caloric feeding for puppies

Caloric Feeding for Puppies

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This guide is an introduction to caloric feeding for puppies.

It is meant to help puppy owners learn the importance of feeding their puppy for its specific energy needs.

It is complicated to formulate “general” recommendations for puppies because there are vast differences between breeds regarding mature size and rate of weight gain.

This intro guide is a tool to assist puppy owners in properly using the calorie calculators

Recommended Foundation Reading

A foundational understanding of how caloric feeding for dogs works is important; so that when components of the caloric feeding method are referenced throughout the following sections, you are armed with the knowledge needed to easily move through the content. I recommend the below articles/guides be read in the order they’re listed before diving into this guide.

Foundation Reading Links in Recommended Order:

Caloric Feeding for Dogs Guide

An Introduction to Feeding Puppies for Proper Growth

Appropriate Nutrient Levels for Skeletal Development in Large & Extra-Large Breed Puppies,

*If you are not feeding a large or extra large breed puppy then you can skip the third reading.

Puppies Eat to Meet Their Daily Energy Requirements

The appropriate method to feed a puppy is per unit of energy, with their daily calorie needs factoring the puppy’s maintenance energy requirements and their growth energy requirements. The segment of energy needed for maintenance increases progressively, while the part for growth decreases. 

Energy Requirements at Weaning

At weaning, puppies need 3 times their Resting Energy Requirements (RER), with “most” puppies requiring 2 times their Maintenance Energy Requirements (MER) by the time they typically go to their new home (8 weeks). This energy need can sometimes remain a bit higher, depending on the puppy and not reduce to 2 until about 4 months of age. During the early post-weaning weeks, a puppy’s body weight is relatively low while their growth rate is high. They use approximately a 50/50 split of their total energy intake, with 50% being used for maintenance and 50% being used for growth.

Energy Requirements For Different Phases of Growth Stage

As outlined above, puppies need about 2 x their adult MER in the earlier months of post-weaning. A discretionary decrease of energy should happen as a puppy begins to grow, reducing to 1.6 x their adult MER when the puppy reaches about half of its adult body weight. *40% – 50% is the recommended range to carry out this reduction.

With large and extra large breed puppies, there is a decrease to 1.4 x their adult MER when the puppy reaches about 60% – 70% of their adult body weight, while small breed puppies do not reduce to 1.4 x their adult MER. Smaller breed puppies continue an energy intake of 1.6 from the time they reach about half of their adult body weight until they reach about 80% of their adult weight. At that time, a smaller breed puppy’s energy intake decreases from the 1.6 down to 1.2. Large and extra large breed puppies fall back in line with smaller breeds when they reach about 80% of their adult body weight and then they too, are decreased to 1.2 x their adult MER.

The age a puppy reaches their adult weight varies and will be discussed pointedly further in the guide under each size class. Large breed puppies mature more slowly than small breeds and often do not reach their full adult size until they are more than 10 months old. Once a puppy reaches its full adult weight, its energy intake no longer needs to support growth. The now full adult weight puppy should have its daily calorie amount reduced from 1.2 and be fed for puppy maintenance energy requirements; which as reflected on the chart below, is an adjustment factor down to 1. Puppies are fed at puppy maintenance energy requirements until the reach adulthood. 

Important Note: A puppy should be weighed weekly during early growth phase and bi-weekly once middle growth phase has been reached. The canine body condition score chart and the canine muscle condition score chart should be consulted at these weigh-ins as well for proper growth tracking. If you have a fluffy or double coated puppy, it is important to also use your hands as tools to accurately assess the puppy’s physical condition. 

Highly Critical Notes About Feeding Puppies

It is enormously important to understand that reaching "full adult weight" is not synonymous with physical maturity in terms of skeletal and muscle development. Reaching full adult weight does not equal reaching adulthood. It is important to feed puppies as puppies, with strict attention paid to their growth progress until they reach adulthood. As discussed in this guide, when a puppy reaches adulthood is different by breed size.

A misunderstood generalization is, that you feed a puppy as an adult when it reaches 80% of its adult body weight. That is not accurate as shown here in this guide. Remember, an energy reduction to 1.2 x adult MER occurs when a puppy reaches about 80% of its adult body weight.

