By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
Fresh food, raw diet, kibble, large breed puppy, grain-free; the vast array of puppy food options can be overwhelming for pet parents to decipher. When deciding on the best food for your puppy, it can seem like there is a neverending amount of information to sift through. In this article, we'll distill the highlights, pros, and cons of many common approaches to puppy food so you can feel confident you're making the best decision for your four-legged family member.
Food for Fuel: Proteins and Fats
Puppies have rapidly growing brains and bodies, putting healthy proteins and fats at the top of the list when it comes to fueling them up for being mentally and physically ready to take on the adventures of puppyhood. So what, exactly, is a healthy protein or healthy fat?
Picking a Protein
Domesticated dogs have evolved to be omnivorous, meaning they extract energy from plants and animals. However, dogs need more animal-based ingredients, such as muscle meat, organs, and even bones. Proteins extracted from plants, such as pea protein, soybeans, and other legumes, are not recommended. Current research suggests that relying on plant-based proteins alone may lead to deficiencies causing heart-related canine issues. The same research also points concern at grain-free diets and lamb-based diets, but the findings are not conclusive yet. Thus, the safe move is to avoid foods with plant-based proteins in the first ten ingredients, grain-free diets, lamb-based diets, or other boutique proteins not supported by research.
What to look for:
- Recognizable, human-grade animal muscle meat as the first ingredient, such as real chicken, beef, turkey, or venison.
- Healthy byproducts such as heart, liver, and kidneys in the first five ingredients
Finding the Right Fats
Regarding healthy fats, it has been shown that DHA and EPA, polyunsaturated fats found in meat-based protein sources such as fish oil, support cognitive function and learning. Research has shown that puppies who receive adequate amounts of DHA and EPA through supplementation learn faster and cognitively outperform animals not supplemented with DHA and EPA.
The source of these healthy fats is an important factor. While flaxseed oil and flaxseed are added to dog foods and supplements as a source of Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids, dogs are not able to convert the ALA into DHA and EPA like other animals (including us humans) and do not reap the same benefits as they would from a fish oil supplement. Adding a sustainably sourced, limited-ingredient fish oil is an excellent way to boost your pup's brain and body through their development.
With proteins and fats, there is also such thing as too much of a good thing. Avoid all-meat diets as they are not nutritionally balanced and can lead to deficiencies that cause severe ailments like Rickets disease.
Plants and Grains
Plants and grains do have a nutritional place in puppy food. The brain and the gut are directly connected through the blood/brain axis, which is why a healthy gut supports a healthy brain. The bacteria in the gut (microbiome) consists of "bad" bacteria and "good" bacteria. Too many harmful bacteria can lead to gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea or irregular stools. Good bacteria, when it flourishes, leads to consistent bowel movements, less gas, smaller poops, and a healthier environment for the brain through that blood/brain axis. Plants feed good bacteria in the gut, and even starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes provide the necessary fiber to keep things moving regularly through the digestive tract.
Whole grains such as farro, quinoa, and rice are all carbohydrate energy sources. They are gentle on the stomach and can be helpful when a puppy may experience nausea or vomiting from a stomach bug or other virus that upsets their digestive system.
Different Breeds Have Different Needs
Large and giant breed puppies like Great Danes, Beaucerons, and German Shepherds have different nutritional needs than small-breed puppies, which are essential to consider to avoid skeletal deformities and tendon, cartilage, or joint ailments such as osteochondrosis and hypertrophic osteodystrophy.
Large and giant breed puppies grow faster than medium breeds and smaller breeds, which is why they have different nutritional requirements. They are also at a higher risk for conditions such as hip dysplasia, so paying close attention to quality nutrition throughout their life is critical to comfort.
What to look for:
- Food specific to large-breed puppies
- A high-quality protein source that is, at minimum, 22% (muscle meat, organ meat, human-grade)
- Balanced calcium to phosphorus ratio (between 1.1:1 and 1.3:1)
- Choose low-carbohydrate, low-calorie treats to complement their primary diet
Talk to your veterinarian about any large-breed puppy food options you are considering to ensure you select one that meets the needs of your large or giant-breed puppy.
