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Puppy nutrition has three major areas to focus on: Energy Needs and Nutrient Requirements + Individual Supplemental Support.
We need to make sure a puppy is eating a number of calories each day (calories = energy) that is needed for optimal weight gain and we need to make sure they are getting all of the nutrients they need in the amounts right for them. Additionally, we need to make sure that a puppy gets any additional support it may particularly need, be it due to breed predisposition or lifestyle factors. Individual supplemental support is an integral part of complete puppy nutrition. Think along the lines of things like skeletal support, gut support, skin + coat support, urinary tract support, etc.
The very first thing to know about feeding puppies for proper growth is that their energy needs and nutrient needs exceed those of any other stage of life except lactation.
We feed puppies for growth by making sure they are getting the correct nutrition in amounts that support them for optimal growth, not maximum growth.
Puppy Energy Needs
Assessing puppy energy needs can vary from what on paper information dictates. Feeding the puppy in front of you is crucial. Knowing how to determine when your puppy needs something different than a chart and/or calculator dictates requires a person to learn about their puppy’s breed(s) in terms of what the typical energy level is and what the average weight is during different points of growth. By knowing about your puppy’s breed(s), you are able to assess if your puppy’s energy level and rate of weight gain seem typical; which allows you to then determine if you need to perhaps feed your puppy a different amount of calories than another dog of its same breed(s). This same thing applies to deciding the macronutrient makeup of your puppy’s diet- knowing your puppy’s breed(s) and your individual puppy’s particular needs is the foundation to building bowls for puppies.
Nutrient Regulation During Growth
Young puppies cannot regulate all of their nutrients in the way that older puppies & adult dogs can. There is not a way to balance a young puppy over time through a week.
There are some nutrients that do not store in the body no matter how old the dog is so those are nutrients that must be fed every day in the amount needed every day. There are other nutrients that can be stored in the body and/or regulated but not until a puppy’s systems reach the point of being capable to do so. Below I’m going to share an excerpt from the Canine Nutrition Professional certificate course that talks about calcium absorption in puppies as a pointed example.
“Active Calcium Absorption Mechanisms During Early Growth
Intestinal calcium absorption is influenced by calcium intake & age. Active absorption mechanisms are not fully mature in growing puppies until they are about 6 months old. Prior to this, upwards of 70% of the calcium that is absorbed from a puppy’s diet enters the body through passive absorption in the small intestine.
Active absorption in growing puppies cannot be effectively down-regulated in response to excess dietary calcium. As a result, puppies are unable to protect themselves from absorbing excess calcium if too much is present in the diet. The amount of calcium that is absorbed is directly proportional to its concentration in the diet.
As puppies mature, the active absorption mechanisms become tightly regulated through the actions of vitamin D3, parathyroid hormone, growth hormone, and calcitonin.
These hormones tightly regulate the amount of calcium that is absorbed which protects the body from excessive calcium uptake.
Critical Note: By the time puppy’s calcium absorption mechanisms mature, it is too late to protect its body from excessive dietary calcium uptake during the most rapid growth period between 3 and 5 months of age. Because of this, young puppies from weaning to around 6 months of age are highly susceptible to excessive dietary calcium and ill effects on the developing skeleton.
Further Note: It is best to assume a puppy is not able to regulate well until the end of its 6th month of life, not at the beginning. 7 months old is a better age for ensuring the puppy’s mature enough to properly regulate.”
Only protein, fat, and carbohydrates provide energy/kcals; vitamins, minerals, and water do not.
Important Hydration Note About Water
While vital to life, water does not, in itself, provide energy to the body, but helps in metabolism which is essential for the body to derive energy, function, and repair itself. This means water doesn’t count towards a dog’s kcal needs because it doesn’t provide any kcals but it is an essential requirement of dogs.
The amount of water a dog requires depends on its diet, lifestyle, environment, and energetics.
Dogs who eat a raw or cooked diet do not need as much water as a dog who eats a dry diet.
