Puppy eating from dog food bowl

I love watching puppies grow. You can see them change almost day to day as they increase in height and weight.

To fuel their development from the inside out — bones, muscles and coat — puppies need what I like to call the Goldilocks diet: a blend of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals that’s just right. If they don’t get enough of these nutrients, they can grow too slowly, but if they get too much, their rapid weight gain can cause them to develop bone and joint problems.

Eating an appropriate food helps puppies grow at a measured pace. They will still reach their genetically predetermined adult size, but they won’t run the risk of rapid growth spurts or obesity.

Choosing the Right Food

Different puppies have different nutritional needs, depending on their breed, age and size at maturity, not to mention their individual variations. Your veterinarian can help you decide which food will be best for your pup.

Take toy breeds, for instance. They have a higher metabolism than large-breed puppies, so they need a diet with a mix of protein and digestible carbohydrates that provides a steady flow of energy. They also need bite-size food that’s easy to eat. Tiny puppies such as Chihuahuas may need meals more often to prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Not every small breed should eat the same way, though. Like large-breed dogs, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Pugs may develop hip dysplasia if they gain too much weight when they’re young. These dogs may do best if they are switched to a food formulated for adult dogs when they are 5 or 6 months old.

Puppies who will grow up to be big dogs have special issues. People often let them grow too quickly, thinking that bigger is better. Not so. My veterinary colleague Jerold Bell, who breeds Gordon Setters, says large-breed puppies need a slow, uniform growth rate so they don’t develop joint problems.

Look for a diet made for large-breed puppies. These foods are specially formulated to provide less energy and calcium while still containing all the necessary nutrients for growth. My friend and colleague Tony Buffington, a veterinary nutritionist and professor at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says another option is to simply feed slightly smaller amounts of regular puppy food.

Keep ’Em Lean

Who doesn’t love to see a roly-poly puppy? They’re awfully cute, but it’s just not good for puppies to be chubby. Puppies who gain too much weight at an early age are more likely to be obese as adults. By keeping your puppy slim, you’re training his metabolism to help him maintain a healthy weight as an adult.

Use your eyes and hands to check your pup’s body condition. Viewed from above, he should have a pinup model figure with a nice waist separating the ribs and hips. Put your hands on him, thumbs along the spine and fingers splayed along the ribcage. You should be able to feel the spine and ribs beneath a light padding of muscle and fat. His thighs shouldn’t rub together, and he shouldn’t have a fat rear end or thick neck.

To help keep your puppy at a healthy weight, measure food (level cups, not heaping!) and feed at specific mealtimes instead of leaving food out all the time. The recommended amounts on the bag are a starting point, but every puppy is different. Don’t be afraid to cut back a little if he’s getting chunky or add more if he’s on the skinny side.

Read the Label

Everything important you need to know about a puppy food can be found on the label. An appropriate food will state on the label that it is formulated for growth or for all life stages. The label will also indicate whether the food is appropriate for large-breed dogs or comes in a kibble size that’s easy to eat. Some puppy foods note on the label that they contain omega-3 fatty acids. Those help support proper brain development in pups, so that’s a good thing. The main thing you should look for, though, is the nutritional adequacy statement so you know the food is complete and balanced.

I like foods that have been proven in feeding trials approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). That means puppies ate the food for a given amount of time and grew appropriately. Look for a statement on the label that says something like this: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that Brand A provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth.”

Some foods state on the label that they are “formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for [puppies or all life stages].” They may also meet a puppy’s nutritional needs, but the manufacturer has not conducted actual feeding tests.

What about output? Pups who are eating right form firm stools that aren’t too big or too small.

More than that, you’ll know you’re feeding the right food if your puppy has a gleaming coat and loves to play.

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