Puppies are typically weaned off of their mother's milk at about 8 weeks of age. The goal of feeding growing puppies is to lay the foundation for a healthy adulthood. Proper nutrition is needed to:
- achieve healthy growth (neither too rapid nor too slow),
- optimize immune function,
- minimize potential for obesity, and
- avoid developmental orthopedic disease.
What does normal growth and development look like?
Puppies grow quickly, maturing to adulthood by the time they are 10-12 months of age for small and medium sized breeds and18-24 months for large and giant breeds.
Growth rates for puppies vary by breed and involve a complex process of interactions among genetics, nutrition, and the environment. Proper nutrition is critical to the health and development of puppies, regardless of breed, and it directly influences their immune system and body composition. The nutrient density of food and the amount of food fed can mean the difference between optimal growth and maximal growth.
Should I aim for optimal growth or maximal growth?
An optimal growth rate in puppies is ideal; it is a slow and steady growth rate that allows the puppy to achieve an ideal (optimal) adult body condition while avoiding excessive weight and obesity.
The maximal growth rate means the puppy grows as fast as possible, usually the result of high fat foods, overfeeding and/ or free-choice feeding. A maximal growth rate increases a puppy's risk of skeletal deformities, obesity, and a shortened life expectancy.
Regular weigh-ins and body condition assessments are the most practical strategies to help keep a growing puppy on track at an optimal rate. Your veterinarian and veterinary healthcare team can explain how to assess your puppy at home.
What are the nutritional requirements for growing puppies?
When choosing a diet for your growing puppy it is important to understand four key nutrients: protein, fat, calcium, and digestible carbohydrates.
- Protein requirements for growing puppies are highest immediately after weaning, but the amount of protein they need will steadily decrease thereafter.
- The recommended protein range for healthy puppy growth is 22-32% on a dry matter basis. These levels support optimal growth, so it is not recommended to exceed these protein levels.
- Nutritional formulations for adult dogs should not be fed to growing puppies. Although the dry matter protein level may be adequate, other nutrients and energy content will not be balanced for optimal growth.
- Fat is a source of essential fatty acids.It is a concentrated source of energy and it carries fat-soluble vitamins.
- Excessive energy intake is risky and can lead to obesity and developmental orthopedic disease. For this reason, the fat content for puppies should be rationed between 10-25% on a dry matter basis.
- Calcium content in growth formulations for large breed and giant breed puppies have recently become much more stringent so it is important to select a diet that specifies it is designed to meet the nutritional levels established for AAFCO for large breed puppies.
- Small to medium breeds are less sensitive to the effects of slight over- or under-feeding of calcium, so the levels of calcium can range from 0.7-1.7% on a dry matter basis.
- No specific amount of digestible carbohydrates has been identified as optimal for growing puppies, but it is suggested that 20% on a dry matter basis may maximize their health.
Once an appropriate nutritional product has been chosen, no additional vitamin or mineral supplements should be given, and treats should be limited to less than 10% of the total amount of food fed.
How can I prevent maximal growth and obesity?
Growing puppies need higher amounts of all nutrients in comparison to adult dogs, but excess energy calories and calcium can create serious problems. In small to medium breeds, excess energy can lead to obesity. In large and giant breeds, excess energy and calcium can also lead to abnormal skeletal development.
Preventing obesity must begin during the weaning stage and continue through to adulthood and old age. Being overweight or obese sets the stage for many complications and diseases, including:
- heart disease
- diabetes mellitus
- heat intolerance
- decreased immune function
Free-choice feeding increases the risks for higher levels of body fat, becoming overweight or obese, and (in large breed puppies) skeletal abnormalities.
Portion feeding provides the greatest opportunity to prevent puppies from becoming overweight. Puppies grow rapidly and should be fed measured amounts at regular feeding times, generally 2-3 times per day, based on their body condition and age.
Moderate energy and food restrictions during growth in large breed dogs can also decrease the risk of hip dysplasia without interfering with their ultimate adult size.
Your puppy's weight, body condition, and growth rate should be regularly assessed. With planning and attention to detail, you can lay the foundation for your puppy's optimal health and longevity. Together with your veterinarian and veterinary healthcare team, you can help your puppy grow into as healthy of an adult dog as possible.