the best food for puppies

Far back in the 1970s a young Donny Osmond famously crooned the immortal lines “And they called it puppy love, Oh, I guess they’ll never know, How a young heart really feels, And why I love her so”. While the song isn’t literally about puppies it may as well be – nothing can make our hearts swoon quite like the cute bobble head, tiny paws, and the boundless, clumsy joy of a small pupper. It goes without saying therefore that puppies deserve the best possible nutrition. So we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to help you understand what the best food for puppies is.

They grow quickly! Credit @chasingpaxton

how puppies grow and their diet changes

A huge amount of growth and development happens in the 8 to 15 months from conception to adulthood, and puppies nutritional needs change with each stage of development. In this guide we look at 4 stages of development and the implications for a puppy’s diet:

  • the foetal stage (pre-natal) – a happy, healthy pup starts in the mum’s tum so it’s important the pregnant bitch is getting both enough food and the right nutrients they need
  • the nursing stage (first few weeks) – as with humans when a pup is born they’ll get all their nutrition and their immunity from their mum’s milk at first, getting all their nutrition and immunity
  • the weaning phase (2-8 weeks) – as soon as a puppy’s teeth emerge they can start eating solid food alongside mum’s milk, helping them develop their own nutritional and immunity
  • simply solids (8 weeks to 1-2 years) – once your puppy has fully moved from milk to solid foods they’ll need a diet full of protein and other goodies to help their bodies grow into full adulthood

the foetal stage: make sure mum is eating well

The most crucial period of development for your pup is before they are actually born and so its essential to make sure mum is fed a nutrient-rich balanced food. When you’re looking to buy a puppy find a reputable, small-scale breeder and ask them about the diets they feed their mum (here’s a reminder why puppy farms are bad news for mum and pup).

If you have a pregnant bitch then make sure they are getting a balanced, natural, healthy diet (see our tips here) and keep a particular eye on these nutrients below. Some dog owners choose to feed their pregnant dogs puppy food to help boost these amounts but a natural, balanced, minimally processed diet will contain everything they need.

Iron – important for the formation of red blood cells and the prevention of anemia and common in red meat, organs and eggs
Vitamin C – This supplement helps aid the uptake of iron into the system; it helps with collagen (tissue) building, and supports the immune system.
Omega 3 fatty acids – essential for brain and nerve development (especially EPH and DHA) and abundant in meat especially salmon. Its easily destroyed in cooked foods so best to use minimally processed foods or supplement.
Folic acid, B9 – important for stopping birth defects and high in pork, poultry and liver (but see the vitamin A note on liver below).
Calcium – necessary for bone development so choose foods high in calcium like but try to avoid over-supplementation which can reduce calcium during nursing. Vitamin D also helps calcium absorption.
Go easy on vitamin A – excess vitamin A cause birth defects so avoid large amounts of liver and cod liver oil

Mums will also need more food after about the 4th week and it will increase as they approach the birth date. In the last 2 weeks feeding smaller and more often will help them manage their food with their squashed stomachs.

the nursing stage: mum’s milk is the absolute best possible food for puppies

Colostrum, the first milk a mum produces, is essential for helping establish a newborn pup’s immunologic defences – it contains up to 15 times more immunoglobins than normal milk plus antimicrobial peptides and other bioactive molecules. It’s also important for their nutrition, growth and development so its clearly vital that pups are given immediate access to their mums and encouraged to suckle over those first few days.

After those first few days the milk will transition from colostrum to normal dog’s milk, but its still absolutely the best possible diet for puppies at this age containing everything they need to grow and thrive. If you’ve ever seen an analysis of everything that makes up human breast milk  you’ll have an idea of the staggering volume of different nutrients that are provided naturally. Amazingly, scientists still don’t know the full list of elements in human breast milk, much less dog milk, which shows that commercially made milk alternatives are likely to be inferior and incomplete. In fact one study into dog milk replacers found significant variation in quality and widespread nutritional deficiencies including for key nutrients like calcium, phosphorous, amino acids and essential fatty acids.

As with the foetal period therefore its essential that mum is being well fed, particularly with a diet high in protein and fat which makes up a reasonable amount of their milk. Vet Kathleen Hefner recommends the food be more than 29% protein and 17% fat and less than 5% dietary fibre (which our Balanced Life is!). Lots of the nutrients that were important in pregnancy continue to be important at this stage. Calcium is particularly important as rapid development of the puppy’s skeletal system takes place. Digestive enzyme supplements and probiotics can also help populate a puppy’s gut with friendly gut bacteria to help improve digestion and immunity.