Puppy maintenance energy intake and puppy maintenance nutrient intake (Covered in the Introduction to Nutrients for Puppies Guide) are important to provide until a puppy is an adult. 

Feeding puppies as adults before they are actually adults, is a leading cause of nutritional issues in a dog.

Additional Note: Studies conducted in the years since the last version of the NRC was updated, have shown that in some breeds, the NRC recommendations for ME intake are too high, therefore it is important to know your breed and if you are unsure, to consult with a canine nutrition practitioner who specializes in growth stage and stays current on the ever changing climate of canine nutrition.

*More on the topic of varying recommendations for ME intake coming soon. I have that article currently in progress.

Critical Notes: High energy intake leads to faster growth. Too much growth, too fast, can damage skeletal development. It is crucial that growing puppies are fed close to their Metabolizable Energy (ME) requirements. Feeding for lean body mass and ideal body condition is the correct way to feed puppies.

Growth Stage Phases and Growth Curve Charting 

Puppies are in the most rapid phase of growth during the first 6 months of life, with smaller breed puppies reaching the end of their rapid growth phase sooner than larger breed puppies. Smaller size breeds tend to reach the end of their rapid growth stage at around 3 – 4 months old, while larger breed puppies continue to grow exponentially up to 5 months before slowing. Larger breed dogs have the steepest growth curve. They need to reach a larger size during the same period of time as smaller breeds. 

Puppies do not grow linearly and their growth is often charted using sigma plotting to properly reflect the aforementioned exponential growth component first, followed by the decrease in growth; with the phases of growth being breed dependent. When formulating for a puppy, it is important to be comfortable with sigmoid charting to be able to best interpret the growth data for your breed. 

Critical Note: Even after a puppy reaches its adult body weight, further physiological developments continue. A large breed puppy can weigh its adult weight at 11 – 15 months old and still not be fully finished with physiological development until they are nearly 2 years old.

Small Breed Puppies

Toy and small breed dogs weigh under 20 lbs. at adulthood. They typically reach the end of their most rapid period of growth at around 3 months old. They typically reach adult weight around 9 – 10 months of age, and reach adulthood around 9 – 12 months. 

They have higher energy requirements per unit of body weight than larger size breeds because the basal metabolic rate (BMR) is relative to the total body surface. They need highly digestible foods that are nutrient dense. Small breed puppies should be fed several meals a day until about 6 months of age because their stomachs cannot accommodate a large quantity of food at one time. After they are about 6 months old, the number of daily meals can decrease to 3 feedings per day. 

Medium Breed Puppies

Medium breed dogs weigh between 21 – 50 lbs. as adults and they typically reach the end of their most rapid period of growth around 3 – 4 months of age, reaching adult weight around between 9 – 12 months of age. Medium breed dogs reach adulthood between 12 – 14 months old.

Like small breed puppies, medium breed puppies typically reach their adult body weight faster than large and extra large breed puppies. Medium size breeds can range from just slightly larger than small breeds to just slightly smaller than large breeds; so while they typically reach their adult weight around a similar time as small breeds, the larger the medium size puppy, the later adulthood is reached. 

Large Breed Puppies

Large breed dogs weigh between 51-120 lbs. as adults and they typically reach the end of their most rapid period of growth around 3.5 – 5 months of age, reaching adult weight around 11 – 15 months. Large breed dogs typically reach adulthood at around 18 – 24 months old.

The biggest impact that affects growth rate is energy. It is important to feed a highly digestible, quality and balanced diet, ensuring the amount of energy being provided is appropriate. Large breeds need to be fed according to their current weight with consideration of their energy requirements but not based on energy requirements. This is because of their propensity towards growth disorders.

Larger breeds take longer to reach their full growth so keeping their diet balanced and the puppy fed for a medium/moderate rate of growth is ideal. You want optimal growth not maximum growth to protect the skeletal structure of your growing puppy. Use nutrition standards as guides and ensure you feed within the recommended range, applying them according to your dog.

