While it’s always important to feed your dogs well, it’s especially important for puppies to get the best start in life with the proper nutrition.
Your puppy’s growing bones, muscles, brain cells and tissues require specific nutrients, and those nutrients need to be in perfect balance. Too few or too many calories, over supplementing or nutrient deficiencies—all of these can be harmful to your pup in the long run. And, no, feeding a standard dog food is not the solution as most will not fulfill these needs.
If you have found yourself to be the caregiver of a puppy (or puppies—lucky you!), take a look through our guide below. It will help you understand what your puppy needs nutritionally through every stage of their young life so you can feed them a diet that will help them thrive.
Feeding a Puppy From Birth Through 4 Weeks of Age
The best puppy food for your puppy’s first month of life is the milk from their mother. Dog milk has a different blend of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals compared to milk from other species, such as cows, so mama's milk will have the best balance of nutrients for a growing puppy.
It is especially important that puppies nurse on their mother for the first day. That early milk is called colostrum and has antibodies, which will help with disease protection. A puppy’s intestinal tract is open to absorbing these antibodies in the first 24 hours after birth. After that first day, though, the puppy’s intestinal tract starts to break down the larger proteins and no more antibodies are absorbed.
In the past, it was traditional to supplement a puppy that was falling behind the growth curve of their litter with a formula made for puppies. Now, it’s believed that those pups should simply be given extra nursing time alone while the bigger puppies get supplemental formula. No formula is quite as good as mother’s milk!
If you are raising puppies yourself without the mother, or you need to supplement puppies for another reason, a formula specifically made for puppies is the best option. Don’t substitute a kitten or human formula.
Puppies should be weighed daily with a very accurate scale. While a pup may not gain weight the first day (a healthy starting weight is different for each breed and can be determined by your veterinarian), there should be steady weight gains after that. If a puppy loses weight or fails to gain, contact your veterinarian. Make sure the mother is getting plenty of excellent and extra nutrition and water, too. She needs it to produce milk for her puppies.
How To Bottle Feed Puppies
Whenever possible, puppies should be nursed and raised by their mothers. There are times, however, such as when a pup is orphaned, when bottle feeding becomes necessary. But bottle feeding the wrong thing, the wrong way, the wrong amount or on the wrong schedule can lead to illness or even death.
Milk replacer designed specifically for puppies is the best alternative to mother’s milk. You’ll also need several pet nurser bottles as well as a variety of nipples since some puppies find nursing from one type easier than from another.
Reconstitute powdered milk replacer per label instructions or use a premixed variety. Milk replacer doesn’t remain good after mixing/opening for long, so don’t make more than what you’ll use in a 24-hour period. Warm the bottle by placing it in a cup of hot water until the milk reaches body temperature.
Test the nipple before every feeding. Hold the bottle upside down to ensure that milk only drips from the opening. A flow that is too fast puts puppies at risk for inhaling milk.
Puppies are best fed in a belly down position rather than on their backs like you would feed a human infant. Place the pup on your lap or on a towel on a table and insert the nipple into their mouth. Tip the bottle so that any air inside stays away from the nipple. Continue feeding until the puppy’s suckling stops or slows dramatically. Put a finger against the puppy’s throat to feel if they are still swallowing.
Newborn puppies need to eat every 2 to 3 hours, but as long as they get four to five full-sized meals in the course of the day, nighttime feedings are generally not necessary. When puppies are 2 to 4 weeks old, the frequency of feedings can be gradually reduced to every 6 to 8 hours. Puppies who drink too much at one feeding can develop diarrhea. Small breed puppies may need to be restricted to taking in only 10 to 15 milliliters (ml) per feeding to prevent diarrhea. To balance these smaller meals, an extra meal or two throughout the day, or even one at night, may be necessary until small pups get a bit older.
It is usually not necessary to determine exactly how much puppies are eating as long as they gain weight daily and don’t act hungry (crying, for example) until just before the next feeding is due. Commercially-available milk replacers provide guidelines for what a typical puppy might eat over the course of a day—for example, 2 teaspoons per 4 ounces bodyweight. Another good rule of thumb is that most puppies take in around 18 ml per 100 grams body weight daily. However, an individual’s needs can vary dramatically from the average. If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your veterinarian.
