What to look for in dog food for puppies
Our experts say the following criteria are important to consider when shopping for the best puppy food:
AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement for growth: AAFCO is a nonprofit organization that recommends nutritional profiles based on an animal’s life stage. While they don’t approve pet foods, selecting a puppy food formulated for growth or all life stages means the food is completed and balanced to meet your puppy’s nutritional needs.
Guaranteed analysis: Our experts recommend examining the amount of nutrients, such as protein, fat, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals in a puppy food. You’ll find these values in the guaranteed analysis on the can or bag of food, or the manufacturer can provide the guaranteed analysis. Welborn says to discuss the guaranteed analysis of puppy food with your veterinarian who can ensure your puppy is eating a minimum of 22.5% protein and 8.5% fat along with other essential vitamins and minerals that support their growth.
Ingredient list: This shows all the ingredients used in the recipe, arranged in order of weight. If an ingredient appears at the top of the list, that means it makes up a significant portion of the food’s overall weight. Our experts say puppy foods have no specific ingredients to avoid, including healthy protein sources such as byproducts and byproduct meals. However, our experts recommended against feeding puppies (or any dogs) grain-free diets due to their potential connection to DCM.
Healthy extras: The best puppy foods have extra ingredients to support healthy development, skin, and joints. For example, Welborn says food may include antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and l-lysine and selenium to support the immune system. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as DHA and EPA, help with the development of the brain and nervous system in young animals and are essential in dog food for puppies. You’ll find most of these beneficial nutrients listed in the guaranteed analysis.
Calorie content: Pet foods typically provide feeding charts as a starting point to determine the appropriate amount to feed your pet. However, Welborn says your veterinarian is the best resource for determining how many calories your puppy should eat in a day. Puppies need high-calorie food to fuel their rapid growth. As your puppy nears adulthood, Luisana says it’s crucial to discuss your dog’s nutritional plan with your veterinarian. The most common reason to consider a switch to an adult food — once your puppy has reached muscular maturity — is to avoid obesity that can be associated with high-calorie puppy foods, she says.
Breed-size formulation: According to our experts, if you have a large breed puppy, buying puppy food specifically formulated for them is crucial. This is because large breed puppies require specific nutrient ratios and calories to prevent them from growing too quickly, which can cause lifelong orthopedic issues. “Unless a diet specifically says it is labeled or tested for ‘growth of large breed puppies,’ it should be assumed it is not appropriate for this subset,” Luisana says.
Feeding-trial tested versus formulated foods: If the label says a food has gone through feeding trials, it has been deemed safe and palatable by feeding it to a group of animals. On the other hand, foods labeled as formulated were not fed to animals during nutritional testing.
Welborn points out that feeding trial testing is expensive, and not all companies can afford to conduct the tests on all or some of their pet foods. “There are many excellent foods in the market that are listed as a formulated diet,” she says. “These foods have been available for a long time and have been shown to provide excellent nutrition.”
Expert formulations: Churchill says she only recommends products from manufacturers that fulfill WSAVA guidelines. Among other quality-control standards, the brand employs a full-time board-certified veterinary nutritionist and perhaps a PhD-level animal nutritionist. The best puppy food picks in this guide have been formulated under the guidance of an animal nutrition expert.
Next-level ingredients. Purchasing puppy foods marketed as human-grade, organic, sustainably caught, or cage-free might mean paying more per meal. Although these ingredients typically cost more and may not offer extra nutrition to your puppy, choosing pet food with next-level ingredients such as farm-raised meats, cage-free eggs, and sustainably-caught fish means you’re supporting a pet food company that prioritizes both animal welfare and sustainable practices.