You’ll also need to feed a lot more food than usual – increasing their food intake as their milk production grows to a peak around 3 weeks after birth. She may eat 3-4 times her usual daily feed at this peak and make sure there’s plenty of water available to hydrate her during feeding.

the weaning phase (2-6 weeks) – introducing solid foods

As soon as you see or feel the milk teeth coming through your puppy is ready to start eating solid foods, although they should also continue to get milk from their mothers.

The base of a puppy’s diet should be the same as that for a healthy adult – high in protein, with a reasonable level of fat and low in carbs. Protein and fat (with some but not much carbs) are essential for energy, and the production of brain cells, muscle, skin and hair. Fat is converted to energy quickly and easily so a reasonable level of fats means more protein can be used for building cells. Carbs are not digested well by puppies who have not developed a normal glucose metabolism at this age and so are not a great energy source. As with the nursing stage calcium, digestive enzymes and probiotics are all very important for their rapidly developing skeletal and digestive systems. Introducing bones to your puppy or even egg shells can be a great natural source of calcium.

Introducing solid food to your puppy is a gradual process – you’ll want to make sure the food is easily digestible in a raw or minimally processed state and make sure they still get as much access to their mum’s milk as they wish. You might want to let them lick or suck the food off a finger before introducing a dog bowl. You should gradually feed more and more solid food until approximately 6 to 8 weeks at which point they should move fully on to solid foods. At this age puppies need approximately 3 times the amount an adult dog of the same weight would need and should be fed 3 to 4 times per day.

simply solids (8 weeks to 1-2 years) – the fuel needed to grow

Once your puppy has moved on to solid foods alone its important to make sure they have all the fuel and nutrients needed to aid their growth and development. As with the weaning stage a highly digestible high protein, low carb diet with a reasonable amount of fat and calcium is the foundation of a good diet. This will give them the energy and building blocks to support their growth. The food also needs to be quality, minimally processed and highly digestible to ensure they get maximum nutrition from their developing digestive systems.

Because puppies generally need higher levels of some nutrients like protein, fat and calcium, than adult dogs people often believe they need puppy-specific foods. The truth is however that a nutritious, balanced food can be suitable for both puppies and adults below. If you look for example in the table presented here at the minimum requirements for some nutrients outlined by AAFCO, the US regulator for dog food, you can see that a food can provide the best diet for puppies and adults alike, which is exactly what our Balanced Life food for dogs does.

AAFCO, the US pet food regulator, requirements for select nutrients for puppies and adult dogs

Its also important to understand that different breeds of dogs grow at different rates and this has implications not only for how much they eat but also their nutritional requirements. In the first 3-6 months puppies should be fed up to 3 times the amount an adult dog of the same weight should be fed and this should be gradually reduced to 2 times and then the same amount as they approach adulthood. Smaller dogs can reach full adulthood in as little as 6 months while larger dogs can take up to 2 years. Adjust the amount you feed your puppy accordingly and keep an eye on their weight by using the Body Condition Score.

Different sized dogs grow at different rates. Credit: www.thehappypuppysite.com

Because larger dogs have much larger bodies they also require a slightly different nutritional mix than smaller dogs – diets that are slightly lower in fat, and contain a little less calcium and phosphorous, help avoid developmental orthopedic diseases like hip and elbow dysplasia. Our Chicken and Salmon Recipes are suitable therefore for large breed puppies while our Lamb and Kangaroo Recipes are not.

Balanced Life Air Dried Raw Food

Our Balanced Life food is ideal for puppies from 6-8 weeks onwards – high in protein, low in carbs with a good amount of fats and calcium, and bursting with essential fatty acids, prebiotics and other goodies to help puppies thrive. Note our Chicken and Salmon recipes are more suitable than our Kangaroo and Lamb recipes for larger breed puppies. Our gentle air drying process minimises any nutritional loss and adding water makes it easily digestible. Its also great for pregnant and lactating mums too. .

Balanced Life is an Australian-made range of air dried raw food and treats for dogs and cats. We want to give pets the healthiest nutrition possible for a happy, healthy life.

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