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Introducing a new puppy into the home is an exciting time in which you’ll discover all sorts of fun activities to help you bond. But raising a brand-new puppy can also be a lot of work, and 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.
However, 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. As a devoted pet parent, it’s your job to understand your puppy’s nutritional needs and to learn how to identify a puppy 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. Though your puppy has no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates (though healthy sources can provide essential nutrients), your puppy will need a mix of vitamins and minerals, which can come through healthy sources of carbohydrates.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has determined the minimal requirements for key nutrients in dogs. AAFCO recommendations state a minimum of 22% protein and 8% fat for canine growth and reproduction (puppies and lactating females). These numbers are higher than what’s recommended for adult dogs as puppies require more protein, calories, and other nutrients than adult dogs do, because of their developing bodies and greater caloric expenditure.
To meet these requirements, feed your puppy a high-quality puppy food made with real, whole-food sources of these nutrients. Animal protein, like meat or poultry, should be the focus, with higher than average fat and limited carbohydrate content. Keep in mind as well that not all dog foods have the same calorie content, so compare the calories per cup to the feeding recommendations according to your dog’s age and weight.
Remember that AAFCO standards exist to encourage commercial pet food products to adhere to minimum nutritional requirements. However, your 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.
As a dog owner, it’s important to understand the truth about dog food. Make sure the food you’re considering is of high quality and will do more than just meet your dog’s minimum nutritional needs.
Puppy Food: Specific Nutritional Needs
Breed size plays 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 are generally switched onto adult food once they’ve reached 80% of their expected adult size, which for small dogs means 9–10 months, and for medium and larger dogs, 12–16 months.
Hip dysplasia is a health condition that can affect large breed dogs. Too many calories and calcium, along with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium, can promote overgrowth and hinder bone and cartilage development. So you’ll also want to examine the vitamin content of your dog’s food carefully, especially in puppyhood, when developing strong bones is critical, writes veterinarian Betsy Brevitz in her guide, “Hound Health Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Keeping Your Dog Happy, Healthy & Active.” Brevitz recommends between 1% to 1.5% calcium in your puppy’s diet as a whole.
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 have tinier stomachs; so while they may not be able to eat as much in one sitting as a large breed puppy, the small meals they do eat need to be 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 (in accordance with regular teeth cleanings and dental chews).
Puppy Food: To Grain or Not to Grain
As mentioned above, grain-free is another potential factor to consider. Some owners prefer grain-free as it is closer to the traditionally carnivorous Canis genus diet and can be easier on a dog’s digestive system, especially if your dog has grain 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, here are some great 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, lamb meal, and roasted venison.Shop on Chewy
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.Shop on Chewy
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.Shop on Chewy
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.Shop on Chewy
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.Find 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.Shop on Chewy
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.Shop on Chewy
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.Shop on Chewy
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.Shop on Chewy
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.Shop on Chewy
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.Shop on Chewy
Talk to Your Vet Before Choosing Any New Food for Your Dog
We’ve selected some great dog food options for your puppy. But before introducing any new foods into your dog’s diet, we suggest consulting with your vet. Your veterinarian can help you understand any health issues your puppy may be experiencing and can recommend a dog food that’s going to best support your puppy’s specific health needs.