Bringing a puppy into your family is a big deal. Sure, it’s fun to have a roly-poly little puppy around to play with, but pets are a major responsibility. One of your primary jobs as a pet parent is providing your dog with a healthy and balanced diet in every life stage.
In the early stages of his life, your puppy’s diet should be focused on growth and development. He’ll need plenty of protein and calories to make sure he grows at the proper rate and the develops the muscle mass he’ll need as an adult. At the same time, however, you want to make sure doesn’t grow too quickly because that could predispose him to health issues in adulthood.
Feeding your dog properly isn’t some impossible equation. Most commercial dog foods are properly formulated to meet your dog’s needs, but there are a few things you should know in order to make informed nutritional decisions on your dog’s behalf.
Here’s what you need to know about your puppy’s diet as well as when and how to make the switch from puppy food to adult dog food.
You might also be interested in our Best Puppy Foods in 2023 article in which we go in-depth into your puppies nutritional needs.
In This Article...
- Understanding Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs
- When to Switch Off Puppy Food
- Special Considerations for Large Breeds
- Tips for Making The Transition
- Wrapping Up
- Frequently Asked Questions
- A Few More Fun Facts
Understanding Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs
No matter his age, your dog requires a delicate balance of key nutrients in his diet to maintain optimal health. The six essential nutrients in a canine diet include:
While dogs may not be obligate carnivores like cats, protein is still an essential nutrient. Proteins are made up of amino acids and they help form the building blocks of strong muscle and healthy tissue. Your dog’s body is able to synthesize 13 of the 23 existing amino acids from various things in his diet, but the other 10 must come from food. These are known as essential amino acids.
Fat is the primary source of energy in your dog’s diet. In addition to being highly concentrated in calories, dietary fats support your dog’s skin and coat health. Your dog can get fat from a variety of sources, but animal sources are generally the most biologically valuable.
Carbohydrates are another source of energy for dogs, and they can be a nutritious way to get essential vitamins and minerals as well. Carbs shouldn’t outweigh the proteins in your dog’s diet, but they can play an important role in creating a balanced diet.
On top of these three macronutrients, your dog needs micronutrients like vitamins and minerals as well as water in his diet.
Studies suggest a diet comprised of at least 18% protein and 5% fat for adult dogs. There are no minimum requirements for carbohydrates, though key vitamins and minerals have specific requirements as determined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
What Makes Your Puppy’s Needs Different?
Despite how he might look, your puppy isn’t just a smaller version of the adult dog he’ll someday grow to be. The first few months of your puppy’s life are incredibly formative, both physically and mentally. The socialization your puppy receives in his early life will help shape his personality and behavior. The diet he receives will shape his body.
Research shows that puppies grow as much as 5% to 10% per day during the first eight weeks of life. Their growth rate slows after that, but most puppies continue to grow for another 6 to 18 months.
To fuel such rapid growth and development, puppies need a higher percentage of protein, fat, and calories in their diets. Experts suggest a minimum of 22% protein and 8% fat for growing puppies (as well as pregnant or lactating female dogs). Keep in mind, however, that these are bare minimums. An ideal diet is likely to be much higher in protein and balanced out with fat and carbs.
To help you get a feel for your puppy’s daily calorie intake, here are some calculations provided by DVM360:
|Calculating Your Puppy’s Energy Requirements|
|Up to 4 Months||4 to 12 months|
|3 x Resting Energy Requirement (RER||2 x Resting Energy Requirement (RER)|
|RER (small to medium breed)||RER (large and giant breed)|
|30 x (bodyweight in kg) + 70||70 x (bodyweight in kg)3/4|
Not only do your puppy’s needs for protein and fat differ from an adult dogs, but he has unique requirements for key nutrients like calcium and phosphorus. Puppies also need plenty of DHA.
Calcium and phosphorus are essential for healthy bone development, and they must be kept in balance with each other. Puppy foods generally contain between 1.2:1 and 1.4:1 calcium to phosphorus, compared to adult dog foods which are closer to 1:1. DHA (or docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid that plays a key role in brain development. Experts suggest a daily intake of 25mg/kg per day.
