Nothing is more adorable than a cute, roly-poly puppy. When you bring your puppy home for the first time, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that puppies are more than just fun – they are also a big responsibility!
Part of your job as a down owner is making sure that your puppy is happy, but you also need to keep him healthy! Choosing a high-quality, balanced diet is the best way to do that. Unfortunately, there are an overwhelming number of puppy foods out there, and they are not all created equal. It takes time to sort through the bad options, and the only way you can do it is to cultivate an understanding of your puppy’s nutritional needs and how they can be met with a high-quality puppy food.
In this article, we’ll explore the subject of balanced nutrition for puppies and talk about the differences for large and small breeds. We’ll also teach you what to look for in a good puppy food and provide you with our top 10 picks for the best puppy food.
What Do You Need to Know About Growing Puppies?
The first thing you need to know is that while puppies may literally be miniature adult dogs, they have different nutritional needs. When your dog is an adult, the focus in on maintaining lean muscle and a healthy body weight. As a puppy, however, the focus is on building that lean mass and ensuring that your puppy gets the nutrients he needs to develop strong bones and healthy tissues.
When it comes to puppy nutrition, here are the basics:
- All puppies need a balanced diet rich in protein, healthy fats, and essential nutrients.
- Your puppy requires a minimum of 22% crude protein in his diet to support the development of healthy muscles.
- Puppies need a minimum of 8% fat in their diet to fuel their growth, but more is generally recommended except for large breeds and puppies who are already overweight.
- Essential vitamins and minerals are best from natural sources, though supplements can be used to ensure balance.
- Puppies are not born with food allergies, but they can develop at any time – keep an eye on your puppy’s digestion and growth to catch symptoms as soon as they develop.
Fortunately, you don’t have to remember every single one of these details. As long as you choose a dog food that is formulated for puppies and that carries an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy, you can rest assured that it will meet your puppy’s minimum requirements.
Do Small and Large Breeds Have Different Needs?
By now, you well know that puppies need a lot of protein in their diets as well as plenty of healthy fats for energy. What you need to keep in mind, however, is that puppies burn through that energy at different rates depending on their size. Small-breed puppies and adults have much faster metabolisms than large-breed puppies and adults, so their food needs to be more calorie-dense. This is particularly important for growing puppies because if they don’t get enough calories, their growth may suffer and they could develop health problems like malnutrition, hypoglycemia, etc.
The concern for large-breed puppies is very different. Whereas small breeds are at risk for not getting enough calories, large breeds need to have their calorie intake controlled. Large and giant breeds have a higher risk for bone and joint problems, which can be exacerbated if the puppy grows too quickly early on in life. A large-breed puppy still needs plenty of protein to develop lean mass and strong muscles, but the calorie and fat content should be lower to prevent excessive growth.
Another thing to keep an eye on is the calcium content of your puppy’s food. Puppies need plenty of calcium to grow strong bones, but excess calcium (especially in large breeds) can increase the risk of orthopedic disease later in life. The calcium content must also be in balance with phosphorus to promote healthy bone growth while minimizing the risk for bone and joint disorders later in life.
What to Look for in a Good Puppy Food
The best dog food for puppies will be made from wholesome, natural ingredients and formulated to provide for your puppy’s basic nutritional needs. It should be primarily animal-based with low-to-moderate amounts of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains (if your puppy can tolerate them). Aside from that, make sure it is also balanced with essential nutrients.
Here are some things to look for in a good puppy food:
- Premium animal protein. You already know that puppies need at least 22% protein in their diet, but it should come primarily from animal sources because animal proteins are complete proteins – they contain all essential amino acids and are more biologically valuable for dogs.
- Rich in healthy fats. Animal-based fats are also more nutritious for dogs, and your puppy needs a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in his diet.
- Digestible carbohydrates and fiber. Carbohydrates should not make up the majority of your puppy’s diet, but they provide calories, fiber, and essential nutrients. Just make sure they come from a digestible source like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
- Complete and nutritionally balanced. In addition to protein, fat, and calories, your puppy needs certain vitamins and minerals in his diet for healthy growth and development.
- No artificial additives or fillers. Additives and fillers serve no nutritional purpose for your puppy, so choose a recipe that contains natural, wholesome ingredients with high nutritional value.
The best way to make sure your puppy’s basic nutritional requirements are met is to start with a high-quality puppy food appropriate for his breed size. From there, choose a recipe rich in animal proteins and fats according to your puppy’s preferences or individual dietary needs. Keep reading to see our top picks for the best puppy food in different categories.
