Selecting the Best Food for a New Puppy

Are you a new puppy owner? Have you found yourself roaming the food aisles of a pet store or supermarket overwhelmed by the decision of which food to purchase for your beloved new family member? Do you wonder about your puppy’s nutritional needs and if you are feeding the right food?

 If you answered yes to any of these questions, this article is for you.

 One of the most common areas of confusion and frustration surrounding new puppy ownership is nutrition. With pet food aisles filled with numerous food options and labels with terms like “organic”, “holistic”, “all-natural”, and “grain-free”, choosing a diet for a new puppy is more challenging than ever. With proper nutrition being the key to a long and healthy life, it is important that new puppy owners do their research and are properly educated on the importance of choosing an appropriate diet.

 Check the Label for an AAFCO Statement

There are several considerations to make when choosing a puppy food. One of the first steps when choosing a pet food is to check the label for an AAFCO statement. These statements are typically found on the back of the bag or can and written in very small font. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the organization that provides guidelines for the manufacturing, sale, and distribution of pet foods. The AAFCO organization provide guidelines for nutrient requirements that should be in a dog or cat’s diet. Additionally, it provides information regarding which stage of life a food is intended for and how the nutritional adequacy claims are justified. A dog food that is complete and balanced will be justified by either feeding trials or formulation. Feeding trials are the preferred method as they provide greater assurance that the food meets the nutritional requirements of your dog. An AAFCO certified dog food that has undergone feeding trials will have a nutritional adequacy statement that can be found on the food label that reads, “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand X provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth”. On the other hand, formulated dog foods are made based on a calculation of the nutrient levels and have not been tested by feeding trials. A label for a formulated food would read “Brand X is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO for growth.”  When choosing a food, check the label for either of these AAFCO statements and choose a food that has been justified by feeding trials.

 Choose a Food for the Appropriate Life Stage and Size

Not only is it important to choose a food that meets your pets’ nutritional requirements and how the brand met those nutritional requirements, it is also important to choose a food that is labeled for your pets’ appropriate life stage. Growing puppies have different nutritional requirements than their adult counterparts.  For example, growing puppies require more protein and fat in their diet than adult dogs. Additionally, you should choose a food based on the expected size of your puppy. For instance, if you have a large or giant breed puppy, you should purchase a food labeled for large breed dogs, as research has shown that large breed puppies have different nutritional requirements than small breed puppies. Your veterinarian can help you select a food that meets your pet’s nutritional needs during different life stages, based on body condition and activity level, and if medical conditions should arise.

Contact your veterinarian

Before buying a new puppy food, we advise you to consult with your veterinarian about your pets’ nutritional needs. Questions that you might ask include:

    •       What diet(s) provide an adequate nutrition for a growing puppy?
    •       Which ingredients or ingredient ratios should I look for or avoid when            choosing a  food or treat for my pet?
    •       Which pet foods and treats are considered healthy?
    •       Which pet foods and treats are “good”, “better”, or “best, from a                      budget perspective?
    •       How much should I feed by pet?
    •       When should I change from puppy to adult food?
    •       How do I change my pet’s diet?
    •       What is the best way to store dog food?  

Regular visits with your veterinarian can be a vital link in the chain of nutrition and preventive care for pets. Good nutrition can improve the life expectancy and quality of your pets’ life. Developing a nutrition program with your veterinarian, can help you make informed decisions about your pets’ care, and improve your pets’ quality of life.

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Be a Skeptic of Nutrition on the Internet

The final recommendation for choosing a food for your new puppy is to be skeptical about information found on the internet. The internet can be a tremendous resource, however, there are many myths and misconceptions circulating the internet regarding dog food ingredients and canine nutrition. Many of these topics include claims that certain ingredients like corn or grain are not healthy for dogs or that the healthiest foods are ‘holistic’ and so on. The use of buzzwords such as, “holistic”, “no byproducts”, “premium”, or “gourmet” are unregulated and often utilized as marketing strategies, therefore, providing no effect on the quality of the dog food. Consult with your veterinarian to help in the selection of the best diet based on your pet’s nutritional needs.

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 Other important factors to consider are the specific nutritional requirements of large/giant breeds, when to transition to an adult food, and how to transition your puppy from an old diet to a new diet. These common questions have been addressed below:

 What if I have a large/giant breed puppy?