The minimum proportion of energy that should be supplied by protein for large/extra-large breeds dogs is lower than the recommended percentage for a smaller breed dog. However, the actual % of protein is not as important as the balance of energy to protein when it comes to feeding growing large breed puppies.

The calcium and phosphorus amounts and the ca:p ratio are very important to be mindful of but this guide is an introduction to feeding a puppy for its energy needs and the calcium and phosphorus topic is covered in both the Appropriate Nutrient Levels for Skeletal Development in Large & Extra-Large Breed Puppies Guide found here and it is also discussed in the Introduction to Nutrients for Puppies Guide found here. (Link to nutrients for puppies guide will be activated June 2020)

It is critical to be well informed about growth stage energy and nutrient needs for large breeds when formulating a homemade diet for large breed puppies. If in doubt, it is best to consult with a canine nutrition practitioner who specializes in both growth stage and large breeds.

Extra Large Breed Puppies

Extra large breed dogs weigh about 120 lbs. and up as adults and their most rapid phase of growth lasts the longest of all of the breed sizes, ending at around 5 months of age.  Extra large breed dogs typically reach their adult weight between 11 – 15 months of age, reaching adulthood around 21 – 24 months.

Like large breed puppies, it is crucial to be mindful that extra large breed puppies are not fed too high of a daily energy intake or they can be detrimentally affected. Extra large breed puppies need a highly digestible, quality diet with a strict control on their nutrient levels. The information discussed above under the large breed puppies section about feeding with consideration of their energy needs and not based on their energy needs due to propensity to growth disorders applies to extra large breed puppies as well. 

As stated in the Appropriate Nutrient Levels for Skeletal Development in Large & Extra-Large Breed Puppies guide, maximum growth rate is not compatible with proper skeletal development and is a risk factor for the development of several skeletal
disorders. As said under the large breed puppies section, specifics about nutrient levels are discussed in other guides on the website, this is an introduction to feeding puppies for their energy needs.

It is critical to be well informed about growth stage energy and nutrient needs for extra large breeds when formulating a homemade diet for extra large breed puppies. It is not recommended to formulate for extra large breed puppies on your own; it is best to consult with a canine nutrition practitioner who specializes in both growth stage and extra large breeds.

Dietary Fiber and Puppies

Dietary fiber is the edible parts of plants or analogous carbohydrates that are resistant to digestion & absorption.

There are two general categories, based on their structure and what they do in a dog’s body.

  • Soluble fibers are fermentable and viscous (some insoluble fibers are too) and slow things down in the digestive tract. Soluble fiber attracts water and forms a gel inside of the digestive system. Ex: Some fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and psyllium.
  • Insoluble fibers help to bulk up stool volume + improve motility. Ex: The skin of fruits and vegetables, some vegetables, and whole grains. Insoluble fiber is non-viscous, less fermentable, contains more water and doesn’t form a gel.

Fiber can displace the energy of other nutrients so ideally, fiber is fed to puppies after a meal and should not be a large component of the day’s food intake. Fiber plays a role in the optimal functioning of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and is also a source of short-chain fatty acids for intestinal cells. Fiber should be included in the diet but a more than moderate amount of fiber intake can cause a puppy problems. High amounts of fiber decreases nutrient digestion and its availability and also impacts the absorption of lipids, calcium, iron, and zinc.

Puppy Bio-Math and Allometric Equations

Caloric feeding for puppies uses “biomath” to calculate the number of calories or kcals a puppy particularly needs each day. It is additionally important to understand nutrient density of food. Nutrient density is not covered in this particular guide. Full information about Caloric Feeding for Dogs was the first article under the recommended foundational reading links listed at the beginning of this guide. That guide will teach you about what calories are. If you did not yet read it, head over there now and then come back here. You need a foundational understanding of calories to feed puppies. 

  • Daily Energy Requirements (DER) for Puppies

  • As mentioned under the section titled Puppies Eat to Meet Their Daily Energy Requirements, a puppy’s DER is composed of their Maintenance Energy Requirements (MER) and their Growth Energy Requirements (GER). Remember that MER represents the amount of kCals needed for a puppy to maintain their ideal weight based on their current life stage & their activity level. GER represents the amount of kCals needed for a puppy to grow based on their current phase of growth stage.