Without factoring in the water coming from the diet, a healthy dog with neutral energetics has an estimated daily water need of:
1 mL water to 1 kcal of metabolizable energy (ME). This is a 1:1 ratio.
A raw fed or cooked-diet fed dog’s daily water offering can be reduced by factoring in how much water is present in their raw or cooked diet. (How to do this is taught in dog owner workshops/courses & the professional certificate program)
A raw diet is high in water content with an average range of 68%-80+% moisture on an as formulated basis. Some raw diets containing powdered supplements in place of whole foods will have a lower moisture % that can average closer to 65%-80+%.
The moisture % of a cooked diet ranges closer to that of a raw diet using powdered supplements with a range of roughly 60%-80+%. The key to ensuring a cooked diet retains a higher % of water is to formulate the meal using water as part of the cooking process.
Essential nutrients can be consistently obtained through the right selection of ingredients in the correct amounts for the puppy at hand. It is important to be educated about your breed(s) and if there are any deficiencies, growth abnormalities, or systems issues they may be predisposed to that can be addressed through their diet.
Protein • Fat • Carbohydrates • Water
Vitamins • Minerals
Protein • Fat • Carbohydrates
Protein • Fat • Carbohydrates • Vitamins
Water • Minerals
Daily Energy Requirements (DER) for Growth After Weaning
Daily energy requirements for growth stage after weaning are 1.2 to 2 times that of a typical adult dog’s MER. This is because a puppy’s energy needs are extremely high. Part of the daily energy intake is used for maintenance and part is used for growth.
Calories are not a linear function of body weight so variables do factor into the Daily Energy Requirements (DER) of a puppy. This is why we do not calculate a puppy’s energy needs by body weight (BW) alone. Body weight is used as one of the components of calculating maintenance energy requirements (MER) and the appropriate adjustment factor is applied to provide the energy needed for growth. That is also called growth energy requirements (GER). In-depth information about this can be found over in the introduction to caloric feeding for puppies guide here.
Important Note: Adult calculators and charts should not be used for calculating a growing puppy’s energy requirements or nutrient needs.
In order for puppies to obtain the correct amount of energy from the diet it is consuming, that diet must contain ingredients that provide enough kcals/calories.
Nutrition databases like the ones found here provide the nutrition information of foods. Part of that information in those types of databases includes the energy/kcals a particular food offers. *Note, most will not contain bone data because the databases are built for humans. Bone data can be obtained by purchasing laboratory analysis of the bone item and some can be found in various pet food formulation software systems.
The amount of protein and fat being fed to puppies is important to be mindful of. On a caloric % basis when examining the macronutrients, you do not want either the protein or the fat % to be dramatically higher than the other.
A good way to help ensure the fat % of the diet is not too high, is to make sure the grams of protein are equal to or more than 2 x the grams of fat.
When picking primary proteins to use for a puppy, you want to select lean meats in the 87% – 93% range, with 90% being the solid average to strive for. The Nutrient Requirements for puppies established by the National Research Council (NRC), state puppies aged 4 weeks-14 weeks are recommended to be fed 56.3 grams of protein per 1,000 kCals. This number decreases as the puppy ages but the lowest Recommended Allowance (RA) for puppies and protein is 43.8 grams per 1,000 kCals.
As discussed, puppies have higher energy needs and many higher nutrients requirements than adult dogs so you want to provide your puppy with a range of beneficial nutrients that can only be gained through the appropriate amounts of proteins, fats, vitamins + minerals. Not every type and cut of meat or organ offers the same value and not everything your puppy needs to grow optimally can be found in just meat/bones/organs.
Ratio Feeding is not the Best Way to Feed Puppies
Ratio feeding means to feed a % of the dog’s total body weight and that amount of food is then rationed into % of different groups: meat, bones, and organs and sometimes also vegetables and fruits. This doesn’t work well because, within those ratios, the essential nutrients are not considered. The volume of food fed in body weight % diets can sometimes get very close to the volume of food fed when using Adjustment Factors (AF), which is the method used to determine the daily caloric needs of a puppy, but the volume of food doesn’t mean essential nutrients are being uniformly met. We have to take it further than bodyweight % if we want to talk about the ratios of a diet.
