Feeding for the Best Start in Life
Written by: Carole Sandhu
BSc (Hons)MSc - Canine Nutritionist
Having a dog can truly change your life for the better and in this article, we will take a look at how we can ensure that the puppy in your life has the very best start. The food we choose for them now has the potential to maximise their health both now and in years to come. We’ll consider their nutritional needs, whether foods formulated specifically for puppies are really necessary and whether we should look for breed/size specific foods for them. Finally, we’ll consider how to make the change over to an adult food when the time is right.
The Nutritional Needs of PuppiesOne of the many amazing things about the dog is its sheer variety of size compared to any other species on the planet. Growth in the first three to six months of life is rapid and most breeds of dogs will have reached 50% of their adult weight by the time they are 6 months old. Different breeds mature at different rates with some large breeds like Great Danes not reaching maturity until they are two years of age. By the time they are fully grown, most puppies will be 50 times the weight they were when they were born!
Is Specially Formulated Puppy Food Necessary?
The answer is a resounding yes, for a number of reasons. The time puppies leave their mum to join their new family at around 8 weeks through to 12 months of age, corresponds to their period of greatest growth and development as they move into adulthood. With this comes an increased requirement for all nutrients. During the growth phase, 50% of the energy from their food is used for growth and the other 50% to support their day-to-day activities. As the puppy’s weight increases, the rate of growth starts to decline as they reach adult maturity. When this happens there is a shift away from energy being used for growth to being used simply for daily activities (we also describe this as maintenance activity). Generally, a growing puppy needs twice the number of calories per day as an adult dog of the same weight. For this reason, puppy food is designed to have a higher energy density which provides fuel for their growth needs. In other words, they can obtain all the goodness they need from the portion size that they can manage. This makes sense because they have smaller tummies, smaller jaws, and of course a digestive system that is still developing. Feeding three to four smaller meals can be very helpful for puppies as they go through their phase of rapid growth.
As 50% of energy needs are for growth, puppies need a higher level of protein in their diet than adult dogs. Choosing a good quality food that is highly digestible will ensure that all of the essential amino acids are used by the body for growth. If the food was of poorer quality with low energy density and low digestibility then the puppy would need to eat larger volumes of food to ensure they met their nutritional requirements. Sometimes, a food which may seem more expensive at the outset can actually work out cheaper because a smaller portion is needed.
As well as good quality protein, look for the inclusion of the essential fatty acids, AA and DHA. They are essential in early life for normal neurological development (behaviour, learning etc). In addition, there is evidence that dietary antioxidants can support a healthy immune system. In a study of 40 puppies, those fed a puppy food supplemented with the antioxidants vitamin E, lutein and beta-carotene had higher levels of antibodies to the diseases they had been vaccinated against.
Should Puppy Food be Breed/Size Specific?
Because different breeds of dogs have different rates of growth, mature weights and body type the food that is fed during growth should reflect these differences. Puppy food designed for small, medium or large breeds can be very beneficial particularly for large and giant breed puppies.
A series of studies showed dogs that grow rapidly are more prone to skeletal disorders and this is particularly true for large and giant breeds. What is important to remember is that although orthopaedic problems present later in life, they develop during the rapid growth phase when the dog is a puppy. Research has shown that there are some key dietary factors which can increase the risk of skeletal disorders in these breeds:
Overfeeding – simply providing too much energy overall (calories) during the rapid growth phase when the puppy is 3-6 months of age. Although growing puppies need more protein compared to when they reach adulthood it is not the protein that causes skeletal problems it is simply too much energy (calories). The increased body weight which may result from this can have the added effect of placing extra strain on the joints. In large breeds, controlling the rate of growth supports healthy skeletal development.
Higher levels of dietary calcium by use of supplements. Before the age of 6 months, puppies cannot regulate how much calcium they absorb from their diet and so are at greater risk from excessive levels. Calcium does not affect the rate of growth but has a negative impact on the developing bone. The important thing is not to switch a large breed puppy over to an adult formula too early as this would supply too much calcium in the diet. Although small and medium breeds are not at higher risk of developing skeletal disorders overfeeding during their peak growth phase can make them more prone to overweight and obesity in later life.
Changing over to a new food.
If you are happy with the food that your new puppy comes with that is great. However, if you have done your homework and feel that you would like to change them over onto something you know is more suitable for them, it can be done gradually once the puppy has been with you for 3 days or more. This will allow them time to settle.
Moving to a new home and leaving mum and littermates behind can be very stressful for the puppy and so providing a new diet straight away may add to the stress. After 3 days the new food can be introduced in quarter increments to the original diet. You could start with putting out ¾ of the puppy’s usual food and making up the other ¼ with the new food on day one. Gradually add the new food in like this, every other day so that the transition has been made by day 6.
How much to feed?
We want to start as we mean to go on and so it may be best to weigh out food portions rather than simply putting out food and letting the puppy eat as much or as little as they require (free choice feeding). Lots of research studies have shown that free choice feeding can lead to increased amounts of body fat.
You can use the feeding guidelines on the puppy food packaging when working out how much to feed but remember that these guidelines are very general and should be used mainly as a starting point. You can then regularly monitor the body condition of the puppy to ensure they stay lean but not thin. A lean body is where the ribs can be felt but are not visible and the puppy should have an hourglass shape when viewed from above with a clearly defined waist.
When to Switch over to an Adult Formula.
The time when a puppy’s growth rate and activity levels naturally decline as they reach adulthood is when their requirements decrease. This can be around 6 months of age for a small breed and 8-10 months for larger breeds. As long as we reduce calories once they come out of their peak growth phase we can avoid them becoming overweight.
Overall, the main aim when feeding puppies is to support their growth needs so that they grow at a steady rate as they move towards maturity. A highly digestible food, designed specifically for the size/breed of puppy can have a lifelong benefit to their health.
Enjoy the lovely new addition to your family!
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