From weaning through the change to adult dog food, here’s everything you need to know about giving your dog a nutritious start.

By Debra Steilen
August 24, 2020
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Fat tummy. Razor-sharp teeth. Wiggles, wriggles, and whines. You’ve fallen in love with a puppy. He might be a weaned 8-week-old who’s already started eating solid food. But if your precious pup is only a few weeks old, you need to learn how to transition him from mom’s milk to puppy food. It’s not hard. Just follow these tips for puppy feeding.

When Should I Start Feeding My Puppy Solid Food?

Puppies grow like, well, weeds. And that means they grow so fast that by the time they’re 4 weeks old their mother’s milk is not giving them all the calories they need. Those hungry puppies need to start getting some solid food.  

“Puppies will typically show interest in what mom is eating as their intestines become more able to digest solid food,” says Jessica Romine, DVM, DACVIM, who is a veterinarian with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Southfield, Mich. “Real food becomes more and more appealing to them.” 

VetWest Animal Hospitals offer an easy plan for weaning puppies. Offer your 3- or 4-week-old dog a flat saucer of reconstituted puppy milk replacer for lapping. (Milk replacer comes in powder and liquid forms.) The next step is to offer him pre-soaked puppy biscuits or canned puppy food crumbled and mixed with the milk replacer. Your pup will consume the crumbled food as he laps at the runny mixture. Decrease the amount of milk every day until he or she is eating puppy food with little or no extra moisture. 

What Kind of Food Should I Give My Puppy?

You want to start him off right, of course. Providing nutritious food is how you help your puppy build up his body (including his teeth) and have all the energy in the world to learn from his mom and play with his siblings (and you). Puppy food is formulated with extra nutrients and calories to fuel all that growth and energy. Puppy food also contains fatty acids for brain development and calcium and phosphorus for joints, per Romine, a board-certified internal medicine veterinarian.

You can ease your mind by checking the package label for important information. The words “complete and balanced” mean the food provides the level of nutrients specified by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). You should also check the label to see which life stage the food is meant to nourish. Puppies, who need food with extra fat and protein, should be eating food labeled for growth or for all life stages. Learn more about reading dog food labels here from the Pet Food Institute.

Once you shop around, you’ll find lots of options for canned puppy food, semi-moist puppy food, and puppy food that comes in the form of kibble. Confused? Ask your veterinarian to recommend which type and brand is right for your specific pet. 

Do Large-Breed Puppies Eat the Same Food as Smaller Puppies?

Large-breed puppies such as Great Danes and Labrador retrievers need foods that are designed specifically for steady controlled growth, particularly focusing on ideal amounts of calcium. Large-breed puppy food may also contain extra fiber to bulk up the diet without adding unwanted calories. “You don’t want to overfeed large-breed puppies,” Romine says. “You want their growth rate to be steady so their skeletons and muscles can keep up.”

How Much Food Should I Give My Puppy?

Puppies grow most rapidly during their first five months of life on earth, so they need lots of calories to fuel growth during this time. You can use the feeding chart found on the commercial puppy food label as a guide. This chart will give recommended amounts based on a puppy’s age and weight, but it may not take individual metabolism and body type into account. Your vet can recommend how to adjust amounts as necessary to keep your puppy in peak condition. You may need to change the amount you’re feeding your growing puppy every week.

Maybe you’re the kind of pet-parent who prefers a puppy-feeding chart—organized by age or by weight—hanging on the refrigerator door. Many pet food brands provide printable charts that display goal weights for puppies at maturity, followed by suggested feeding amounts at ages ranging from 1½–3 months to 1–2 years.

Each dog is unique, so you may want to weigh your puppy once a week to track his progress. Compare his weight to what you see on a breed-appropriate weight chart. If he’s gaining or losing more than you think he should, adjust the size of his meals.  

How Often Should I Feed My Puppy?

Puppies need to be fed several times a day—just like human babies. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends four feedings a day for puppies between 6 and 12 weeks old; three feedings a day for puppies between 3 and 6 months old (your pup will be losing his baby teeth during these months); and two feedings a day for a pup between 6 and 12 months old. 

It’s worth noting Romine says toy-breed puppies like Yorkshire terriers and Chihuahuas need to eat small meals more often than other puppies. Why? They’re more at risk for developing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) for the first several months of their lives.

What Are the Best Times to Feed My Puppy?

Puppy feeding times are not set in stone. But if you want a place to start, try this puppy feeding schedule suggested by Pet MD: Serve your puppy’s first meal at around 7 a.m. and his last meal at 5 p.m. so he will have time to digest his food and potty one last time before bedtime. If you’re feeding your puppy three times a day, the middle meal should be at 12 p.m. And if you’re feeding him four times a day, schedule the middle two meals at about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.—whatever works best for your schedule.

How Do I Know I’m Feeding My Puppy the Right Amount?

Evaluate your pup after 4 to 6 weeks on the food you chose for him, according to WebMD. He should be playful, energetic, and wearing a thick, shiny coat. His droppings should be well-formed and brown, which means your puppy is digesting most of the nutrients found in his food. At 12 weeks old your puppy will begin losing his cute little potbelly. By the time he’s 5 months old, your puppy should be looking lean as his most rapid growth period comes to an end.

Can I Give My Puppy Treats?

Yes, you can give treats. (How could you not?) But make sure he gets most of his calories from a complete and balanced puppy food, per WebMD. Aim for no more than 5 percent of his calories from treats. It’s easier to keep the calorie count low when you provide healthy crunchy snacks like carrot pieces or green beans. Make sure treats are the right size for your puppy. Don’t give a Yorkie a biscuit big enough for a bulldog, for example. Keep your puppy away from table scraps, which guarantee he’ll continue to beg. Plus, rich, fatty, spicy table scraps can make him sick. Never give your puppy poultry bones, pork bones, or cooked bones of any kind, according to the experts at the AKC. Those bones aren’t very nutritious and they may splinter into shards that can make your puppy choke and cause serious damage to his mouth, throat, or intestines.   

When Should I Switch My Puppy to Adult Dog Food?

You can begin giving your puppy adult dog food when he approaches adult height, according to Iams, a manufacturer of both dry and wet dog food. Your puppy’s breed will also help determine when you switch him to adult food since different breeds mature physically at different times.

Is your puppy a Yorkie, Chihuahua, or another small breed? Dogs that weigh 20 pounds or less as adults are usually ready to eat adult food at 9–12 months.

Is your puppy a medium breed dog like a Border collie or Australian shepherd? Dogs that weigh between 20 and 50 pounds as adults usually mature at 12–14 months.

Is your puppy a Labrador retriever or Newfoundland? Large- and giant-breed dogs that weigh more than 50 pounds when full grown may not be mature enough to switch to adult dog food until they’re 1–2 years old.

For all sizes and breeds of adult dogs, switching to adult dog food means switching to a food that helps them maintain their weight, not grow bigger. Be kind to your puppy’s stomach and intestinal tract by making the change from puppy food to adult dog food a gradual one. Iams says you can do this by mixing the two foods in your dog’s bowl in differing amounts over a four-day period. On day 1, fill your dog’s bowl with 75 percent puppy food and 25 percent adult food. On day 2, fill the bowl with a 50/50 mix of puppy and adult food. On day 3, fill the bowl with 25 percent puppy food and 75 percent adult food. On day 4, your puppy’s meals should be made up of 100 percent adult dog food.