Many new owners are confused about how much to feed when they first get a puppy. There is a bewildering number of dog food brands making all kinds of claims about their foods. There may be different people giving you different advice about what to buy and feed your puppy, as well as how much and how often to feed him. How can you possibly make sense of all this information? Well, it's not really as bad as it probably seems. Here's what you should know about how much food you should give a puppy.
In the United States the National Research Council periodically puts out nutritional guidelines for pets, including dogs. They last updated their guidelines in 2006. Their guidelines measure the amount of calories it takes to care for dogs in different life stages such as growing puppies, adult maintenance, whether the dogs are active or living a sedentary lifestyle, and so on. The research also measures the calorie intake for dogs of different sizes ranging from Toy dogs to very large dogs. In this way, the National Research Council is able to issue suggested guidelines to dog food manufacturers about how many calories a puppy or dog needs for a particular life stage. Many dog food companies rely on this information when giving the feeding suggestions on their package labels.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an important trade organization that oversees dog food labeling and establishes standards for regulating dog food. They must approve the nutritional statements that are placed on dog food labels. Foods that are labeled “complete and balanced” must pass AAFCO inspection and dog food companies have to prove that their foods have either passed a six-month feeding trial with a minimum of eight dogs (six of which had to survive the trial without nutritional deficiency or excess); or the company must submit a nutrient profile of the food that shows it is complete and balanced. For the consumer, feeding trials provide a more reliable measurement of the food's nutritional adequacy.
There should be a statement on the dog food you buy for your puppy saying that it has met these AAFCO requirements.
Most of the dog foods you see on store shelves have met these requirements and they follow NRC feeding guidelines for puppies and dogs. Some companies also conduct their own feeding trials and they will offer additional advice about how the food should be fed.
In general, puppies grow fast in the first few weeks after leaving their mother and you may be tempted to feed your puppy all he will eat. Don't. This is a bad idea for several reasons, especially if you have a large breed puppy. Large breed puppies tend to be prone to hip dysplasia and can have other musculo-skeletal problems later in life. The likelihood of having these problems is increased if they are fat and chunky as puppies. Keep large breed puppies lean. Not skinny, but lean.
It's also estimated that between 25 and 40 percent of adult dogs are overweight or obese. Do not overfeed your puppy and start him on this path. Keep your puppy lean and healthy. Left to their own devices, many puppies will happily find the dog food and gorge themselves, whether they are hungry or not. You can't let your puppy decide how much he needs to eat. You are the adult and the one who has to be responsible. Don't let your puppy eat too much and become fat. You will be causing him health problems and shorten his life if you do.
Most puppies benefit from eating three meals per day for the first three months after you bring them home. After that you can decrease their meals to two meals per day. Follow the label suggestions on the dog food you are feeding as a starting point. These suggestions are based on the National Research Council's research for your puppy's size and age. If your puppy is getting too thin or too fat, adjust the amount you are feeding so that he stays at a healthy lean weight. Measure the food with a measuring scoop so you know exactly how much food you are feeding at each meal. Do not free feed your puppy or leave food down all the time.
Special issues with Toy and small puppies
Toy puppies and very small puppies can suffer from hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) if they do not eat often enough. These puppies do not need to gorge or eat more food than other dogs so don't overfeed them, but you should plan on feeding your Toy or small puppy four or five meals per day for the first three months after bringing them home. Keep snacks handy in case your puppy seems lethargic and you need to give him a quick energy boost. After the first several months you can reduce the number of meals to three per day. You should be able to feed your Toy or small breed puppy three meals per day thereafter. Some Toy and small dogs will do fine on two meals per day.
Food quality does matter when you are feeding your puppy. Better quality foods will often be richer and contain more calories per cup than foods of lesser quality. You need to keep this fact in mind if you switch puppy foods. You may be giving your puppy two cups of brand X but when you switch to brand Y it is only necessary to give him 1 cup of food because it is more calorie-dense. You may feel like you are feeding your dog less food but you shouldn't feel bad. You are feeding your dog as many calories and the food is probably a better quality. Your puppy should feel just as full with the new food. Again, watch your puppy whenever you change food and see if he is gaining or losing weight. Adjust the amount so that he stays at a healthy weight. Calorie information is often located on the dog food package. If not, it should be on the dog food web site.
Most people continue feeding their puppies puppy food until they read their adult size, or when they are about a year old.
Remember that the suggested feeding amounts on dog food labels are based on the National Research Council's feeding trials and research into how many calories dogs need at different life stages. If you follow these recommendations and adjust the amounts to fit your puppy's condition, he should stay in good health as he grows.