Allometric Formula for Determining Metabolizable Maintenance Energy Requirements for Puppies

MER = 130 x (body weight in kilograms)0.75 (Typical Puppies)

Allometric Formula for Determining Metabolizable Growth Energy Requirements for Puppies

GER = MER x the appropriate adjustment factor

Example for a typical 3 kg puppy in phase weaning to 4 months

[2 x (130 x 30.75)] = 592.67 kcal per day

Adjustment Factors

Adjustment factors were outlined under the Energy Requirements for Different Phases of Growth section. I’ve provided them neatly here below for you to be able to select from.

Once a puppy reaches its adult weight, it should be fed for puppy maintenance until it reaches full adulthood. Once the puppy is an adult, you move to feeding them as such by selecting their Energy Factor (EF) for the appropriate stage of life and for their activity level. Please see the Caloric Feeding Guide for Adult Dogs to learn how.

Pssst… I have an adult calculator that does all the math for you over here!

Once you calculate your newly (young) adult dog’s energy requirements, you can learn about and calculate their nutrient requirements per ME, over here!

The below chart can be saved or downloaded to your device via this link or by pressing the graphic itself 

Using the Growth Stage Calorie Calculators

There are two growth stage calorie calculators: One is for small and medium breed puppies and one is for large and extra large breed puppies. These provide you with your puppy’s DER and are configured using the biomath/allometric equations taught here in this guide.

Select your puppy’s weight class by using the information provided in the breed sections.

Once you have determined if your puppy is a small, medium, large, or extra large breed, convert your puppy’s weight from pounds (lbs.) to kilograms (kg).

Next, choose the correct calorie calculator and enter your puppy’s weight in kilograms (kg).

Finally, select the appropriate phase of growth stage from the drop-down menu options. The calculator will calculate the recommended number of calories your puppy needs each day based on NRC recommendations to support growth.

Remember, this number is the recommended allowance based on studied and tracked breed statistics of puppies; however, the calculators do not know your puppy so it is important to use the calculated number as a base number to jump from. There can be a 20% – 30% swing downwards or upwards based on environmental factors and life activities. It is additionally important to note that the number on the scale is not the only determining factor. Body condition, muscle condition, head to body to limbs to tail stats also factor.

Important Note: Every breed and every puppy is different so it is vital to use the canine body condition score chart and the canine muscle condition score chart as tools in addition to the number on the scale. 

Once you have determined your puppy’s energy requirements, the next step is to determine its nutrient needs. (Links to the puppy nutrient guide and nutrient calculators will be activated July 2020)

Enter the Growth Stage Calorie Calculators

Sources and Citations

Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, Animal Nutrition Series, published by the National Research Council (NRC) in 2006

Body-Weight Changes during Growth in Puppies of Different Breeds, written by Amanda J. Hawthorne, Derek Booles, Pat A. Nugent, George Gettinby, Joy Wilkinson, published in The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 134, Issue 8, 2004

Nutritional Needs According to Life Stage and Physiologic Status by Dr. Kelly Swanson Professor, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Nutritional Requirements and Related Diseases of Small Animals written by Sherry Lynn Sanderson , BS, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia

Waltham Petcare Science Institute, Puppy Nutrition edited by Dr. Richard Hill and Dr. Richard Butterwick, published 2015

Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science Of Feeding Your Dog For Optimum Health written by W. Jean Dodds, DVM, Diana Laverdure, published 2015

Calculations of a Dietary Plan for Puppies written by, G. Blanchard, D. Grandjean, and B.‐M. Paragon, published 2009

Canine Nutrition and Diet Formulation for Puppies written by Amy Granillo, 2018

Burger IH, Johnson JV. Dogs large and small: the allometry of energy requirements within a single species. J Nutr. 1991

Dietary Fibers and Absorption of Nutrients, Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, Volume: 180 issue: 3, published 1985

Canine and Feline Nutrition (Third Edition), Chapter 28: Development and Treatment of Obesity, written by Linda Case, 2011