Understanding the Nutritional Needs of Puppies
Puppies are lots of fun, but their nutritional needs aren’t as easy as you’d expect.
Here are some of my top recommendations as a veterinarian when considering their unique nutritional needs.
Complete and Balanced
Dogs can’t grow on meat alone. They need an appropriate combination of protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and more.
Most commercially available puppy foods have been formulated to be nutritionally complete and balanced for puppy growth and will include a statement that such foods have met requirements of the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Nutritionally complete means that all the required nutrients are present in a particular food and are included in quantities that suffice a puppy’s energetic needs.
Although nutritional completeness and balance according to AAFCO is important, there are many foods available to dog owners that meet such requirements but use poor-quality ingredients, some of which don’t even exist in nature, are deemed inedible for human consumption (feed-grade), and are vastly different from the manner by which canines are biologically intended to eat.
Quality of Ingredients
Always consider the source of the ingredients you are feeding your dog during the months of puppyhood and the early years of adulthood. If you’re feeding commercially available, processed (i.e. non-whole food) puppy diets containing ingredients that are piecemeal (i.e. protein and grain meals and by-products, rendered fat, etc.) instead of those appearing an a form identical or very similar to how they naturally exist (i.e. whole foods), the body will utilize such nutrients less-efficiently than whole-foods.
Additionally, when the diet or treat components are feed-grade, there’s a higher likelihood that they may contain man-made and environmental toxins (pesticides, mold-produced aflatoxin, etc.) and potentially be carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Human-grade ingredients are higher quality and less likely to contain harmful toxins.
Anyone who’s had a puppy knows how active they can be, which often alternates with periods of heaving napping. All that growing merits greater daily intake of calories than older or less-active dogs.
Puppies should be fed a number of calories that supports average growth rate (but not a maximum growth rate) to decrease the risk of developmental problems with bones and other musculoskeletal structures (ligaments, tendons, discs, etc.). Increased daily caloric intake to fuel growth should continue until a puppy reaches approximately 80% of mature size, which is something your veterinarian can help determine through the regular physical examinations that occur as a puppy develops.
Puppies’ muscle growth needs higher levels of protein than adult and senior dogs. The AAFCO suggests a minimum of 22% protein for puppy foods while giving no maximum quantity. Diets having very high protein levels have been linked to developmental abnormalities, including osteoarthritis, growth plate deformities, and obesity. Therefore, it’s important that protein is not excessively high and is paired with fat, carbohydrates, fiber, moisture, and other food components.
Protein should be fresh, human-grade, and come from real meat. I don’t suggest my patient’s puppies eat protein meals (lamb meal, chicken by-product meal, etc.), even though they are very dense in protein. My belief comes from the source where such meals are obtained, which are from feed grade ingredients instead of those consumed by humans (human grade).
Puppies need more energy to promote growth and the most dense form of energy available is fat. AAFCO suggest a minimum of 8% fat for puppy foods while giving no maximum quantity. Many commercially-available puppy foods have significantly more, which is fine provided the puppy consuming the food does not become overweight or obese.
My recommendation is that fat sources should originate from the piece of protein being fed, such as the marbling in beef or the skin from fish or poultry. Unfortunately, the fat that goes into most kibble and canned foods is rendered fat that comes from the process where viable material is extracted from animal tissue (i.e. rendering, which can include the tissues of deceased, disabled, diseased, or dying animals…the 4Ds).
Like fats, carbohydrates provide a source of energy that helps fuel growth and provide more readily-available calories than protein. Carbohydrates from vegetables (carrot, sweet potato, pumpkin, etc.), fruit (berries, coconut, etc.) and whole-grains (oats, barley, brown rice, etc.) not only provide great energy sources but also antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins essential for growth and development.
As a common trend in my veterinary practice, when puppies eat whole-food diets and treats they are generally healthier. I’ve witnessed fewer episodes of mild to severe chronic diseases, slimmer body condition, and improved outward appearance of overall health.
I recommend whole-food diets that have human-grade ingredients like The Honest Kitchen for all of my patients, but especially for puppies who are just starting out in life.