Feeding puppies, great and small

One of the biggest decisions you will make as a new puppy owner is what to feed your pet. In my opinion, there isn’t anything more important than considering a diet that will provide all the necessary nutrients to support your pet’s growth and avoid serious health consequences in the long run.

When assessing a food for your pet’s needs, you need to first think about what their adult weight and size will be. This is to ensure they have the necessary nutrients to grow to that size and maintain their weight, avoiding obesity.

For small-medium dogs (under 25 kg adult weight) the Key Nutritional Factors are:

  • Crude protein % between 22-32%
  • Crude fat % between 10-25%
  • Calcium 0.7-1.2%
  • Phosphorus 0.6-1.1%
  • Ca:P ratio 1:1-1.5:1

As you can see from these factors, the fat and protein levels are fairly high in comparison to adult values (10-20% and 15-30% respectively). The increased fat is due to the increased energy density necessary to fuel growth in puppies, and the increased protein is essential to bone and skeletal muscle development. Most puppy foods contain higher levels of protein than is necessary as newer studies have shown diets with protein in the higher end of the range do not show deleterious effects on health, as long as the calcium and energy levels are appropriate. As for fat, this is an important source of essential fatty acids and a carrier for fat soluble vitamins, as well as a dense energy source.

The Key Nutritional Factors for large breed puppies (over 25kg adult weight) are:

  • Crude protein % between 22-32%
  • Crude fat % between 10-25%
  • Calcium 0.7-1.7%
  • Phosphorus 0.6-1.3%
  • Ca:P ratio 1:1-1.8:1

For large breed puppies, the main nutrients of concern are calcium and phosphorus. Excesses or deficiencies in these nutrients can have severe consequences on bone development: excesses of calcium rather than deficiencies are of most concern in large breed puppies, as an excess in this nutrient can cause osteochondrosis, issues with calcium absorption in the long term and developmental orthopedic disease. A puppy food should never be supplemented with calcium for this reason. Excess calcium as a puppy can also have long term effects as it’s been shown to impact the dog’s ability to absorb calcium in adulthood. Urinary stones and kidney stones can also result from calcium excesses. Deficiencies in phosphorus (rather than excesses) can also affect the balance of calcium in the body and negatively impact bone development. Many clients believe the Ca:P ratio is most important, and can have the biggest impact on development, however it’s been shown that it’s actually the levels of Calcium and Phosphorus individually, that have a greater impact on the dog’s development (Schoenmakers et al, 1999) as opposed to the ratio itself.

Another important component of your puppy’s diet is essential fatty acids. These fatty acids are Linoleic acid and Arachidonic acid (omega 6 fatty acids) and alpha-Linolenic acid, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic acid (omega 3 fatty acids). Essential fatty acids (EFA’s) assist in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (such as A, E & K) as well as reduce inflammation in the body. With the increase in owners feeding raw or home-cooked diets, we’ve seen an increase in fatty acid deficiencies, particularly linoleic acid; the primary sign of this is very dry, flaky skin or ‘puppy dandruff’. It is not enough just to add these fatty acids into the diet to ‘treat’ the problem, or prevent issues occurring – they must be present in certain ratios to each other like calcium and phosphorus mentioned above. The omega 3:6 ratio is typically less than 1:30 according to AAFCO, but the omega 6 amount can be lower depending on the goals of supplementation (anti-inflammatory effects, joint support, coat health, etc).

Doggy dandruff can be due to a linoleic acid deficiency

As for treats, these are fine to add in the diet as long as they make up less than 10% of the total daily amount of food the pet is getting. Particularly for puppies, they tend to get a lot of treats through training; for this I recommend using treats designed specifically for training as they are low calorie so contribute less to the overall caloric content of the diet (so you can use a lot more for puppy school, etc). When selecting treats, avoid treats that contain milk or dairy products such as cheese, as although they may taste nice, dogs cannot digest milk products and they often will cause diarrhea when ingested. If selecting treats for enrichment feeding, again use your pet’s own kibble, peanut butter or products designed to fill enrichment toys (such as Kongs, wobblers, licky mats or puzzle feeders) – always checking the peanut butter doesn’t contain the artificial sweetener xylitol. Always introduce any new treat gradually into the diet – a common cause of sudden GI upset is adding new treats or foods into the diet.

For these reasons, a complete and balanced commercial diet is the best option for growing puppies as they are a lot more sensitive to nutrient deficiencies and excesses than adult dogs and it takes a lot of the guesswork out of it for you. It’s also important to remember to be careful when adding things into the diet (such as mince meat, vegetables, rice, milk etc) as this can easily unbalance a formulated diet, or block the absorption of some nutrients in the diet. Home cooking for puppies is not recommended for the above reasons, but if you do want to undertake this, always consult with a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist first to make sure you are avoiding any deficiencies or excesses, and follow the recipe you are given exactly (with no substitutions) to ensure it is as balanced as possible.


Schoenmakers, Inez & Hazewinkel, Herman & Brom, Walter. (1999). Excessive Ca and P Intake during Early Maturation in Dogs Alters Ca and P Balance without Long-Term Effects after Dietary Normalization. The Journal of nutrition. 129. 1068-74. 10.1093/jn/129.5.1068

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