When to Switch Off Puppy Food
One of the biggest questions new dog owners ask is, “How do I know when to switch my puppy to adult dog food?” The answer is both simple and complex. Quite simply, you should start feeding your puppy adult dog food when he’s done growing. The complexity comes in when you consider that not all puppies stop growing at the same time.
Generally speaking, small breeds achieve their adult weight much more quickly than large breeds do.
According to Dr. Jerry Klein, DVM and Chief Veterinary Officer at the American Kennel Club (AKC), small breeds typically stop growing between 6 and 8 months of age. Large breeds grow until they’re 12 to 18 months old, and giant breeds may not reach their full size until 24 months of age.
If you’re going to bring a dog into your family, you have to do your research. A puppy is no small commitment and you should have at least some idea what to expect if you’re going to take the leap. That includes knowing approximately how big your puppy is going to get.
It can be difficult to predict adult size with some breeds, especially mixed breeds like Goldendoodles and Yorkipoos. In these cases, you may not be able to use age as a metric.
This is where regular vet appointments can be particularly helpful. You should be taking your puppy to the vet as often as every 6 to 8 weeks for vaccines and boosters, but it’s also a great way to keep track of your puppy’s growth. Your vet will take your puppy’s weight at each visit, and he’ll be able to tell you when it seems like the rate of growth is starting to slow.
Once your puppy’s growth begins to slow down, it’s a good idea to start thinking about switching to an adult dog food. Consider a recipe that contains plenty of animal protein balanced with healthy fats. You might even consider a recipe formulated for your dog’s breed size.
A word of caution: Avoid breed-specific dog food formulas.
While there are certain nutritional considerations to make for small- versus large-breed puppies, different breeds do not have distinct nutritional requirements. That’s not to say that some breeds can’t benefit from certain dietary adjustments based on breed-specific health problems, but all domestic dogs have the same core nutritional requirements.
In the end, there’s no exact formula to determine when it’s time to switch your puppy to adult food. It’s best to use a combination of your veterinarian’s advice and your own judgement.
To summarize, here are some of the signs it may be time think about making the switch:
- You have a toy or small-breed puppy at least 6 months of age.
- You have a medium breed puppy (30 to 50 pounds at maturity) at least 8 to 10 months of age.
- You have a large-breed puppy at least 10 to 12 months of age.
- You have a giant breed puppy at least 18 months of age.
- Your puppy’s bodyweight is about 80% of his expected adult size.
- Your veterinarian has noticed a steady (and healthy) decline in your puppy’s rate of growth.
Now that you understand when to make the change, you’re probably wondering how to do it. Don’t worry, we’ll get there! Soon we’ll talk about how to switch puppy food out for adult dog food, but first we want to touch on some important points regarding large-breed puppies.
Special Considerations for Large Breeds
A large-breed dog is one expected to weigh at least 50 pounds at maturity while giant breeds weigh over 80 pounds. Large dogs can take 12 months or more to achieve their full size while giant breeds may continue to grow for 18 to 24 months.
According to the experts at AKC, some of the largest dog breeds include:
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- Great Dane
- Anatolian Shepherd
- Dogue de Bordeaux
- Great Pyrenees
- Cane Corso
- Irish Wolfhound
- Saint Bernard
Some might consider these ten breeds to be “giant” breeds, a size category above “large” breeds. Popular large-breed dogs include favorites like the Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Boxer, and German Shepherd.
Large-breed puppies mature at a slower rate than small-breed puppies and it’s important not to rush the process. They may need more calories overall than a smaller dog, but it’s even more essential that you provide the right balance of protein and fat to control their growth.
When large and giant breed puppies grow too quickly, it puts a lot of extra strain on their developing bones and joints. This can lead to skeletal abnormalities and an increased risk for orthopedic problems in adulthood.
Large breeds are already prone to hip dysplasia and cruciate ligament tears, so you don’t want to do anything to increase the risk.