The Prey Model Raw (PMR) method has two ratio breakdowns that feeders use. One is 80% meat, 10% bone, 10% liver. The other is 80% meat, 10% bone, 5% liver, 5% other secreting organs.
The latter of the two methods was introduced later and it is because the information that dogs need more nutrition than just liver can provide became a more circulated topic. From there a third ratio feeding math method was adopted which is known as the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) ratio method of which 70% is meat, 10% bone, 5% liver, 5% other secreting organs, 7% vegetables, 3% fruits. This method came into the practice for the same reason as the second version of the PMR diet did- More knowledge about canine nutrition and biology was being gained and spread.
Critical Note: This means that not all foods provide the same nutrients nor the same amounts of nutrients. From there it should further be reasoned that all of the ingredients in a diet should be assessed to ensure that they are meeting the nutrient needs of the dog.
None of these math methods are appropriate for building growth diets for puppies. There are essential nutrient deficiencies and elevations in these methods which creates an imbalance.
Essential Nutrients Often Low, Missing, or High in Ratio Diets for Puppies
Calcium can be too low for puppies in ratio diets depending on the raw meaty bone being used and it can also be too high. Not all raw meaty bones offer the same amount of calcium so if you feed by bone % and you do not have an understanding of how much calcium is in the various bones being used, you can end up with too little or too much calcium in your puppy’s diet.
This can also affect the calcium to phosphorus ratio that needs to be tightly controlled during growth. The calcium amount and calcium to phosphorus ratio are even more crucial to be mindful of with large and extra-large breed puppies. It is important to know the numbers that are suitable for your puppy when building bowls. Puppies younger than 5-6 months are not able to adjust their absorption of calcium in response to intake & underfeeding or overfeeding calcium can cause great harm. Calcium is not something that can be balanced over time during growth.
Three Essential Omega-3 Fatty Acids you want to make sure your puppy is getting are Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA), which is the parent fatty acid for the Omega-3 family, Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) & Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA).
The parental fatty acid ALA comes from plants & grass-fed proteins and it needs to be converted in the body to EPA. As a precursor, dogs can convert ALA to EPA but the conversion rate of ALA to EPA is said to be between ~1%-9%. EPA elongates to DHA but ALA’s conversion to DHA is less than its conversion rate to EPA (nearly non existent); so ALA should not be the primary/only provider when it comes to feeding Omega-3. Foods that provide EPA and DHA directly are important to feed.
Note: Many commercial premade raw diets are low in EPA and DHA and therefore dietary sources should be added in effort to keep whole body inflammation down. How much depends on the puppy. The same applies to DIY diets, how much depends on the puppy. When Omega-3 is increased, the production of O3 eicosanoids increases; these are anti-inflammatory. So it’s better to keep the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio at a lower range with a ratio of less than 5:1 being appropriate, and a range of 2:1 to 4:1 being more ideal.
Suggested Food Sources for ALA: Organic hemp hearts, organic flax seeds, organic chia seeds, and organic pumpkin seeds. These seeds should be ground to a fine powder or fermented in order for a dog to best be able to utilize what they offer. Remember, this type of omega-3 should not be looked to as a main provider as they do not offer enough bioavailable forms of the fatty acids EPA and DHA.
EPA is a bioavailable fatty acid directly involved with inflammation reduction– it directly competes with inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids for receptor sites.
Suggested Food Sources for EPA: Oily fish like mackerel, salmon, and sardines are all excellent choices. Mackerel and salmon also offer a good amount of vitamin D3 and other essential nutrients so puppy owners are able to provide a wealth of nutrients when feeding these particular fish. Other sources of EPA are anchovies, smelt, and various shellfish. Krill oil, fish oil, and algae oil also provide EPA but using oils isn’t the best way to go about it.