Not all puppy foods are alike, and not all puppies are alike. It is important to feed the right diet, especially when it comes to large or giant breed puppies Many of our large and giant breed puppies are genetically predisposed to grow too fast which leads to increased stress on developing bones and muscles, often predisposing them to orthopedic diseases.

 As with human children, puppies require a high-quality, balanced diet to grow up healthy and happy. Puppy diets should contain protein rich formulas to support growing muscles, carbohydrates to supply the energy active and playful puppies need, calcium to support developing teeth and bones, and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) for healthy brain and vision development. Not only do puppies require a complete and balanced diet, certain breed sizes require size-specific diet formulas to ensure proper nutrition to develop and grow into healthy adult dogs. The difference in breed-specific dietary formulas comes down to the unique needs of large and small breed dogs. Large and giant breed dogs generally have a higher risk of joint and skeletal problems. A common misconception found on the internet, is that large dog breeds should grow as quickly as possible, which in reality is not the case. Several factors, including genetics, anatomy, and nutrition, play a vital role in the development of puppies. The structure of a puppy’s body is composed of muscle and bone, which need to grow synchronously. Rapid growth rates lead to stress on developing bones and joints and can lead to skeletal malformations such as developmental orthopedic disease (DOD), hip dysplasia, and osteochondritis dessecans (OCD). It is also important to monitor a puppy’s body condition score (BCS), as extra body weight can also stress the immature and developing skeleton. It is important for puppies to grow, but it is crucial for them to grow at a proper rate. Consult with your veterinarian to determine a daily feeding amount for your new puppy, and to create a puppy feeding schedule.

 When should I transition my puppy to an adult food?

Eventually, your puppy will need to stop being fed puppy food, and he will need to be switched to a complete and balanced adult dog food. This transition period is dictated by breed size, as puppies should begin to transition to adult food when they have reached maturity for their breed size. The average age for puppies to mature into adults, ranges from 6-18 months of age, depending on breed. In general, large and giant breed dogs reach maturity later than small breed dogs. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the time to switch to adult food and for tips to make the transition easier on your puppy.

How do I transition my puppy’s diet from an old food to a new food?

Correctly transitioning your puppy’s food from its current diet, to a new food is important to avoid any potential stomach upset. It is best to introduce a new food slowly, as food transitions can lead to gastrointestinal upset such as upset stomach, diarrhea, and gas. When purchasing a new puppy from a breeder, or adopting a puppy from the shelter, the breeder or shelter staff may send you home with food or advise you on the type of food that the puppy has been eating. Pets, as with humans, have a delicate digestive balance that is important for their overall health. By extending the transition over the course of 7-10 days, it allows your pet’s digestive tract to adapt to the new food. It is important to note, that some soft stools can occur with a diet change, however, if your pet is experiencing an unusual degree of gastrointestinal distress, consult with your veterinarian.

 When starting a feed transition, it is important to write down a schedule. On day one, start by feeding 90% of the old diet mixed with 10% of the new diet. Day 23, incorporate 75% of the old diet mixed with 25% of the new diet. Day 4-5 mix 50% old diet and 50% new diet. Day 6-7 mix 75% of the new diet with 25% of the old diet. On day 8-9, mix 10% of the old diet with 90% of the new diet. On day 10, the pet can be given 100% of the new diet. Should your pet experience any minor symptoms (loose stool, some stomach gurgling), but is otherwise acting fine, return to the most recent ratio that did not cause stomach issues for another day or two until symptoms pass, then continue with the transition. If your pet experiences an unusual degree of gastrointestinal distress (diarrhea, vomiting, excess gas, or constipation), consult with your veterinarian.

 It’s no secret that adequate nutrition is a vital part of the health of young and growing puppies. Today, with numerous new marketing strategies and misconceptions, it is more difficult than ever to choose the best food for a new puppy. The recommendations listed above are general guidelines to help new puppy owners with this difficult decision. However, it is always recommended that you discuss your puppy and its specific nutritional needs with your veterinarian.

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Kayla Lewis, Mina Estefan, Hannah Urig, MPH, DVM  

Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine | Class of 2022