the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.

What’s the Best Food for your New Puppy?

What's the Best Food for your New Puppy?
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A friend just adopted a puppy from a rescue and asked for recommendations on puppy food.  It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed puppy foods and, even as a veterinary nutritionist, I was surprised at how many options there are to choose from now!  Therefore, I thought it could be useful to share the process I used to sift through the hundreds of options so you can select the best food for a new puppy.  Puppies need to eat a diet that meets their special nutritional needs until they are at least 1 year old (18 months for giant-breed dogs).  This first 12-18 months is a critical period in your puppy’s life, so you’ll want to make sure you’re feeding the best possible diet.

  1. Step 1: Does the manufacturer meet the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods?  There are more than 200 different manufacturers selling pet food in the United States and Canada so the choices can otherwise be overwhelming!  I identified several of the manufacturers that meet these guidelines so that my friend could feel confident he was feeding a food made with strong nutritional expertise and rigorous quality control.
  2. Step 2: From the manufacturers I identified in Step 1, I then narrowed down their foods I could find online or in stores to those that meet puppies’ nutritional requirements.  My friend prefers to feed dry food, so I focused only on dry options, but from just these few manufacturers, I found more than 50 different over-the-counter dry foods marketed for puppies.  In addition, there were another 10 that were “all life stages” dog foods that also meet puppies’ specific nutritional needs.  “All life stage” dog foods – which may or may not be marketed as such – meet the requirements for both puppies and adults (read more on how you can tell the difference).  This meant that I now had more than 60 diets to choose from!
  3. Step 3: Double check that the food is nutritionally complete and balanced, meaning it is designed to meet all the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) minimum levels for growing puppies and avoid exceeding AAFCO maximums.  This can be determined by reading the nutritional adequacy statement on the label.

In addition, if your puppy is expected to be above 50 pounds as an adult, you should feed a large breed puppy food or one in which the nutritional adequacy statement says “[Pet Food Name] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for growth/all life stages including growth of large-size dogs.”  These foods are designed to have a lower calcium level and usually are lower in calories than typical puppy foods.  Note: While AAFCO used a cutoff of 70 pounds for the definition of large breed puppies, I think 50 pounds is a more conservative weight to use.

  1. Step 4: Has the puppy food undergone feeding trials?  Whether a pet food is nutritionally complete and balanced can be determined by feeding trials or by formulation.  You can figure out which method has been used by reading the label’s nutritional adequacy statement.  Feeding trials are ideal but if the food has “passed” Steps 1-3 above, a “formulated” diet (which hasn’t gone through feeding trials) should be fine as well.

Once you’ve gone through Steps 1-4, you can be confident that you’re feeding a good quality food.  However, since every puppy is different, the next steps will help to personalize the food for your puppy.  Many websites that sell pet food offer a variety of preferences you can select (e.g., grain-free, chicken-free, senior, natural, sensitive skin, high protein), but most of the options being offered are more about marketing than anything that actually benefits your puppy.  The more important factors to consider for your puppy are evaluated in Steps 5 and 6.

  1. Step 5: Individualizing the diet for your puppy.
    • Kibble size and shape. Most puppies can eat standard-size puppy kibble, but some smaller puppies may prefer a smaller kibble size. Similarly, certain breeds with shortened noses (brachycephalic) may find specially-shaped kibble easier to eat.
    • Calorie density (calories per cup or can, which is required information on all pet food labels). Daily calorie needs depend on many factors, including your puppy’s breed, weight, activity level, age, whether they are neutered, and individual personality.  Calories in the 60 or so puppy foods noted above ranged from about 300 calories per cup to more than 500 calories per cup!   A puppy that is not very active or that tends to get overweight easily should eat a lower calorie food while a puppy that is very active or has a hard time maintaining weight might do better with a food that has more calories per cup.
      • With any puppy food, it’s also critical that you feed the right amount.  It’s reasonable to start with the amount of food recommended in the feeding directions but you often need to adjust that amount, especially as your puppy goes through growth spurts.  Feeding directions vary widely among manufacturers, so some feeding directions will be closer to your puppy’s true calorie needs than others.  And every puppy is an individual in terms of their calorie needs so, as always, it’s very important to adjust the amount of food to maintain a trim body condition score (4 to 5 on a 9-point scale) throughout your puppy’s lifetime, but especially while growing!
      • Note that spaying or neutering reduces your puppy’s calorie needs up to 30% so you should reduce the amount of food at the time of this surgery to keep your puppy trim and healthy (but continue to feed a puppy food until they’re 12-18 months of age).
    • Medical issues. Puppies are sometimes born with heart, kidney, or liver problems or develop medical issues that require a special therapeutic diet.  It can be tricky to find therapeutic diets that meet all the nutritional needs of a growing puppy or kitten so, in these cases, I recommend working with a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist®.
    • Other nutrients. I find that pet owners spend a lot of time looking for a certain percentage of protein on a pet food’s guaranteed analysis.  Puppy foods made by manufacturers with strong nutritional expertise and rigorous quality control will have the right levels of nutrients for healthy puppies (if you’ve selected the right diet according to these steps), so you don’t really need to worry about the specific nutrient levels for a healthy puppy.
  1. Step 6: Final considerations
    • Ingredients: Until the specific cause of diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is fully understood, some owners wish to avoid peas, lentils, chickpeas, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.  Other than this, you don’t need to spend time scouring the ingredient list!
    • The nutritional value and quality of pet food is not necessarily related to its cost.  There are some excellent pet foods that can be purchased at grocery stores, and not all expensive foods are in your dog’s best interest.

In the end, I narrowed it down to 5 different foods that met all the factors discussed above.  This process allowed me to feel equally confident in all of these options, so I picked the one that had the lowest calories and lowest cost.

Some puppies’ needs will be more complicated, but healthy puppies will have many good puppy food options to choose from.  The process outlined above will get you started down the right path but be sure to talk to your veterinarian about their recommendations – they’ll be able to help you make the best choice for your individual puppy to keep them in top health.


Dr. Freeman is a veterinary nutritionist and a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She is on the cutting-edge of science, with hundreds of articles in prestigious journals, speaking engagements at national and international conferences, and awards for her scientific achievements. However, she also is passionate about providing objective and accurate information on pet nutrition to veterinarians, pet owners, and other animal enthusiasts.

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