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What Every Puppy Owner Should Know About Feeding

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books

Last Updated: October, 2019


Three puppies

What  to feed a puppy

The manufacturers of kibble and canned dog foods have been delighted to discover how lucrative it is for them to create separate foods labeled for Puppies.

Labeling a food as Puppy Food makes that product fly off the shelves – whether it's any good for puppies or not.

So... does your puppy need a food labeled Puppy Food?

My answer is "No." The right food works just fine for dogs of all sizes and all ages.

The right food for all of my puppies is on this list.

Looking for kibble or canned food? I don't feed my puppies kibble or canned food on a daily basis. Here's why.

One question.... do you have a large-breed puppy?

A large-breed puppy is one who will weigh more than 70 pounds as an adult.

Large-breed pups are different from smaller-breed pups in that you need to be more careful with their rate of growth.

You want large breeds to grow slo-o-o-wly. Why?

Because a large breed pup has so much bone that needs to grow and so much weight that needs to be supported by that bone. Slow, steady growth is necessary. If a large-breed pup puts on weight too quickly and his skeleton is too immature to provide proper support, the result is microscopic tearing of skeletal tissue and malformed bones and joints. That can lead to hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and osteochondritis.

Rottweiler pup

You can protect this Rottweiler puppy's bones and joints by not letting him run and jump too much, by not overfeeding, and by not supplementing with extra calcium.

Now, those ailments also have a strong genetic (inherited) component. But they can be triggered or worsened by lifestyle factors, such as:

  • taking a puppy jogging or bicycling
  • allowing a puppy to jump too much or too high (either up or down)
  • allowing a puppy to scramble around on a slippery floor
  • allowing a puppy to dash up or down stairs
  • improper feeding

Don't make these two mistakes in feeding a large-breed puppy:

  1. Don't overfeed. Many large-breed puppies I see in my obedience classes are dangerously heavy for their age. Yes, a roly-poly 6 month old Lab looks adorable, and a muscular 13-month-old Rottweiler looks impressive, but you're setting them both up for serious health problems.

    Large-breed pups should look rather tall, slim, and gangly for their first 18-24 months.

  2. Don't supplement with extra calcium. In the past, owners often supplemented with calcium tablets under the assumption that a large pup must need lots of calcium for healthy bones.

    Well, he does need calcium for healthy bones, but not nearly as much as people thought! Too much calcium is just as bad as too little. My homemade recipe specifies the amount of calcium I use to balance the phosphorus in the meat. I add nothing more than that.

    A commercial food suitable for a large-breed pup should contain 1.2 to 1.5% calcium. It should also contain less phosphorus than calcium. How much less? The calcium-to-phosphorus ratio should be from 1:1 (same amount of calcium as phosphorus) up to 1.4 to 1.

Are you wondering about protein? You might have read on some internet sites that too much protein is bad for large-breed puppies. That's a myth. All healthy canines, large and small, young and old, thrive on high protein. Ironically, it's low protein that causes so many health issues in dogs, not high protein.

Don't allow any puppy (or any adult dog, for that matter) to free-feed.

Free-feeding means leaving a bowl of kibble continuously available for a pup to nibble at whenever he wants.

Here are 5 reasons free-feeding is not a good idea for any puppy or adult dog:

  1. Free feeding makes your pup's digestive cycle unpredictable, which means you don't know when he will need to go to the bathroom.
  2. Your pup's appetite is a good barometer of his health, and it's easier to keep tabs on appetite when you're offering scheduled meals and watching him eat.
  3. Free feeding can create picky eaters who feel entitled to food rather than appreciative of being given food.
  4. If you have more than one dog, free feeding invites bullying and can create nasty food guarding issues.
  5. Finally, scheduled feeding is a prime opportunity to demonstrate that you are in charge of the food. You make the food appear, you require your pup to be calm and polite before you give it to him, you allow a certain amount of time for eating, then you pick up the bowl.

    Scheduled, controlled feeding reinforces a subtle, psychologically-healthy leader-follower relationship. Whereas free feeding gives your pup the impression that food is just magically available.

HOW MUCH to feed puppies

Every pup is so different that all you can do is estimate the amount of food and then monitor your individual pup's growth.

Start with this....

  1. What does your pup weigh now?
  2. What should he weigh, roughly, as an adult?
  3. Compare the two numbers.

Golden Retriever puppy and adult dog

If the puppy is currently less than half his adult size...