And don’t forget that young puppies must be stimulated to urinate and defecate. Wipe the area around the anus and penis or vulva with a warm, wet washcloth after every feeding.
Weaning Begins for Most Puppies Around 5 Weeks Old
Around 5 weeks of age or so is when most people will start to wean their puppies. Some will start weaning as early as 3 to 4 weeks of age, especially with a large litter. The mother may still nurse them for another couple of weeks, but nursing puppies is a huge drain on her. Puppies switch over to “real food” quite easily, although it can be a messy rodeo at first!
Your best and safest option for your puppies is to use a commercially made, balanced food for puppies. Kibble should be softened with water or broth to a soupy texture, or you can add a little extra water to wet puppy food.
To get the puppies interested, dip your finger into the mush and then let them lick it. Puppies quickly learn to lap up the food. Be prepared to bathe or at least wipe off each puppy after a meal. At first, they’ll wear as much food as they consume!
Make sure each pup is getting their fair share. Separate dog bowls given under supervision is ideal: Offering food in a muffin pan with pups spread out around the edges works well, too.
If you prefer to cook meals for your puppies at home or feed your puppies a raw diet, extra effort is required. Food hygiene needs to be excellent to avoid cross-contamination. In addition, you’ll need to contact a veterinary nutritionist for a recipe that is specific to your puppies’ needs. For example, the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio must be perfectly set and balanced in the diet of large breed puppies or they may end up with developmental orthopedic diseases like hip dysplasia or osteochondrosis.
While feeding your weaning mix, there is no standard set of directions for how much to feed. Continue to weigh your puppies daily. You want pups that are growing but not overweight. There should be a “waist” when you look down from above.
If the puppies are still nursing a bit, figure on offering them three or four meals a day. Toy and small breed pups may need some extra snacks, as they are susceptible to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Nutritional weaning is complete when the puppies are eating only puppy food and no longer nursing at all. Pups gradually start eating more solid food and nursing less as they mature.
When litters and moms are kept together, pups are usually eating only puppy food at around 8 weeks of age, although some moms completely stop their pups from nursing a little earlier or a little later. It's possible to finish nutritional weaning earlier (6 weeks of age or so) in the case of large litters or bottle-fed pups. Ideally, social weaning (in other words, taking pups away from their littermates and mom) shouldn't occur until 8-10 weeks of age.
What To Feed a Puppy After Weaning
Once puppies are fully weaned, continue to watch their diet and their weight. Foods for puppies are specifically formulated for ideal growth, including supplements for brain development. DHA, the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid, has been shown to maximize healthy brain development in puppies and is now added to most high-quality puppy foods, for example.
Try these vet-recommended puppy foods:
Some companies have developed formulas for different groups of puppies. For large- and giant-breed puppies, the amount of calories, protein, calcium and phosphorus has to be perfect to establish a slow but steady growth and avoid any orthopedic problems. You don’t want your Great Dane to grow too fast. Many large- and giant-breed dogs don’t reach adult size until they are well over a year of age.
Try these vet-recommended large breed puppy foods:
Small- and toy-breed pups need a nutrient-dense food because they reach mature size so quickly and can’t physically eat large amounts of food. These “mighty midgets” are often at adult size by 9 to 12 months of age.
Try these vet-recommended small breed puppy foods:
As with weaning puppies, it is very difficult to get an ideal balanced diet for growth through home cooking or raw food. Be prepared to pay a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a diet for you, and expect that the diet will need to be tweaked as your puppy grows. Many people who cook or feed raw also feed some kibble. If you travel with your puppy or need to board your puppy, this makes feeding much easier and safer.
A Closer Look at Puppy Food Ingredients
When you compare a puppy food to an adult dog food, you will notice some differences. Guidelines established by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) require more of almost every nutrient for puppy food versus adult food. The exception are some vitamins, which can easily be overdosed.
One of these differences include the minimum protein requirement, which is 22.5 percent on a dry matter basis for puppies and 18 percent at minimum for adult dogs. One percent calcium with 0.8 percent phosphorus is listed for puppies, while adult dogs need 0.6 of calcium and 0.5 of phosphorus. Puppy foods will also contain more fat and often have DHA added for brain development.
