The Best Dog Food For Puppies
Puppies need more protein and fat than what’s required for adult dogs. That’s why there are special formula guidelines set out by the AAFCO. We analyzed puppy food labels from the top brands, and interviewed veterinarians to find out what ingredients are the best for your growing pup. What we found: protein should always be the first ingredient, avoid corn, wheat, and soy (though grains like oats and quinoa are okay), and fillers, like sugars and added sauces, your developing puppy should do without.
Puppies need special food designed to support their rapid growth and development. Puppy food is more calorie-dense than adult food, with higher levels of protein and fat (A minimum of 22 percent protein and 8 percent fat for puppies, compared to the 18 percent protein and 5 percent fat minimum required for adult dogs.)
Fortunately, puppy food is regulated like all other commercial dog foods. The American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets standards for nutrition requirements, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures safety. All puppy foods on the market must meet these baseline requirements, but that doesn’t mean they’re all equally wholesome.
To ensure your pup grows up healthy and strong, providing them the right food with the right ingredients is the best first step — and just like with all dog food, that means being diligent about what’s actually in it.
How We Found the Best Dog Food For Puppies
We only looked at dog foods specially formulated for puppies. Foods labeled for “all life stages” didn’t make the list. Puppies with food sensitivities, allergies, or other health conditions may require a different diet altogether. It’s always best to check with your veterinarian before switching foods.
We chose foods designed especially for growth and development.
AAFCO has two nutritional profiles: one for growth and development, and one for adult maintenance. All of our puppy foods are labeled specifically to meet “growth and development” guidelines for dogs. This means they contain the right proportion of protein, fats, moisture, carbs, and vitamins and minerals for growing puppies, including a minimum of 22 percent protein and 8 percent fat, as well as slightly higher levels of calcium and phosphorous for skeletal development. As long as the “growth and development” statement appears on the label or the bag of food, you’ll know it’s safe for puppies. Foods labeled for “all life stages” must meet this profile as well, so they’ll work for your puppy too.
We looked for foods with healthy carbohydrate sources.
Dogs need carbs for energy, though not too many. Complex carbs are best; dog food shouldn’t rely on starchy carbs with minimal nutritional value. Our recommended puppy foods are largely grain-free, but some include healthy, nutrient-dense grains like oats, quinoa, or brown rice.
We avoided foods with unnecessary preservatives, additives, or colors.
Puppies can be especially sensitive to added ingredients like colors and artificial preservatives, which are more about food appearance than about meeting nutritional needs. These include chemical spray-on flavors that sometimes appear on the label of foods advertised as having a “gravy” or “sauce.” Dr. Kangas explains that fillers and additives might taste good — but it doesn’t make food healthy. “Your pet can live on that just like we can live on heavily-processed fast foods,” Dr. Kangas says. “But are you going to thrive on it, be at your optimal wellness and succumb to less disease and health problems?” The answer is no.
We made sure to research a brand’s history with recalls.
Canned dog food goes bad more quickly after opening than dry dog food, which is typically more shelf-stable. However, even conscientious pet owners can’t avoid contamination if the problem lies in the source of the ingredients or in the manufacturing. All of our recommended brands have been either free of recalls, or responded quickly and adequately to any food safety scares.
Our Top Picks for the Best Dog Food For Puppies
Orijen Puppy Grain-Free Dry Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (38% min.), Crude fat (20% min.), Crude fiber (6% max.), Moisture (12% max.) First 10 ingredients: Deboned chicken, deboned turkey, yellowtail ﬂounder, whole eggs, whole atlantic mackerel, chicken liver, turkey liver, chicken heart, turkey heart, and whole atlantic herring
The Honest Kitchen Embark Dehydrated Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (29% min.), Crude fat (18% min.), Crude fiber (9.6% max.), Moisture (7.8% max.) First 10 ingredients: Turkey, organic flaxseed, potatoes, celery, spinach, carrots, organic coconut, apples, organic kelp, and eggs
AvoDerm Natural Chicken Meal & Brown Rice Formula Puppy Dry Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (26% min.), Crude fat (16% min.), Crude fiber (4% max.), Moisture (10% max.) First 10 ingredients: Chicken meal, ground whole brown rice, ground whole white rice, chicken fat, oat bran, rice bran, avocado, flaxseed, tomato pomace, and alfalfa meal
Horizon Legacy Puppy Grain-Free Dry Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (36% min.), Crude fat (18% min.), Crude fiber (3.5% max.), Moisture (9% max.) First 10 ingredients: Chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal, peas, pea starch, chicken fat, salmon meal, pea fiber, flaxseed, and egg product
Did You Know?
Puppies transition to adult food at about one year of age.
Typically you keep your dog on puppy formula until they’re about a year old. At that point, their nutritional needs change to fit those of an adult dog. But don’t swap foods out abruptly. Go slowly to ensure that your puppy takes well to the new food, and doesn’t display signs of allergies (such as itchy skin and paws or poor digestion). Experts recommend starting with 75 percent of the puppy food mixed with 25 percent of the new adult food. Gradually increase the proportion of adult food over the course of a week; by day 3, it should be 50/50, and by day 6, it should be 90-100 percent adult dog food.
Number of Feedings Per Day
By 9-10 weeks, large breeds should be fed un-moistened dry food; small breeds by 12-13 weeks.
Continue 4 feedings until body type matures (no more puppy potbelly!); usually, 12 weeks.
Decrease small breeds at 7-9 months and large breeds at 12-14 months; usually, after spaying or neutering.
Switch to adult formula
Don’t forget about dog treats when assessing your puppy’s diet.
Puppies love treats, and they’re certainly helpful in training. But all of those little bites and snacks can add up to quite a few calories. Experts recommend that treats only make up about 10 percent of your dog’s diet. If you’re doing some heavy-duty training, you might want to pull back on the amount you’re dishing up at mealtime.
Bigger breed puppies need special food.
If your puppy is going to weigh more than 50 pounds as an adult, you should look for special large-breed puppy foods. Large breeds include popular dogs like German shepherds, Labradors, and golden retrievers. These breeds can develop hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and other joint disorders when growing. Diets formulated for large-breed puppies contain ratios of proteins and calcium that help moderate rapid bone growth that can cause future health problems. Give your big pup these foods until the end of their growth period, which can be as much as 18 months in “giant” breed dogs like Great Danes. Consult your vet for specific guidelines for your puppy.
Watch your dog’s cues. There are four signs of health when assessing the quality of your puppy’s food says Dr. Mona Radheshwar, a Seattle veterinarian. After feeding your dog a new food, pay attention. You’ll know it’s a good choice for your pup if “your dog likes its food, it has great hair and skin, firm, regular bowel movements, and a good body condition score, as deemed by your vet,” says Radheshwar. If your dog doesn’t fit some or all of these criteria, talk to your vet about trying a new food. Switching the protein source can be a good start, as well trying a limited-ingredient food.