...he should be eating between 6 and 10% of his current weight (total food per day).

For example, if your male pup weighs 20 lbs, and males of his breed typically mature at 60-70 lbs, your pup is less than half his adult weight.

Multiply his 20 lbs by 6% (equals 1.2 lbs of food per day) and also by 10% (2 lbs of food). Within that 1.2 to 2 lbs range, you'll need to experiment to find the right amount of daily food for your particular pup.

Large breed pups should eat at the lower end of their range, to slow down their growth. We've already talked about the importance of this.

Also generally, a pup whose weight is getting close to the halfway point needs less food, while a pup whose weight is still far away from the halfway point needs more.

But every pup is different in metabolism and activity level!

And remember, his current weight will keep changing, so you should monitor his weight on a weekly basis and adjust your food quantity as he grows.

Also.... that daily amount shouldn't be fed all at once. Divide it into three or four smaller meals. Most puppies over 8 weeks old should eat three meals per day until they're about 6 months old, then two meals per day thereafter. Toy breed puppies (because they can have problems regulating their blood sugar) should eat four meals per day until 4 months old, three meals per day until 6 months old, then two meals per day thereafter.

Golden Retriever adolescentIf your pup's current weight is MORE than half his adult size, but LESS than 80% of it...

...he's getting closer to maturity, but still has a ways to go. He should probably be eating 5 or 6% of his current weight, per day. But remember to keep large breed pups on the slim side!

If his current weight is very close to his adult weight, say 90%...

...try dropping the percentage down to 4%.

And when he reaches his adult weight...

...you just need to maintain it now, using this ADULT chart, which drops the percentage to 2-3%.

See how it works?

Important! These feeding guidelines are only a starting point. Every dog is different. You MUST monitor your pup's shape and energy to make sure he's getting enough food, but not too much food.

How to introduce new food

There have been times when I've taken in a foster pup with no knowledge of his previous diet. All I can do is serve him the same basic food as my other dogs.

But whenever possible, it's best to gradually phase in a new diet, especially with puppies who are brand new to your home.

When you bring your puppy home, keep feeding what the pup is used to – yes, even if it's the cheapest supermarket kibble on earth. It won't hurt him to eat it for a little longer.

Give him a couple of days to settle into your home while he eats his familiar food. Sometimes the shock of a new environment can cause digestive upsets, so you don't want to make things doubly worse by adding a new food.

Once he has settled in, begin substituting a very small amount (maybe 10%) of the new food for the old food. Do this over a couple of weeks until he is completely switched over to the new food.

"Help! My puppy won't eat the new food!"

Yes, this sometimes happens, especially with older pups. Some pups are stuck in a rut of processed foods – almost addicted to them, like kids who refuse to eat anything without sugar in it.

If you've introduced the new food slowly, mixing it with his familiar kibble or canned, yet your pup refuses to touch it, you need to take a firmer stance.

  1. Put the dish of food on the floor, or in his crate with him.
  2. If he doesn't eat within 10 minutes, pick it up and put it in the fridge.
  3. When it's time for his next meal (he should be eating 2-4 meals a day, depending on his age), take it out of the fridge. Let it sit for a few minutes until it's room temperature, stir it up, and put it down again.
  4. If he still doesn't eat it, throw it out. Prepare the exact same food for his next meal.

Grumpy dog holding out for different food

Seriously, that's how you do it.

When he's hungry enough and realizes that you're not going to offer anything different, he'll eventually eat it. Praise him vociferously and he'll develop a real taste for it!

In The Nature of Animal Healing, Dr. Martin Goldstein DVM reassures us:

"My own strong belief is that unless a pet is quite old or suffering from a degenerative disease like cancer, fasting is a natural way for him to clean out his system, regain his health, and marshal new energy – along with an appetite. The time he goes without food doesn't do him harm." (Goldstein, pg 65)

Just make sure your pup is drinking during this time.

If he's a toy breed, keep his blood sugar up! Buy a tube of a supplement called Nutrical from the pet store. Dab a tiny fingerful of it on the roof of his mouth several times a day to make sure he has enough calories while he's on his stubborn hunger strike.

As with all things related to your dog, use common sense. Make sure the food you're offering isn't spoiled; some smart pups won't eat something that's contaminated. And if your pup acts truly ill, a vet visit is in order.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.



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