To find the best quality puppy food, look for puppy diets with meat proteins listed first. (Dog food ingredients are listed by weight, so if meat and meat meals are right at the top, you know your dog is getting some good nutrition). In dog food, you tend to get what you pay for. Premium foods will be more expensive, but over the long run, you will end up feeding less because the food is more nutritious and digestible.
Feeding a Weaned Puppy After Adoption
When you bring a puppy home, the rescue or shelter should be able to tell you what food your puppy has been eating so you can duplicate that at first. Your puppy is already facing enough changes and challenges, so feed what they are used to for the first week or so. You can then gradually change over if you wish to try a different food.
Don’t fall into the trap of leaving food down at all times for your puppy to graze on at their leisure, which can increase your puppy’s chances of overeating. Feed your puppy specific quantities and set up mealtimes (more on that below), so you know exactly when your puppy last ate and how much. If they have a problem, you will be aware of it right away. This also helps with housebreaking, because most pups will need to go potty shortly after eating.
Tips for Changing Puppy Food
A recommended schedule for diet changes is to use 25 percent of the new diet mixed with 75 percent of the current diet for three days. Then switch to 50/50 for three days. After that, go to 75 percent of the new diet with 25 percent of the old diet for three days. At that point you can go to feeding only the new, chosen diet.
This same changeover schedule will work when you shift your puppy to an adult food later on.
How Often To Feed a Puppy
Most puppies do best with three meals a day until 6 months of age, then switching over to two meals a day. For toy- and small-breed dogs, four meals a day until 6 months, then three meals a day may be best. Obviously, you will have to set up your puppy’s schedule around your schedule, but it can be done. That extra midday meal is only necessary for a short time. (Learn more about how often you should be feeding your puppy here.)
A sample puppy feeding schedule would be:
- Breakfast at 6 a.m., followed by a short time outside to go to the bathroom and then a walk 30 to 60 minutes later
- Lunch at noon, followed by a quick pee walk, some quiet time and then another walk
- Dinner at 6 p.m. or 5 p.m. (depending on your schedule), followed by a short time outside and then a walk 30 to 60 minutes later
Note: For toy and small dogs, offer another meal or planned snack about 10 p.m. at 6 months of age; the noon meal can generally be dropped.
How Much Water Does a Puppy Need?
Your puppy should have access to fresh, clean water most of the time. It can help to remove water an hour or two before bedtime, just to help with sleeping through the night. When you’re away during the day, water should always be available.
Many puppies will play in and spill their water bowls so having a second source of water available is wise. Good options for supplemental water are a large drinking tube—like a rabbit would use—or freezing water in a bowl, so it will slowly melt over the day.
How Much To Feed a Puppy
How much to feed your puppy is an art as well as a science. You want your pup to get adequate nutrients but not get overweight. The packaging for your pup’s dog food will have suggested feeding amounts.
Use something to accurately measure the food, like a scale for weighing out portions or a measuring cup. “A handful” can really vary in amount depending on whose hand is involved.
Your best guidance for how much to feed is following a body condition score program, such as the Purina 9 point score. Ideally you want your puppy at a 4 to 5 score. That means an obvious “waist” from above with a “tuck up” in front of the hind legs from the side. The ribs should be easy to feel.
Best Treats for Your Puppy
Treats are an inevitable part of every puppy’s life. Limit treats to 10 percent or less of their diet. Stick to healthy dog treat. You can use some of their regular kibble, treats made just for puppies, or special things like small pieces of cooked chicken breast. You can use these same types of treats for training class with your pup.
Try these vet-recommended treats for puppies:
When Can a Puppy Eat Adult Food?
When to shift your pup over to adult food will depend partly on their size and growth rate. Many toy- and small-breed dogs and mixed breeds reach their full size by 10 to 12 months of age. While a very active small dog may benefit from an extra snack during the day, they can start the change to an adult diet. Large- and giant-breed dogs may not reach full growth until 18 months or older.
Consult your veterinarian for guidance about switching to adult dog food. And when making the switch, follow the tips above for transitioning your pet to a new diet.
At first, feeding your puppy may seem a bit overwhelming. Common sense along with some good advice from your veterinarian can make smooth sailing for healthy development.