Wet Food vs Dry Kibble: Which Way to Go
Wet food has a higher moisture content and comes in canned or fresh options. Avoiding canned wet foods can help you avoid chemicals and preservatives used for lining the cans, which can leach into the food.
Fresh foods, a type of wet food, are typically higher in nutritional quality when made with human-grade ingredients and packaged with all-natural preservatives (such as tocopherols).
Wet puppy food can be easily used in enrichment toys such as Lickimats and frozen Kongs. Dry foods such as kibble or air-dried food can be used as training treats throughout the day to mark behaviors you want your puppy to repeat.
Dry food has a lower moisture content, so access to fresh, filtered water, while important in general, is even more critical when your puppy is on a primarily dry food diet.
Whether you feed dry or wet food, you'll want to start early with good oral hygiene and brush your pup's teeth to keep their gums healthy. Brushing removes excess food, strengthens the gums, and promotes overall health.
Pro Tips for Picking Puppy Food
Don't Forget the Treats
Everything your puppy eats, from that little piece of cheese you dropped off the counter to the treats you use for training, contributes to their daily nutritional profile. Opt for training treats and chewies made with limited ingredient proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Bone broth can help complement your pup's diet rather than add empty calories and carbohydrates from commercial treats.
Make Mealtime Fun Again
Use some of your pup's food for enrichment and training. Puppies love to eat, and training with their food is one of the easiest ways to communicate that you like what they are doing in a way that they like too. Using part of their meal with their daily enrichment, such as in a Kong in their crate before nap time or in a puzzle toy for breakfast, helps satisfy those busy brains to make for a more relaxed pup.
Use Your Resources
Consider a consultation with a board-certified Veterinary Nutritionist. A Veterinary Nutritionist can help you pick the best puppy food for your unique pup while taking into account factors such as breed, sex, health, lifestyle, and behavior. A consultation with a board-certified Veterinary Nutritionist can run upwards of $600 but is a worthwhile investment for your new family member's long, healthy, happy life.
Be Patient and Prepare for Poops
Anytime you switch your puppy's food or add new foods, it's a good idea to supplement your puppy with probiotics under the direction of your veterinarian to help their tummies transition smoothly. Probiotics can be very useful in supporting digestive health if your puppy is placed on antibiotics to fight an infection, gets a stomach bug that causes diarrhea, or has a sensitive stomach.
Don't Grow Up Too Fast
Avoid feeding your puppy adult dog food. Dog food explicitly labeled for adult dogs is generally lower in protein, fat, calories, and several vitamins and minerals. It often doesn't contain enough of the nutrients to support rapidly growing puppies.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets the minimum standards to meet a balanced diet for dogs and puppies. The AAFCO is a private, nonprofit, voluntary membership association whose officials regulate pet food sales and distribution. Be sure that the food you select meets AAFCO requirements specifically for puppies. Refer to the guidelines based on your growing pup's different life stages.
From Tip to Tail: Key Takeaways for Choosing the Best Dog Food for Your Pup
Whether you decide on dry kibble, fresh food, freeze-dried raw, or a combination, the most important thing is to select a nutrient-rich diet with high-quality ingredients. Look for real meat, whole food ingredients, and veggies that don't require an animal nutrition or chemistry degree to recognize on the label.
When in doubt, rely on your support network. Your veterinarian can advise you on choosing the best puppy food for your one-of-a-kind pup. The AAFCO has many resources to help you decode the sometimes overwhelming world of dog food labels.
Nutrition affects everything from a healthy immune system to cognitive function, and your new puppy needs quality food to support their growing body, from wet nose to wagging tail. Rest assured that by doing your research (which you are doing right now!), you're already taking an essential step in helping your puppy grow into a happy and healthy adult dog.
For more information and tips on your dog’s health, check out the Native Pet blog.