Protein plays a vital role in a puppy's diet.
Cook's Corner column by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine, May 2010.
The nutritional needs of puppies are different from those of adult dogs. Puppies need more protein, fat and calories than adult dogs. They differ in other areas, too, such as calcium and phosphorus requirements. Large-breed pups in particular can be harmed by diets that provide too much calcium, or that encourage rapid growth.
What to feed
Puppies thrive on protein – the more the better. It was once thought that too much protein was harmful, but studies have shown this to be false. Too much calcium and too many calories cause problems. Protein will not harm your puppy. [See Large and giant breed puppies for references.]
At least half of a puppy's homemade diet should consist of animal proteins. Feed a variety of meats, including red meat; poultry; and canned fish with bones, such as jack mackerel, pink salmon, and sardines packed in water (oil leches out some of the beneficial fatty acids found in fish). Also include eggs (cooked or raw; the whites are digested better when cooked) and dairy, such as yogurt, kefir and cottage cheese.
Feed up to 1 ounce of liver, which is highly nutritious, per pound of food. Liver is best fed in small amounts daily or every other day to avoid digestive upset from too much at one time.
The remainder of the diet (up to one half) should be vegetables and grains. For dogs to digest them, vegetables must be cooked or puréed in a food processor, juicer or blender, although it’s fine to give whole raw veggies as treats. Grains (such as rice, oatmeal, pasta and quinoa) and starchy veggies should always be cooked before feeding.
You must add the right amount of calcium to a pup’s homemade diet. Adult dogs can regulate their absorption of calcium, retaining what they need and excreting the rest. Puppies, particularly young puppies, can't do this, so too much or too little calcium is harmful, especially during periods of rapid growth.
Puppies need more calcium than adult dogs do, but it’s important not to give too much. Studies performed on large-breed puppies showed that feeding too much calcium leads to developmental abnormalities, including hip dysplasia, hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD, a painful bone disorders that affects primarily large-breed puppies between the ages of 3 and 6 months), and osteochondritis dissecans (OCD, a disease of the cartilage that usually appears between 4 and 10 months of age).
You can determine calcium reuirements in a variety of ways: you can base them on calories fed, weight of the dog, or a percentage of the diet. Recommendations vary, but if you add between 1,200 and 1,500 mg of calcium per pound of food, that should provide an adequate amount without giving too much.
Because puppies need more phosphorus than adult dogs, it’s best to use bone meal rather than plain calcium. Bone meal contains phosphorus, as well as calcium. Look for brands that say they have been tested for lead and other heavy-metal contaminants.
Never add calcium if you feed a commercial dog food (puppies need a diet that's approved for puppies or for all life stages). If you feed part homemade and part commercial, add calcium to balance out the homemade portion of the diet only.
Don’t add calcium if you feed a diet that includes at least 20 percent raw meaty bones, such as chicken necks and backs, if the bones are fully consumed. Bones provide all the calcium that is needed in the diet. Don’t feed more than 50 percent raw meaty bones; you risk giving too much calcium, which can put puppies at an increased risk of skeletal problems..
How much to feed
Puppies eat far more for their size than adult dogs do. They also need to eat more often. Feed very young pups four times a day until they are 2 to 3 months old. At that time, reduce meals frequency to three times a day until the puppy is about six months old, when you can drop to two meals a day.
Use your dog’s estimated adult weight to determine how much food to start with. As a general rule, adult dogs fed a homemade diet will eat around 2 to 3 percent of their body weight daily, with very large dogs eating a smaller percentage of their weight and very small dogs a larger percentage.
Young puppies that weigh a quarter of their expected adult weight will eat a little more than half as much as they will as adults. By the time they’re half grown, they’ll be eating almost as much as they will as adults, and when they’re three-quarters grown, they may eat even more than they will when full grown, especially during growth spurts.
For example, a puppy that's expected to weigh 50 pounds as an adult will probably eat around one pound of food a day when full grown. When this pup weighs 12 pounds, it's likely to eat 8 to 9 ounces of food per day. By the time it weighs 25 pounds, this will increase to 14 ounces of food a day. As an adolescent, the puppy may need more than 1 pound of food a day. The daily amounts should be divided between meals.
These are general guidelines; always adjust the amount you feed based on your individual dog’s needs. The goal is to keep your puppy lean, with ribs you can easily feel. Too much food encourages rapid growth, which has been linked to orthopedic problems, especially in large breeds. Feeding the right amount of food will slow your puppy’s growth rate, allowing its bones and joints to mature fast enough to support its weight.
Dog food mixes
If you’re worried about your ability to feed the right amount of calcium or a wide enough variety of foods, but still want to prepare your puppy's meals yourself, one option is to use a dog food mix that's designed to have fresh foods added. Just be sure that the mix is guaranteed to meet Association of American Feed Control Official (AAFCO) standards for puppies or for all life stages when fed as directed. Embark and Thrive from The Honest Kitchen are examples of dog food mixes approved for puppies. These mixes already have the proper amount of calcium, so you shouldn’t add more.
Another option is to follow the recipes for growth in Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, but substitute vegetables, particularly sweet potatoes, for some or all of the grains he uses. You can also reduce the total amount of grains and vegetables. (The author, Richard H. Pitcairn, D.V.M., has approved these modifications to his recipes. See Home-Prepared Diet Builds Strong Pups for more information.)
Raising a healthy puppy
To provide a healthy puppy diet, feed a wide variety of healthy foods, add the right amount of calcium, and don’t overfeed. Remember that protein is beneficial, but too much calcium or too many calories can lead to disaster. Keeping your puppy lean will reduce the risk of bone and joint problems, but will not affect your dog’s eventual adult size.
You can contact me if you have any comments, but I regret to say that I can no longer respond to questions about individual dogs. See my Contact page for more information. My name is Mary Straus and you can email me at either or