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The Proper Nutrition for Feeding a Puppy

What to Feed a Puppy or a Large Breed Puppy

By Kat Sherbo. October 17, 2012 | See Comments

  • expert or vet photo
    vet verified

    Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM

    Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

    Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

The Proper Nutrition for Feeding a Puppy

Feeding your puppy the best kind of food for their healthy growth is a no-brainer. See what nutrients your puppy needs.

How do you make sure your new puppy is getting all the right nutrients in their diet to ensure that they will grow healthy and strong? Puppies have different dietary needs than adult dogs, and large breed puppies like Great Danes, Dobermans, and Bernese Mountain Dogs, have different needs than smaller breeds. Feeding your puppy the proper nutrients will set up your new family member for healthy growth. Healthy growth is the first step towards a healthier life in the long run.

What’s in Puppy Food?

Since dogs are omnivorous animals, meaning they eat both meats and non-meat (plant-based) foods, dog food contains proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

  • Proteins are used to build and grow new tissues in the body. Proteins are made up of 20 different amino acids, 10 of which are made in the body. So your puppy’s diet will need to supply the other 10, called the "essential amino acids." In general, animal proteins are better at supplying these essential amino acids than plant proteins (like soy or corn), so look for a puppy food with a meat source as the one of the first ingredients, if not the first. 
  • Fats help promote a healthy skin and coat, and are transporters of several key vitamins throughout the body. However, too much fat in a puppy’s diet can result in too-rapid growth, which can lead to bone diseases and obesity.
  • Carbohydrates come from plant sources like grains, fruits, and vegetables, and are a direct source of glucose, which your puppy needs for energy. Some small breed dogs are predisposed to hypoglycemia, particularly as puppies, making high quality carbohydrates a must.
  • Water is the most important nutrient for all animals—including your puppy. Water allows the body to make good use of other nutrients. So make sure your puppy has a clean, fresh water bowl available always. Replace the water every morning or whenever it looks cloudy (or dirty—those puppies will step anywhere!).

Be especially sure your pet has access to plenty of water if you feed your pet dry kibble—it doesn’t contain water like canned food does, so your puppy will need to drink more.

A Useful Supplement

The omega three fatty acid DHA, which is found in fish oil, actually increases learning potential in puppies. Some experts consider it an essential nutrient for growing dogs, just like it is for early growth in humans.

Look for a puppy food that contains omega three fatty acids, or consider using a fish oil supplement.

How do I Find a Trustworthy Puppy Food?

Federal regulations control how pet food companies can label their products. Look for one of these three nutritional guarantees on your wet or dry puppy food:

  • "Meets the nutritional requirements for puppies established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)."
  • "Complete and balanced nutrition for growing dogs based on AAFCO feeding trials."
  • Some foods cover both the adult and the growing dog by claiming adequacy for "all life-stages."

The exact wording may vary, but if the food makes one of these claims, you’ll know your puppy is getting the correct amounts of the essential nutrients. The first claim means that the food’s ingredients meet the requirements of known nutritional standards set by the AAFCO. The second means that the food was used in an actual feeding trial.

What About My Large Breed Puppy?

Large breed dogs are more genetically likely to develop bone or joint problems, such as hip dysplasia or osteochondrosis dessicans (OCD). Overfeeding can trigger these issues, and that goes for puppies as well. Large breed puppy food should be lower in calcium, since too much can cause skeletal problems.

The Numbers Guide

Look for these percentages of the following nutrients and minerals in your puppy food.

  Small or Medium Breed Puppy Food Large Breed Puppy Food
Dry Food - Protein  24% or more  22% or more
Wet Food - Protein  6% or more  5.5% or more
Dry Food - Fat  12% or more  10-14%
Wet Food - Fat  3% or more   3-4%
Calcium  1.0-1.8%  0.8-1.5%


When Should My Dog Switch to Adult Dog Food?

Once your puppy has reached 90% of their adult weight, it’s time to switch to adult dog food. This will probably be between 6 and 9 months for small and medium breed dogs, 9 and 12 months for large breed dogs, and 12 and 18 months in giant breed dogs. Use the ideal dog weight chart to find what your dog’s adult weight will be, and then you can calculate 90% of that.

With the right nutrition, your dog will have a healthy puppy-hood, and be set up for a healthy life.

More on Feeding Your Pet

The Best Pet Food For Your Dog or Cat
What's in My Dog Food?
The Dog Food Finder

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine. 

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