Some of the reasons that fish and sea-life oils aren’t great choices: From a sustainability perspective, some of the ingredients in the oils are being over sourced from the oceans and in a nutshell, that affects the food chain and the environment. Another reason oils aren’t the best is because they can quickly degrade and turn rancid without an owner noticing. (If you do use oils, store them in the fridge in an air-tight container.) Many fish oils are produced from farmed fish and farmed fish contain more Omega-6 than wild-caught fish because of what the farmed fish are fed. Stick with feeding wild-caught oily fish over oils if possible.
Important Notes About ALA and DHA in Puppies
Newborn puppies are most efficient at the ALA to DHA conversion and this decreases as the puppy ages. Because sufficient evidence has not been shown that dogs are able to convert ALA to DHA efficiently as they grow older, it is best to add it to the diet as explained above. The efficiency of conversion is low, so large doses of alpha-linolenic acid are necessary to see a significant increase in tissue DHA levels.
- DHA is needed for brain and eye development. Pre-formed DHA has been shown to have a positive effect on the retinol function of newborn puppies when the puppies were fed a diet that didn’t contain just ALA alone. A diet of ALA alone did not show the same effect on puppies.
- An important time period relevant to DHA benefits is during late gestation through the first 60 days of life. It is important to feed pregnant females DHA and ALA. Nursing puppies are able to convert the ALA in milk to DHA and they are dependent on their mother for their EFA intake.
As discussed under the feeding breeding dogs guide, the Dam’s essential fatty acids (EFA) storage is hit hard by the demands of the litter growing inside of her. It is crucial to provide DHA in a breeding dog’s diet during gestation and lactation to support both her and the litter. Please refer to the feeding breeding dogs tabs on the menu to learn more.
Suggested Food Sources for DHA: Similar to EPA sources, oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines; various shellfish; animal brains, and animal eye tissues. As with EPA, other marine sources like krill oils and algae oil do provide DHA but aren’t the best choices.
Vitamin D3’s functions are intricately involved with normal calcium and phosphorus homeostasis in the body and is often low in ratio diets. At the site of the intestine, vitamin D stimulates the synthesis of calcium-binding protein, which is needed for efficient absorption of dietary calcium & phosphorus.
Vitamin D affects normal bone growth & calcification by acting with Parathyroid Hormone (PHT) to mobilize calcium from bone and by causing an increase in phosphate reabsorption in the kidneys. Vitamin D’s actions in the intestines, bones, and kidneys creates an increase in plasma calcium and phosphorus, to the level needed for normal mineralization of bone. Vitamin D plays an important role in regulating calcium and phosphorus metabolism. A deficiency in vitamin D can impact bone mineralization and cause skeletal issues.
Suggested Food Sources for Vitamin D3: Moderate amounts of D3 can be found in foods such as mackerel, salmon, herring, eggs, turkey liver, beef liver, kangaroo liver, beef kidney, domesticated duck meat, and turkey heart. Fish liver oils and cod liver oil are two concentrated food sources of vitamin D-3.
Critical Note: When feeding cod liver oil, a dog owner must use extreme care and attention to the details of every nutrient in the bowl. Cod liver oil is high in vitamin D and it is high in vitamin A. If you have ingredients in the bowl that are already high in either of these vitamins, your dog may become seriously ill. Cod liver oil isn’t an ingredient that should be used outside of a very specific and carefully formulated recipe that can correctly account for all of the nutrient levels/amounts.
Puppies require more iron than adult dogs and iron can run low in puppy diets if the right kind isn’t being fed or enough of it. Iron is needed for many enzymes & proteins for oxygen transportation and activation. Iron is either heme, which is the kind of iron found in animal organs or non-heme, which is the kind found in plant sources. Non-heme iron isn’t well absorbed and is not a sufficient iron source. Iron is stored throughout the body of animals, especially in the spleen & liver. Beef spleen is an excellent choice to work with other foods and can be relied on to ensure a puppy’s needs are met. Iron can also run high in puppy diets if too much secreting organ is fed to the dog that contains a high amount of iron. The 5% liver and 5% other secreting organ ratios are where this issue can occur.
