Nutrition for Puppies: A Foundation for Good Health
Welcoming a new puppy into your home is an exciting time, and for many people, there is a lot to learn. It can take a huge amount of dedication to ensure that a puppy is raised to be a healthy, polite adult dog. Along with choosing a puppy from a responsible, ethical breeder (or a shelter or reputable rescue organization), there is a great deal you can do to promote your new family member’s optimal long-term health.
It’s helpful at the outset, to find a veterinarian whose values and approach to health are in line with your own. Your breeder may be able to recommend a vet, or you can consult www.ahvma.org , the web site for the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. It is an excellent resource on complimentary veterinary care with a list of member vets nationwide. Many dog owners like to register with both a holistic and a conventional vet, in order to have a wider knowledge base and range of resources to draw from, in various different scenarios as their dog continues to age.
Growth and Development
Important factors to consider during your puppy’s growth and development, are an appropriate vaccine schedule, decisions about whether or not to use flea, tick and heartworm medications, puppy socialization and training classes, as well as whether (and when) to spay or neuter your pup. Your breeder and veterinarian can provide guidance on many of these issues. It’s also useful to read as much as you can from trusted online sources, publications and books.
Of course one of the keys to long term health and vitality for all living things, is a wholesome, healthy diet. Health and nutrition are inextricably linked and starting your puppy off on the right track with wholesome, healthy food can set him up for a lifetime of good health. Nutrition is a cornerstone for total wellbeing and while some dogs do end up living to a ripe old age after a lifetime of consuming bad quality “grocery brand” food, the chances of good health and longevity are vastly improved when nutrition is better. We wouldn’t expect to achieve optimal long term health on a diet of nothing but fast-food and we shouldn’t assume our dogs will, either.
What to Feed
Many low-grade commercial pet foods contain a cocktail of chemical preservatives such as BHA, BHT and Ethoxyquin, as well as fillers, by-products and various poor quality ingredients, which are essentially ‘waste’ from other industries and are unfit for human consumption – but end up in pet food rendering plants as a means of disposal because they cannot be utilized anywhere else. Many of the major multi-national conglomerates have pet foods within their product portfolios and there is speculation that this is at least in part, a practical measure which means that by-products from their other businesses such as breakfast cereal, brewing and dairy products can be efficiently utilized without going to waste.
Because of the dramatic increase in allergies, immune problems and disease since the introduction of commercial pet foods many years ago, lots of people have decided to begin making their own puppy food! A carefully balanced home made diet can be an excellent source of nutrition but can be very time-consuming to prepare.
The meat you feed may be raw or cooked depending on your own beliefs and comfort level. Your breeder or vet may be able to give you some guidance on this. Many people prefer to lightly cook the meat for very young pups and gradually phase in raw meat as they get a little older.
Another option is to feed a commercially prepared raw (or other minimally processed) type of food, which is closer to a dog’s natural diet and much richer in nutritional content. Less processing means a higher proportion of the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients are retained in the raw ingredients – and fewer nutrients have to be added in the form of a ‘premix’.
When you first bring a new puppy home, it’s preferable to continue feeding him whatever food the breeder (or rescue) was feeding previously. Moving to a new home and leaving behind littermates and familiar surroundings is actually quite disruptive for a puppy, and occasionally, this anxiety alone can cause mild digestive upset or a lessened appetite. Therefore, it’s much better to wait for a couple of weeks until your puppy is fully settled in, before attempting to change the food if you don’t plan to feed exactly what the breeder sent you home with. This will prevent you from accidentally ‘ruling out’ a new diet because the pup appeared not to like it, or because it seemed to cause gastrointestinal upset that was actually related to normal settling in to a new home!
Puppy Diet vs Adult Diet
As far as the nutritional content of a puppy’s diet is concerned, it’s important to understand how a growing pup’s needs differ from that of an adult dog. Puppies require more calories to support proper growth and development. Ideally, most of those calories should come from protein and fat. Puppies should not however be over-fed to the point of gaining excess bodyweight. They should be fed a sufficient amount to retain a lean figure and maintain a visible ‘waist’ as they develop and mature.
For large and giant breed puppies, it’s particularly important not to over-feed or provide too many calories, especially during rapid growth periods, because this can lead the pup to grow too fast, which may result in developmental bone and joint problems in later life.
Puppies also have slightly different mineral needs. Of particular interest are Calcium and Phosphorus. Not only are the actual levels important, but also the ratios of one to the other. The diet should contain between 1:1 and 2:1 parts Calcium to Phosphorus. Excessive amounts of calcium should be avoided in large and giant breed pups because of their increased propensity to develop bone and joint problems.
That being said, there is a tendency towards excessive focus on percentages and milligrams of particular nutrients in this country, and this is frequently propagated by the big-industry players who want to blind pet owners with science and convince them that they’re incapable of taking charge of their own animals’ nutrition. They also vehemently advise against mixing any sort of ‘people food’ with their commercial products for fear of throwing off the delicate nutritional balance. The reason? They want pet guardians to feed as much of their product as possible. If you supplement with your own ingredients, you’ll likely feed less of their food, which means less money in their pockets.
In contrast, many holistic veterinarians and natural rearing breeders (as well as some manufacturers of raw, ‘niche’ and ‘alternative’ food formats), advocate dietary variety. It’s not the end of the world if a dog consumes a little more calcium one day and less the next, or less protein for a day or two and then a number of meat-rich meals thereafter. Most humans don’t know how many milligrams of phosphorus they consume in a given day and it’s acceptable for dog nutrition to be approached the same way, provided nutritional balance is achieved over a period of time, and there’s sufficient dietary variety to provide a balanced, broad spectrum of nutrition over a period of a week or two.
Puppies do need to eat more frequently than adult dogs. Four meals a day are often necessary for very young pups and even an eight- week-old puppy will likely consume three daily meals at least for the first few weeks in his new home. It’s important to ensure your schedule can accommodate this lunch time meal for the first few weeks, or make alternative arrangements if needed.
It’s important to remember that each puppy is an individual and your pup may have quite different needs (or appetite) from his littermates. Also, for larger breeds in particular who can appear to have grown half an inch after a simple afternoon nap, their requirements may adjust from day to day. The key is to allow your puppy to guide you. Keep a close eye on his bodyweight and feed enough to keep him lean but not ‘ribby’, and certainly not too plump.
Larger breeds tend to be able to transition to adult food sooner (some breeders of large and giant breed dogs recommend phasing in adult food for their puppies at around four to five months of age) whereas small breeders typically have a faster metabolic rate and can benefit from staying on a more calorie-dense, puppy formula for much longer, up to one or even two years of age. Decisions about this will be based in part on breeder recommendations and the individual dog’s specific requirements, which also vary according to his lifestyle.
In addition to feeding a healthy diet, it is important to try to feed only good quality natural treats to your puppy, for rewards and training. Extra nutritional supplements are not necessary unless your vet or breeder recommends them for your particular dog. Raw beef marrow bones (also called ‘soup bones’) make an excellent treat between meals. Your puppy will not actually eat these, but gnaw on them in delight! These are available from many supermarkets and will help with teething and also keep adult dogs’ teeth clean and sparkling white, as well as helping to reduce the risk of periodontal disease.
The benefits of a good, wholesome, natural diet are numerous. The consumption of a minimally processed diet is commonly associated with increased strength and vitality, ‘happy’ eyes and freedom from chronic skin health problems such as dry hair, excessive scratching, ear infections and digestive problems. A common sense approach to nutrition and a nourishing, biologically appropriate diet can set your puppy up for a lifetime of great health.