Dog and Puppy Nutrition 101

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Whether you’re a new puppy mom or a seasoned dog dad, providing the right nutrition for your pet never gets easier. There’s a wealth of misinformation out there, from fad diets to false marketing and confusing pet food labels. We understand it’s hard to know who to trust. So we’ve prepared a one-stop resource on nutrition, with everything you need to know to make an informed decision about your dog’s diet.

How to choose the right food for your dog

Step One: Ask your veterinarian.

Your veterinarian is your best resource for questions about your dog’s nutrition. Here at Small Door, we are here to guide and help you through this process.

Step Two: Look for an AAFCO statement under the ingredients list.

If your pet’s food bag has a statement from the AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials), it’s a sign that you are off to a good start. This statement is an indicator of nutritional adequacy – it means your pet’s diet is balanced and complete. It’s trickier to find on canned and wet food, but rest assured it is still there!

Step Three: Don’t dwell on the ingredients.

The ingredients list on a bag of pet food is complex, but it’s not just science that goes into these labels. It can be a powerful form of marketing where manufacturers list ingredients to catch your eye that may not add nutritional value for your dog.

Ask your vet to clarify any confusing terms for you. “Human-grade” has no medical meaning, and “meat byproduct” can include organ meats but nothing crazy like hair, horns, teeth, or hooves. Don’t overthink it!

Step Four: Assess the manufacturer.

This is where our doctors at Small Door are here to help. If you have not researched where your pet’s food is manufactured, you may be missing key indicators of good nutrition. Here are some questions we ask:

Where is the food manufactured? A good manufacturer owns the plants where their food is produced.
What quality control measures are taken? This looks at quality of ingredients, consistency and nutritional value of the end product.
Do they employ at least one full-time, qualified animal nutritionist, and does this doctor formulate the diets?
Do they conduct and publish research in peer-reviewed journals?
Can they provide nutritional values for any nutrient, beyond what’s listed on the label?
These are just a few of the questions we ask pet food manufacturers to ensure we are recommending the best diets to our members.

Specific requirements for puppies, large and small breeds

  • Puppies need puppy food. What you feed your dog as a puppy is really important for their growth and development. Puppies need more calories, fat and a different vitamin and mineral balance than adults. Puppy foods account for these specific nutrition needs. We recommend feeding puppy food until your dog reaches their adult size – around 12 months old for small to medium breeds and 14 to 18 months for large and giant breeds. When picking out a puppy food, look for the AAFCO statement and make sure it says that the diet meets the nutritional profiles for puppies or all life stages.

  • Is your dog a large breed? Large and giant breed dogs need a more precise calcium to phosphorus ratio for their growing big bones. If you have a large breed puppy, make sure their puppy food is labeled to include large breeds.

  • Is your dog a toy or small breed? Use the steps above and select a “small bite” kibble size. Dog foods often have versions made specifically for small dogs and their tiny mouths, to make chewing easier and make sure they don’t choke.

Puppies need more calories, fat and a different vitamin and mineral balance than adults. When picking out a puppy food, look for the AAFCO statement and make sure it says that the diet meets the nutritional profiles for puppies or all life stages.

Diets to think through

Your veterinarian will help tailor your pet’s diet to your lifestyle as best as possible. It’s important to prioritize your pet’s health, and there are some diets that are worth thinking through before you commit:

Grain free diets

Some ‘boutique’ and consumer-oriented pet food companies have suggested that grain free diets are beneficial to your furry friends, particularly to dogs. It has even been compared to the benefits of gluten free diets in people, which just isn’t accurate.

Grain free diets have been linked to an increased risk of a heart disease, called dilated cardiomyopathy, in dogs. We don’t know enough to say why this is, but we do know that we should not be feeding dogs grain free foods.

Raw meat-based diets

The raw diet is another one influenced by pop culture. It consists of feeding raw meats, sometimes supplemented with raw fruits, vegetables, and eggs. The thought process behind this diet is: dogs’ and cats’ ancestors ate raw meat, so now our pets should. Our cats and dogs, however, are not their ancient predecessors, and we need to consider how their nutrition has evolved.

There are no scientific studies that prove the health benefits claimed by supporters of this diet. In fact, there are many studies showing the opposite: nutritional imbalances, diet-induced hyperthyroidism and bacterial infections.

Raw diets can be dangerous for you and your dog. They pose increased contamination risks from Salmonella and other bacteria, so they’re not only a risky choice for pets, but also a public health risk.

Vegan and vegetarian diets

These diets require careful consideration and can have some pitfalls. There are a few safe, healthy vegetables for dogs to eat. But they still need to get enough protein in their diets, so vegan and vegetarian lifestyles may not suit them. Talk things through with your veterinarian before making this change.

Recommended food and treat brands

Based on all of the above, here are some pet food brands that our doctors recommend to suit many different lifestyle choices. Many of these brands also have great puppy food formulas. Please note that we do not have a vested financial interest in any of these foods. They meet the necessary nutrition requirements from AAFCO, adhere to strict quality controls, and employ veterinary nutritionists:

  • Hill’s Pet Nutrition

  • Royal Canin

  • Purina One and Pro Plan

  • Farmina Pet Foods

  • Wellness Complete Health

  • Merrick brands (Merrick, Castor and Pollux, Organix, Pristine)

  • Acana

  • NomNomNow (fresh pet food)

  • Just Food For Dogs (fresh pet food)

  • Spot and Tango (fresh pet food)

  • Sundays (Freeze-dried food)

  • Balanceitivi blend

  • Vegetarian options: Royal Canin Vegetarian and Purina ProPlan HA Vegetarian

If your dog requires a specific calorie count, ask your veterinarian rather than using an online calculator, as the calculation involves many factors and can be quite complex.

As for treats, we recommend those with a limited and easily understandable ingredient list. As a substitute, try these low-fat and low-calorie human foods: cut up carrots, apple, banana, bell pepper, cucumber, strawberries, blueberries, and ice cubes. If you want to keep your pet busy with a tasty treat, freeze some peanut butter or low-sodium chicken broth (or even your pet’s wet food) inside a Kong toy.

Check out our list of human foods that make good pet treats for more inspiration, and make sure you avoid the common household pet poisons!

If you have any questions about your pet’s nutrition, we are here for you and available 24/7 via the app.

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