Zinc is an essential nutrient that puppies are recommended to have quite a bit more of than adult dogs. Zinc can be low in a ratio diet if it doesn’t contain enough of the cuts of proteins that are plentiful in zinc. Zinc is needed for catalytic, structural, & regulatory functions in the dog’s body.
Suggested Food Sources for Zinc: Bison chuck, kangaroo, goat, & ground beef that is 90% or leaner, top round beef (London Broil), and beef chuck, are all great muscle meat sources of zinc. You can also offer your pup oysters for zinc. Oysters offer a great amount of zinc in them but keep in mind that oysters contain a wealth of copper so when you use oysters you need to be mindful of your copper level. If the bowl has zinc rich proteins then less oysters are needed to provide a good level of zinc for the puppy.
Feeding ground pumpkin seeds as the main provider to meet zinc needs is something that some people do but this does not work properly. It is not the most ideal way to provide zinc to canines because of the presence of phytates. The bioavailability of zinc from plants is lower than from animal products. Zinc is involved in numerous aspects of cellular metabolism and immune function and therefore it must be fed daily in bioavailable forms.
Note: Some breeds have shown higher zinc needs than others, such as many northern breeds (looking at you Siberian Huskies!). When increasing zinc to support the puppy, attention should be paid to copper because an elevated intake of zinc can induces the intestinal synthesis of a copper binding protein called metallothionein. This traps copper in the intestinal cells & prevents its absorption.
Copper can easily run low or high if a puppy is fed using the ratio of 5% liver. Copper is required for proper iron absorption and the formation of hemoglobin and it is an important part of the skeletal development of puppies. Copper is required for collagen synthesis, involved in fur pigmentation, and is an important component of endogenous antioxidant enzyme systems. Because different animal livers contain various amounts of bioavailable copper, using a 5% ratio when feeding liver can cause the copper level to be higher than is ideal in terms of the nutrient itself and in range with other nutrients it interacts with, like iron, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. When nutrients that have a working relationship are not at ideal numbers, their interaction is imbalanced. Some breeds are predisposed to copper storage and therefore we want to keep a watchful eye that copper is not fed in excess to those breeds.
Pork liver is an animal liver that the copper is not bioavailable from to dogs. They cannot access the copper pork liver offers so if a puppy was fed a diet of pork liver and no other bioavailable copper source, the puppy would be deficient.
Vitamin E is always too low for puppies in ratio diets. Naturally occurring vitamin E exists in eight chemical forms (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherol and alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocotrienol) that have varying levels of biological activity. It is an essential vitamin for canines & it is also an important cellular antioxidant, working against free radicals in the canine body. Vitamin E supports proper eyesight development and provides immune system support. Higher level of vitamin E significantly increases the number of memory CD4+ immune cells, helping in a better response to infection. Puppies are more susceptible to infections than adult dogs because their immune systems are not developed.
A diet higher in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) causes oxidative damage that a higher amount of Vitamin E can help counteract. Omega-3 is a PUFA and so when Omega-3 levels are at a higher level, more vitamin E should be fed. 123.5 IU per 1,000 kcals has shown to reduce serum markers of oxidative stress in healthy dogs.
Iodine is an essential mineral needed for the synthesis of thyroid gland hormones. Seafood and seaweed are both whole food sources of iodine you can use in your pup’s meals to help get the vital trace mineral into their body. A little bit about kelp: It is a sea vegetable and it has a plethora of minerals + trace minerals as well as amino acids. Kelp is iodine-rich so it provides support to the glandular system, particularly the pituitary, adrenal, and thyroid glands. Certified kelp is a great food source for metabolism support. Certified organic seaweeds are not permitted to contain heavy metals or other contaminants so be sure to use certified organic kelp.
Manganese is a mineral that can be low in the diet so an easy way to bring manganese up is by feeding blue mussels. There is also some manganese in tripe but because it can be a bit fatty, it is better to leave it at the lower end of a growing puppy’s diet. Too much tripe can cause GI distress due to the fat and the bacteria load than can be new and/or too much for a young puppy’s system in large amounts.
