerous sources including real buffalo and roasted venison.
With both fresh chicken and chicken meal at the top of the ingredients list, this puppy food is full of lean protein and supplemented with grain-free carbohydrates for fiber and essential nutrients.
High-quality nutrition doesn’t have to break the bank. Made in the U.S., this puppy recipe is made with premium ingredients like real chicken, brown rice, and oatmeal, and without wheat, soy, corn and byproducts.
This small-breed puppy food features real chicken as a lean source of protein with oatmeal for digestible carbohydrates, plus omega fatty acids and other important nutrients. Have a large- or medium-breed puppy? Check out Blue Buffalo’s larger pup formulas, with their chicken and lamb recipes.
Formulated with the input of veterinarians and made in the U.S., Wag comes in chicken, beef, salmon, turkey and lamb grain-free recipes. Each is made with real meat and supplemented with nutritious vegetables.Shop on Amazon
Featuring deboned chicken as a lean source of protein, this grain-free recipe is formulated for large-breed puppies to control growth and promote musculoskeletal health. Be sure to check out Wellness’ small breed formula for tiny pups.
Wet Puppy Food
This recipe features chicken and salmon for protein while ground barley serves as the grain. Made with prebiotics and probiotics and without byproducts, fillers, or artificial flavors.
Nulo’s grain-free formula is made in the U.S. for the smalls with heart-healthy and lean muscle-mass-building lamb and turkey; it contains no corn, wheat or soy.
Made with chicken, turkey, duck, and salmon—plus whole grain brown rice and oatmeal for a helping of healthy grains. Made in the U.S., your soul will rest easy knowing this can has no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.
This wholesome formula contains chicken, grains, fruits and veggies. High in DHA—found in mother’s milk—Blue Buffalo’s nutritious canned food is free of byproducts, artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.
Stay golden! Made in the U.S., apples, pumpkin, blueberries, cranberries, and spinach round out the healthy nutrients in this beef protein meal. Packed with DHA fatty acid for cognitive development, this recipe is made without fillers or gluten.
Talk to Your Vet Before Choosing Any New Food for Your Dog
We’ve selected some great dog food options for you to feed your puppy, but before you start ordering and introducing new food to your puppy, we suggest consulting with your vet. A veterinarian can help you navigate the many food options available and understand any health considerations you might need to be aware of. Often, they can also recommend a dog food that’s going to best support your puppy’s specific needs as they grow.