Just as in humans, the growth and development phases are very critical periods in dogs and nutritional errors during these phases can lead to irreparable consequences. Therefore choosing the right food for puppies’ needs, whether dry (puppy kibble) or wet (puppy canned food), and giving it in the right amount and frequency are of paramount importance.
Puppies have higher nutritional requirements than adult dogs. In fact puppies use the energy and nutrients of food not only for the good functioning of their body and for maintaining their body temperature, but also for building their bones, muscles, tissues and organs. That’s why the diet for puppies needs to be more rich in energy and nutrients and more digestible compared to the typical maintenance diet of an adult dog.
The first six months of life represent the period of fastest growth for puppies: in this period the energy and nutritional requirements of puppies are much increased to support the rapid deposit and development of tissues. These increased nutritional needs are promptly met through the consumption of higher amounts of food, which have to be dived into 3-4 portions a day. During this rapid growth phase (first six months of life), the energy requirements of a puppy are approximately twice as high as those of an adult dog of the same size. After six months of age, however, the energy requirements begin to decrease parallel to the decline of the growth rate and, once adult size is reached, it is necessary to gradually change the dietary regimen in order to avoid an excessive increase in body weight or even obesity. In addition, after six months of age the frequency of feeding can be reduced to 2 portions a day.
As concerns puppies' protein requirements, in addition to the amounts needed for maintenance (i.e. the amounts needed to replace the normal turnover of body proteins), puppies require increased amounts of these nutrients in order to support the synthesis of new tissues. Proteins contained in the puppies’ diet have to be of high-quality and highly digestible in order to provide the body with the necessary amounts and proportions of the essential amino acids. In this respect, animal proteins are more complete, balanced and digestible for puppies (and adult dogs) than plant proteins.
Nowadays many types of high-quality puppy food are available on the market. They usually come into two different forms, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages: dry food or puppy kibble and wet food or puppy canned food. Puppy kibble contains approximately 10% water and has a higher energy and nutrient density than wet food. It is practical, has a long shelf life (unless it is moistened with some water to make it more soft for younger puppies) and is beneficial for the health of teeth and gums, by keeping them clean through chewing. By contrast puppy canned food contains approximately 75% water, is more palatable because of its tender texture, and has a higher animal protein content than dry food. The disadvantages include its brief shelf life once the can has been opened, its ability to promote the formation of tartar and the fact that it has to be fed at relatively high volumes because of its high water content and, consequently, its low energy and nutrient density.
Regardless of which form of puppy food is chosen, it is important that it is of high-quality: besides providing adequate and balanced amounts of all nutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium and phosphorous), the ideal puppy food should be made with high quality ingredients. In this respect the protein source is of paramount importance. Foods containing mainly cheap protein sources, such as animal by-products, meat meals or animal by-products meals and vegetable protein are not of high-quality and are not adequate for puppies, since they do not contain all the essential amino acids in the right proportion and are less digestible and consequently less usable to puppies than muscle protein (meat).
When talking about feeding puppies, it is also important to distinguish among dog breeds of different size. The canine species is unique since it contains a surprisingly large number of different breeds and varieties, ranging from Chihuahua (1 kg of body weight) to Saint Bernard (80-100 kg of body weight). As a consequence, the length of the growth phase differs among different breeds: 8-10 months for small size breeds, 10-14 months for medium size breeds and 14-24 months for large/giant size breeds. Because of the longer length of the growth phase in large-giant size breeds, any dietary imbalance during the development phase has more severe consequences in these breeds.
Small-medium size breed puppies reach adulthood relatively early. Therefore it is very important to pay attention not to overfeed them, in order to avoid the development of obesity during later life phases. As concerns large-giant size breed puppies, an excess of dietary energy during the growth phase often leads to skeletal disorders. In fact the over-feeding of these puppies can lead to a so high growth rate that it cannot be supported by the still immature skeletal system. In addition, this situation is often worsened by the wrong practice of adding calcium supplements to an already complete and balance diet: an excessive calcium intake during the growth phase can actually lead to the inhibition of bone formation. From what has been just said, it is clear that puppies should not be fed ad libitum in order to avoid obesity in small-medium size breeds and muscle-skeletal disorders in large-giant size breeds.
In summary, the basic rules for feeding puppies include:
- the use of food (puppy kibble or canned food) highly digestible and nutritious, of high-quality and adequate for the growth phase of puppies;
- feeding controlled portions;
- feeding 3-4 portions a day until 4-6 months of age, and then, after six months of age, only 2 portions a day;
- not adding supplements to an already complete and balanced diet.