Fur and feathers are widely touted in online feeding communities as being solid providers for manganese but that isn’t entirely accurate. Fur and feathers are hard for a dog’s body to process and digest and the amount of manganese that a dog can get from eating fur and feathers is low. You can feed less blue mussels and provide manganese in a good amount. While I am not a fan of using supplements in place of whole foods, there are some supplements that I do find to be acceptable for use and one of those is ionic manganese. Ionic manganese is a bioavailable liquid mineral that is readily accepted by a dog’s body.
The immunity a puppy has from its mother begins to dwindle once the puppy is weaned from its mother’s milk and exposed to more environmental factors. Once a puppy reaches about twelve weeks of age, most of its mother’s antibodies have faded and it is important that a puppy is able to build its own diverse microbiome and strong immune system.
A proper microbiome needs to be stable and well populated with the right bacteria and puppies don’t have that stable microbiome fully built at birth and so they have to build it up as they mature.
Probiotics have been shown to gently stimulate mucosal immunity. Puppies fed probiotics demonstrated higher phagocytic activity of neutrophils which is indicative of enhanced immune response. There are specific strains of bacteria that are optimally beneficial for dogs such as: Bifidobacterium animalis lactis, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus salivarius, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus reuteri. Look for high-grade products that have these on their ingredients list. Number of CFUs does play a part in the benefits of a probiotic but it is really about the particular strains that impacts/supports the gut. Choosing a probiotic that contains a prebiotic when feeding a puppy is important because puppies don’t have the same microbiota as adults and providing prebiotics helps build a healthy gut microbiome.
Soil-based spore formers are another type of gut support you can offer a puppy who may not do well with lacto and/or dailry bases probiotics. For conversation purposes we will refer to these are soil-based probiotics. The spores form a protective coating that allows them to stay in spore form until they reach the large intestine & colon. These are good for dogs that deal with SIBO because they do not populate the small intestine.
Note: Too many probiotics can overload the gut & cause stomach upset. Puppies younger than 6 months old should not be given probiotics in excess as it can interfere with the puppy being able to populate its own gut.
Slippery Elm Bark: Inflammation of the bowels can cause thin loose stools and Slippery Elm is an excellent herb to use as a tool to help with that.
Remedy Type: Powdered Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)
Energetically, Slippery Elm is neutral and it acts gently on tissues. It soothes and cleanses the digestive tract because the bark’s abundant mucilage is strengthening + healing.
If you are using other herbs or medications with your dog, it is important that you allow for a three-hour gap before administering Slippery Elm. This is because the abundant mucilage content I just mentioned, can/may impact the absorption of the active ingredients in other herbs and medicines and, it can also affect the absorption of nutrients needed by the dog so it is best to allow for three hours and not rush dosing too early. Slippery Elm stays in the system for a good while and can be administered every 12 hours.
Fermented Goat Milk: Offering your puppy fermented goat’s milk in a conservative amount can help with digestion and provide probiotics. Some dogs do not do well with fermented foods and so this should be introduced slowly and the puppy observed for any adverse reactions.
Functional Benefits of Fiber & Avoiding Starch in Growth Diets
Fiber cannot be digested but it can help with digestion & evacuation of the bowels and fiber also helps with maintaining the microbiome. Puppies do not need vegetables as nutrient providers but when they are fed to a puppy after being prepared correctly; such as, by steam, parboiling, a puree, and also via fermenting, they offer beneficial functional support. Examples are antioxidant support & micro-boosts of vitamins and minerals.
Starch can interfere with nutrient absorption and this can create nutritional imbalances in the dog and issues in the gut. Symptoms of these imbalances manifest in weight loss, loose stool, vomiting, excess yeast production, drippy eyes, and nose, and other skin issues that may or may not be accompanied by odor.
Low glycemic starch-free vegetables are something you want to offer puppies but as said, keep it to a moderate daily amount.
Fiber can displace the energy of other nutrients but it is important to include fiber in a puppy’s diet. See the introduction to caloric feeding for puppies guide here to learn about fiber types and how to feed them to puppies.