The 10 Best Puppy Foods in 2021
The best dog food for puppies will be rich in protein to support the development of strong muscles with plenty of healthy fats to fuel your puppy’s growth. The caloric density of your puppy’s diet may depend on his breed size and activity level, though all puppies have a minimum requirement. If you’re not sure where to start in shopping for puppy food, try one of our top picks reviewed below!
Here’s our top pick for the best puppy food:
Overall Best Puppy Food: NomNomNow Fresh Food Delivery
When it comes to your puppy’s growth and development, it doesn’t just matter that he gets the right nutrients – it also matters that those nutrients come from high-quality sources. Even a low-quality puppy food might be considered nutritionally balanced, but it won’t be as nutritionally valuable if most of those nutrients come from synthetic supplements. If you want what’s best for your growing puppy, consider fresh food. NomNomNow is one of the top fresh pet food delivery services, and they provide high-quality, nutritionally balanced dog foods in several recipes portioned perfectly for your dog’s calorie requirements. You’ll provide basic information about your puppy’s breed, age, and weight, and then you’ll receive monthly shipments of pre-portioned packages of puppy food. If you have any questions or concerns, NomNomNow is always available to help.
Pros: Fresh food delivered to your door, every recipe starts with animal protein, pre-portioned according to your puppy’s needs, prepared in small batches to ensure nutritional integrity
Cons: Significantly more expensive than kibble, limited number of recipe options
Most Popular Puppy Food: Taste of the Wild Grain-Free High Prairie Puppy Food
Because there are so many different puppy foods out there, it can be tough to choose just one. If you’re not sure where to even start shopping, try a popular brand like Taste of the Wild. This brand uses only premium-quality meats in their grain-free recipes formulated for adult dogs and puppies. We like this Taste of the Wild Grain-Free High Prairie Puppy Food for puppies of all breeds who are sensitive or allergic to grains. It features real buffalo as the first ingredient with supplemental protein from lamb meal, egg, bison, venison, and beef. This recipe contains digestible grain-free carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and peas with a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for healthy skin and coat. It is also supplemented with plenty of fiber as well as probiotics for healthy digestion. Overall, it provides a full 28% protein with 17% fat, and 5% fiber at 370 calories per cup.
Pros: Real buffalo first ingredient, digestible grain-free carbohydrates, plenty of animal protein, blend of omega fatty acids, prebiotics and probiotics, chelated minerals, contains 28% protein
Cons: Contains some plant protein as a main ingredient, first source of fat is plant-based
Most Affordable Puppy Food: American Journey Chicken & Brown Rice Protein First Puppy Food
A high-quality diet doesn’t have to be expensive. American Journey is Chewy’s in-house brand, and they provide a wide variety of affordable options in both grain-free and grain-inclusive recipes for puppies and adult dogs. This American Journey Chicken & Brown Rice Protein First Puppy Food is a great option all around because it features lean chicken as the primary protein with digestible brown rice for carbohydrate support. It is complete and balanced for growing puppies and provides the ideal blend of calcium and phosphorus for bone support. It also contains ARA and DHA for healthy brain and vision development with a rich blend of omega fatty acids for skin and coat support. This recipe features only healthy, nutrient-dense ingredients with no artificial additives, fillers, or by-products. If your puppy needs a grain-free diet, there are those options as well. All in all, this formula provides 25% protein with 15% fat and 5% fiber at 365 calories per cup.
Pros: Real chicken first ingredient, digestible whole-grain carbohydrates, rich in DHA and ARA, blend of omega fatty acids, balanced calcium and phosphorus ratios, chelated minerals, fresh fruits and veggies
Cons: Contains some plant protein (pea protein)
Best Grain-Free Puppy Food: Merrick Grain-Free Puppy Real Chicken & Sweet Potato Recipe
Some puppies have trouble digesting grains and, over time, those sensitivities may develop into an allergy. If your puppy needs a grain-free diet, try this Merrick Grain-Free Puppy Real Chicken & Sweet Potato Recipe. It features deboned chicken as the first ingredient with chicken meal as a concentrated source of supplemental protein. This formula contains digestible grain-free carbohydrates like peas, potatoes, and sweet potatoes with fresh fruits and vegetables to provide additional fiber and to act as natural sources for key nutrients. This recipe is supplemented with essential vitamins as well as chelated minerals – minerals chemically bound to protein molecules, which increases their absorption. Your puppy will get a healthy dose of protein as well as a rich blend of omega fatty acids for skin and coat support – this recipe is also supplemented with probiotics for healthy digestion.