In addition to controlling your large- or giant-breed puppy’s calorie intake, make sure the calcium and phosphorus content of his diet isn’t too high. Studies show that the ideal diet for large-breed puppies contains about 1.5% calcium and 0.8% to 1% phosphorus. This equates to a calcium: phosphorus ratio of between 1:1 and 1:3.
Tips for Making The Transition
Diarrhea and other digestive issues are common among puppies. While these symptoms can be associated with viruses like parvovirus and distemper or intestinal parasites, some puppies simply have a tougher time weaning off of their mother’s milk and onto solid food. This being the case, the last thing you want to do is change your puppy’s diet all of a sudden.
Switching puppy food cold turkey can result in gastrointestinal upset and, quite frankly, it can be pretty unpleasant for both you and your puppy. If you want to know how to switch dog food without diarrhea, it’s pretty simple: do it slowly.
Ideally, any changes in your dog’s diet should be made slowly. Experts suggest a transition period of at least 5 but optimally 7 to 14 days. This means you’ll have to start making the switch before you run out of your puppy’s current food. You’ll need to mix some of the old food with the new food to get his body used to it.
Here’s a detailed formula for switching your dog’s diet:
- Mix 25% adult dog food with your puppy’s current diet for 2 to 3 days.
- Increase the ratio to 50% adult dog food and 50% puppy food for 2 to 3 days.
- Mix 75% adult dog food with 25% puppy food for 2 to 3 days.
Every puppy is different, so you should be prepared to adjust this timeline as needed. If your puppy has already had digestive issues, you may want to give each step a solid 4 to 5 days instead of just 2 or 3. At any point along the way, if your puppy develops diarrhea or other GI problems, move back a step for a few days until symptoms resolve before moving on.
While balanced nutrition is essential for healthy growth and development in puppies, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. You’ll need to balance your pup’s dietary intake with regular exercise to prevent obesity which can further increase his risk for health problems later in life.
Mental stimulation is also incredibly important for growing puppies. Regular training is essential for establishing good behavior and it also helps you form a strong bond with your puppy. Make sure to give your puppy time for independent play as well – puzzle toys and puppy-safe chews are great for this. If you coddle your puppy too much during development, he may not learn to be independent.
Socialization is another thing to focus on during your puppy’s first 6 to 12 months. Make sure your puppy has plenty of new experiences with people, places, and objects. A well-socialized puppy will develop into a healthy, well-adjusted adult dog.
More than anything else, though, give your puppy plenty of love and affection. Your puppy will grow to become your most faithful companion, so take advantage of every moment you have with him!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it okay to give a puppy regular food?
There’s nothing dangerous about feeding a puppy regular dog food, but it simply isn’t the best nutritional option. Puppy foods are formulated specifically to support growth and development while adult dog foods are designed for maintenance. Feeding your puppy adult dog food may contribute to nutritional deficiencies and could keep him from growing at the proper rate.
How do you know when to switch your dog’s food?
As a general rule, puppies can be switched to adult food when they reach 80% of their expected adult weight. In adulthood, you might want to consider switching your dog’s food if he gains too much weight, developed GI disturbances, or the condition of his skin and coat deteriorates.
What happens if I change my dog’s food too fast?
Dogs (especially puppies) tend to have sensitive digestive systems. Changing your dog’s food too quickly could result in gastrointestinal upset with unpleasant symptoms like diarrhea or vomiting. Transitioning slowly from one diet to another can give your dog’s stomach time to adjust.
A Few More Fun Facts
- Large-breed puppies require fewer calories per unit of body weight and mature at a slower rate compared to small-breed puppies. – Source: Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PMFA)
- Growing puppies require about twice as many calories per pound of body weight as an adult dog of the same breed. – Source: The National Academies Press (NAP)
- The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is a voluntary membership association made up of officials in the industry. The organization develops standard ingredient definitions and nutritional requirements for pet foods, though they are not a regulatory agency with any power of enforcement. – Source: PetMD
- About half the calories puppies consume are used in tissue growth and skeletal development. A diet that is too calorically dense may result in excessive growth and potential skeletal abnormalities. – Source: VCA Hospitals