Give your new pup the best start by ensuring his dietary needs are met.
Did you know that dogs’ nutritional health begins even before birth? What and how their parents, grandparents, and all other previous generations, were fed can affect a dog’s future health and lifespan — for good or bad.
Nutrition after birth is also critical; the quality of milk that puppies drink from their mum is influenced by her diet. Her ability to nurse her puppies and look after them well is also affected by how well she is fed. Breeders can even support the growth, development, and learning ability of puppies by their choice of what their mother is fed during pregnancy and while she is nursing her puppies.
But we often have very little control over what our puppies’ ancestors were fed, or indeed what their mums and dads were fed. Instead, we have much more control over what we feed them during their early growth periods. Let’s think about key aspects of feeding our younger dogs. What is nutritionally important to consider and why? And when should you transition your puppy to an adult diet?
Feeding before birth
Healthy puppies come from healthy parents and that includes what their mums and dads were fed. Good breeders ensure that their brood bitches and stud dogs are in a lean but healthy condition and fed a nutritionally balanced diet. Dogs with obesity can have reproductive problems, including issues giving birth, so keeping parents-to-be fi t and fed appropriately is important.
Once a brood bitch is confirmed as pregnant, her nutrition needs little change until the last four weeks of her nine-week long pregnancy. At this point, the amount she eats might increase because she will need extra calories, protein, and the correct levels of key vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and zinc, to support the development of her puppies.
Well-formulated diets provide these nutrients in the correct forms and amounts. The omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA help support puppy eye and brain development, so are also important in the diet of a brood bitch. She might even be moved to a performance diet, or one formulated for puppies, when pregnant and be fed that while nursing her puppies. This supports the demands that pregnancy, lactation, and parenthood place on her body!
Weaning and digestive system development
Weaning is when puppies start being introduced to solid food. It is important that weaning is as stress-free for the mum and puppies as possible. Puppies often start experiencing solid food from about three weeks old and this also helps the population of microbes in their digestive system develop.
The microbiome is increasingly understood to be important for overall health. We can help support the development of a puppy’s microbiome by carefully exposing him to different foods and ingredients during weaning, and continuing to do this afterwards. It might also help to limit the development of fussy feeding if a puppy has been fed a range of food types and tastes.
Bringing home puppy
By eight weeks old, puppies can leave their mum and littermates and move to their new families. Weaning should be complete by this stage and puppies should not be reliant on their mum for feeds, although, given the chance, many puppies of this age will still feed from their mum if she allows. Ideally, the breeder will have helped them to accept being away from their mum and siblings for gradually longer periods of time to help them adapt to their new homes happily.
Most puppies will come home with at least a week’s worth of the food they are currently eating. It is recommended to stick to their existing diet, at least for the first couple of weeks, after moving to a new home. This is because it can be a stressful time. There might be trips to new places, meeting new people, and even vaccinations and de-worming treatments to cope with. All of these can affect your puppy’s digestive health, so anything you can do to keep a level of consistency at first is useful.
What nutrition does a growing puppy need?
Growing puppies need a good supply of energy to support their activity and growth. Energy comes in the form of calories and is provided by dietary fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Protein is also important to supply the building blocks of the puppy’s growing body.
Dietary protein for puppies should be highly digestible, high quality, and palatable. This might be in the form of commercial puppy food (wet or dry) or home-prepared meals. If you are home-preparing your puppy’s diet, take care to ensure it is nutritionally balanced and adequate; growth is nutritionally very sensitive, and you don’t want to cause long-term problems for your puppy as he grows.
What if my puppy gets an upset digestive system?
Digestive upset is surprisingly common in puppies, especially when they first move to their new homes. It is usually self-limiting and short-lived, but puppies can be prone to infections as well as accidentally eating things they shouldn’t. If you are at all concerned, or your puppy is lethargic with prolonged vomiting and diarrhoea, you must seek veterinary advice because puppies can become dehydrated much faster than adult dogs.
How many meals does my puppy need?
If you are happy with what your puppy is eating when he comes home, then brilliant — stick to it. If you want to change, do so gradually over at least 7 – 10 days, slowly adding more of his new food and less of his previous food into each meal.
You will want to keep feeding your pup the same number of daily meals he was fed at the breeder’s for the first couple of months — little and often is the usual approach to feeding puppies.
Puppies are often fed four times a day until they reach four or five months old. Then you can start reducing the number of meals, but increasing the amount fed at each meal. This is because your puppy’s digestive system will be better able to cope with more food and their toilet training might also be helped by more regular and consistent mealtimes; it can make predicting when they need to poo much easier!
Many puppies will be reduced to a breakfast and dinner feed somewhere between eight and twelve months old. This will be dependent on them growing well but not gaining excess body weight. It is important that growing puppies and young dogs are lean, not fat. Carrying excess body weight can put extra strain on their developing skeletal system and may cause developmental problems. Fat puppies might also be predisposed to become fat adults, so early awareness and management is important. Puppy fat might look cute, but it isn’t necessarily healthy for young dogs.
Can I feed my puppy an adult dog diet?
Sometimes diets are labelled as suitable for all life stages. These diets have to be safe to be fed to puppies and older dogs in terms of their nutritional formulations and nutrient levels. Adult dog diets however are generally unsuitable to feed to growing puppies. They will usually be too low in calories and protein to support effective growth and the levels of key vitamins and minerals might not be ideal for overall development, especially for the skeleton.
Equally, puppies have a limited ability to excrete any excess dietary minerals. Puppy diets will have carefully managed levels of these, whereas adult dog diets might be less well managed. For this reason, it is generally not advised to feed puppies diets formulated for mature dogs.
When does my puppy need to be moved to an adult diet?
Puppies grow rapidly in their first six months, and this is when correct nutrition is most critical. Smaller breeds and types often reach adult height and body weight around six to eight months old, at which point they can be moved to an adult dog diet.
Some larger breeds and types are classed as junior or adolescent dogs when they have reached their adult height but are still developing their overall body shape and weight. Some growing dogs will continue to need additional nutrition to support their growth, development, and activity levels at this point. This might be when they move from a puppy diet formulation to a junior one.
Junior diets will provide nutrients that support continued growth and the development of tissue and organ systems, but will often have slightly lower levels of fat and protein than puppy diets. If you are feeding a commercial diet, it is good to ensure that you are feeding the amount recommended on the pack. This minimises the risk of nutritional inadequacy, or indeed, of over-feeding.
If you have a large or giant breed puppy, he will typically continue to grow and mature until about two years old. This slower growth benefits from specific nutrition to manage steady growth rates, especially of the skeletal system.
It is important to carefully manage the number of calories your puppy consumes and also ensure there are balanced levels of key minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus; these are critical for normal, healthy skeletal development. Specially developed diets are available for large and giant breeds to provide the ideal nutrition they need.
Did you know?
- Mineral levels need to be carefully managed in diets for growing puppies to support normal skeletal growth.
- Puppy and junior diets provide more energy than standard adult dog diets to account for growth and activity requirements.
- Quality protein in a puppy diet is important to help growth and development.