Pros: Real chicken first ingredient, digestible grain-free carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables, chelated minerals, probiotics for digestion, rich blend of omega fatty acids, 28% protein
Cons: Contains some plant protein (potato protein)
Best Puppy Food for Sensitive Stomach: Canidae Grain-Free PURE Puppy Real Chicken, Lentil & Whole Egg Recipe Dry Food
Some puppies are born with a sensitive stomach while others develop food allergies and sensitivities over time. In either case, the best way to resolve the issue is the same – reduce the number of ingredients in your puppy’s diet and make sure it is highly digestible in addition to being nutritionally balanced. We like this Canidae Grain-Free PURE Puppy Real Chicken, Lentil & Whole Egg Recipe Dry Food for puppies with sensitive stomachs because it contains just 9 simple ingredients including real chicken as the main one. It contains menhaden fish meal and egg as supplemental sources of animal protein with lentils, peas, and potatoes as digestible grain-free carbohydrates. This formula features chelated minerals for optimal nutrient absorption with probiotics to support healthy digestion. Keeping in mind the recent controversy surrounding grain-free diets, you may want to consider another option if your puppy is a large or giant breed already predisposed to dilated cardiomyopathy.
Pros: Made with just 9 simple ingredients, highly digestible, rich in premium animal protein, chelated minerals, probiotics for healthy digestion
Cons: Grain-free recipe with lentils and peas as main ingredients, very expensive to feed
5 More Top-Rated Puppy Foods
If you don’t feel like the five puppy foods reviewed above are quite the right fit, don’t worry! There are plenty of other options that could be a great fit for your puppy. Here are five more top-rated puppy foods to consider:
Though all puppies require a diet rich in protein, fat, and calories, there are some slight nutritional differences for small and large breeds. Our vote for the best puppy food for large breeds is Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula Large-Breed puppy Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe. This formula is designed uniquely for large-breed puppies to support healthy growth and development while limiting the risk for obesity and orthopedic diseases later in life. It features fresh chicken as the main ingredient with chicken meal as a concentrate source of supplemental protein as well as a natural source of joint-supporting glucosamine and chondroitin. It contains digestible whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal with supplemental fiber from peas, flaxseed, and tomatoes. This recipe provides a blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for skin and coat support, as well as probiotics for healthy digestion. You’ll also be glad to know that it contains plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to provide natural sources of key nutrients to balance out the synthetic supplements which include chelated minerals.
Pros: Real chicken first ingredient, controlled calcium and phosphorus, natural source of glucosamine and chondroitin, controlled fat and calories, rich in lean protein (26%), chelated minerals, probiotics
Cons: Contains some plant protein (pea protein)
Large-breed puppies need to grow at a slower, steadier rate to prevent bone and joint problems later in life. For small-breed puppies, however, they reach their full size much faster and require a diet that supports that growth. Our favorite vet recommended puppy food for small breeds is Nutro Wholesome Essentials Small Breed Puppy Chicken, Brown Rice & Sweet Potato Recipe. This formula features farm-raised chicken as the main ingredient to deliver a hefty dose of lean protein and amino acids to build strong, healthy muscles. It contains plenty of animal-based fats from chicken fat and fish oil to provide for your puppy’s calorie needs as well as adding omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for healthy skin and coat. This formula features whole-grain carbohydrates for digestibility with vitamin supplements and chelated minerals for nutritional support.
Pros: Real chicken first ingredient, digestible whole grains, rich in omega fatty acids, chelated minerals, provides 28% protein, rich in fat and calories for fast metabolism and healthy growth
Cons: Contains some plant protein (pea protein)
If your puppy is still very young, a wet food diet may be more palatable and easier for him to eat. Our top pick for the best wet puppy food is Wellness Complete Health Just for Puppy Canned Food. This formula features a protein-rich pate made with chicken and salmon as the primary ingredients. It contains a rich blend of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for healthy skin and coat with optimal levels of calcium and phosphorus for healthy bones and joints. This recipe features digestible carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, ground barley, carrots, and flaxseed to provide essential nutrients as well as plenty of healthy fiber for digestion. It also contains plenty of DHA for healthy brain development, chelated minerals for optimal nutrient absorption, and vitamin supplements for nutritional balance.
Pros: Real chicken first ingredient, rich in omega fatty acids, digestible carbohydrates, ideal balance of calcium and phosphorus, chelated minerals for nutrient absorption, highly digestible
Cons: Not a grain-free recipe (some puppies may be sensitive)
Not all puppies have the same preferences, so another option in the best wet puppy food is Nutro Ultra Puppy Chunks in Gravy Canned Food. This formula is made with nature’s best ingredients, including three lean animal proteins – farm-raised chicken, pasture-fed lamb, and fresh salmon. These ingredients more than meet your growing puppy’s requirements for protein and essential amino acids. This recipe contains digestible carbohydrates as well as plenty of fiber for healthy digestion. It is supplemented with vitamins and chelated minerals to ensure balanced nutrition and optimal nutrient absorption, plus it is rich in omega fatty acids for healthy skin and coat. Overall, this recipe is a complete and balanced source of healthy nutrition for puppies and it is very affordable as well.
Pros: Three lean animal proteins, digestible whole grain carbohydrate, rich in fiber, plenty of omega fatty acids, fresh fruits and vegetables, chelated minerals for optimal nutrient absorption
Cons: Contains some wheat gluten
Dogs can develop food allergies at any time, but some breeds are more prone to allergies than others. If your puppy is an allergy-prone breed, you may want to be more mindful of what you feed him to reduce the risk of an allergy developing. Try a vet recommended puppy food made with a limited number of ingredients like this FirstMate Puppy Pacific Ocean Fish Meal Formula LID Dog Food. This recipe features a single source of novel animal protein with a limited number of main ingredients and it is highly digestible. It contains plenty of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for healthy skin and coat, plus it is made in a unique bite-sized kibble to make it easier for puppies to eat. This recipe is hypoallergenic and makes an excellent elimination diet, or you can use it to support your puppy’s growth and development in a healthy, balanced, and highly digestible formula.
Pros: Novel source of animal protein, limited number of ingredients, rich in omega fatty acids, highly digestible, chelated minerals, prebiotic fibers, rich in protein (28%)
Cons: Contains potatoes as a main ingredient, very expensive compared to typical kibble
Frequently Asked Questions
How much should I feed my puppy?
There is no cut-and-dry answer to this question because it depends on multiple factors. The best way to determine how much to feed your puppy is to calculate his calorie needs based on age, weight, and activity level. Keep in mind, however, that small breeds burn calories at a higher rate than large breeds. You also need to remember that all pet foods have different caloric content. The easiest solution is to choose a puppy food formulated for your puppy’s breed size and to follow the feeding recommendations. Just know that you’ll need to make adjustments as your puppy grows up.
How often should I feed my puppy?
For adult dogs, the concern is maintaining a healthy body weight, which usually means controlling calories. For puppies, however, you want to support healthy growth and development without going overboard. Most puppies do well with 3 to 4 small meals per day during the first 6 months when they are growing most quickly, then they can be tapered down to 2 or 3 meals per day. Small breed puppies may need to be fed more often than large breeds.
What about dog food allergies?
Dogs can be allergic to food ingredients the same way that people can, but they must be exposed to an ingredient to develop an allergy to it. Most dog food allergies develop in the second year of life, though it is possible for it to happen sooner. Keep an eye on your puppy’s digestion as well as his skin, as most food allergy symptoms are related to digestive issue or recurring skin problems. If you’re concerned, talk to your veterinarian.
When should I switch my puppy to adult food?
Again, there is no cut-and-dry answer to this question. Many veterinarians recommend keeping a puppy on puppy food until he is 12 months old. The thing to remember is that small breeds may reach their adult size well before 12 months while large and giant breeds may not be full grown until 18 to 24 months. You should definitely keep your puppy on puppy food for the first 6 months and at least until your puppy’s growth starts to slow down. At that point, you can consider making the switch but don’t change too soon – your puppy should be about 80% of his expected adult size before you change.
Is a grain-free diet good for puppies?
There is a great deal of controversy surrounding grain-free diets for dogs. Grain-free food is not inherently healthier by any means, it is simply a better option for dogs who are allergic or sensitive to grains. The problem is that there seems to be a connection between grain-free diets and an increased risk for dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart problem commonly seen in large and giant breeds. If your puppy is a large or giant breed, or if his breed is genetically predisposed to DCM, you may want to avoid grain-free diets. Generally speaking, there is no need to feed your puppy grain-free food unless your veterinarian confirms that your puppy has a food allergy or sensitivity.
Providing your puppy with a healthy, high-quality diet is the best way to support his growth and development now, which will set him up for lifelong health and wellness. All puppies have the same basic nutritional requirements for protein, fat, and essential nutrients, but your puppy’s individual needs may vary slightly depending on his breed size and activity level. Choose a recipe that is appropriate for your puppy’s breed size and follow the feeding recommendations on the package.
There are plenty of puppy foods out there, so you’ll never be short on options. If the sheer number of options is too overwhelming for you to make a choice, however, you can always go with a trusted recipe like the 10 puppy food formulas we’ve reviewed above. Good luck!