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How to Choose a Dog Food for Your Puppy

Key nutrients to look for to build a strong & healthy sporting pup.

How to Choose a Dog Food for Your Puppy

There is a lot more to feeding a puppy than just pouring kibble in a bowl. (Photo By: Mark Atwater)

Take one look inside of a whelping box at a litter of puppies and it’s hard not to be inspired, if not in awe. Sure, they’re cute, but these pups represent something much more than that. What do you see inside the box? Will one be the next National Champion? Will several earn titles, with a couple earning the Master Hunter rank? Winners have to come from somewhere, but the odds are high that the majority of pups will go on to an enviable hunting life. They’ll point or flush or retrieve, and live life in the woods and waters.

Their working life won’t be easy as they’ll run in hot and frigid climates alike. They’ll twist and turn in fields and coverts, and they’ll swim into strong currents in near freezing water. Those aggressive workloads are normal for us and our dogs —but our dogs are different. Their nutritional needs are unique and quite the opposite of an ordinary house dog. Starting a puppy’s health off on the right foot is key, and knowing what is in your puppy’s food can make a difference.

Russ Kelley, M.S., has been studying the impact of nutrition on a puppy’s development for over a quarter century. Kelley looks at puppy food through two different lenses: First, as Eukanuba’s Scientific Services Nutritionist and second as an upland and waterfowl hunter with a string of his own dogs.

“All puppies deserve excellent nutrition, but we have higher expectations on our gun dog puppies compared to pet puppies,” he said. “Proper nutrition can play an important role in helping them grow and develop into strong, healthy adults capable of meeting the demands in the woods and waters throughout their lives. Identifying and utilizing a diet that helps support the growth and development of the whole body provides a solid foundation for future success.”  

Slow and Steady Always Wins the Race   

There is a lot more to feeding a puppy than just pouring kibble in a bowl. “Feeding should be progressive, and there are two parts to it,” Kelley said. “The first part is to provide food that puppies can easily digest. A point that many fail to recognize is that a puppy’s digestive system, like many of their systems, does not function at an adult level. That’s why a lot of attention is given to what ingredients are (or are not) used in a diet. However, the ingredient listing on a bag provides little meaningful information about diet quality. The nutrient profile and digestibility of the materials utilized will ultimately determine a diet’s quality. A good example of this would be chicken by-product meal, which has received a lot of negative attention lately. Chicken by-product meal is frequently used in both puppy and adult formulas because it offers a high level of protein that is rich in both essential amino acids and essential fatty acids. But one of the most important reasons chicken by-product meal is used in both puppy and dog food is that it’s easy to digest.

The better the digestibility, the more nutrients are available to support the growth and development of the puppy. Kibble shape and size is also important. Puppies often will devour rapidly with minimum chewing. An appropriately sized and shaped kibble can encourage chewing and help improve digestive function.”

Kelley narrows down the included nutrients by body system. “I look for 28% of crude protein and 18% of crude fat as a good base line for large breed puppies,” he said. “That amount provides appropriate amino acids for puppies to build strong body systems. Protein will build strong muscles and organs and fortify the skin and coat to protect against illness from the elements. Fat provides additional support for building strong organs, and the correct amount of fat offers energy while maintaining a healthy body weight.”

Top Puppy Foods to Fuel Your Young Gun Dog

how to choose a dog food for your puppy
Make sure to consider your puppy's current and expected size when making feeding decisions. (Photo courtesy of Eukanuba)

But Wait, There’s More   

The second part to progressive feeding focuses on appropriate growth rates and body weight. “Research has demonstrated that puppies (large breed and giant) that grow too fast may experience complications as older puppies or adults,” Kelley said. “Excess amounts of energy, calcium, and phosphorus can have detrimental impact on the health of a puppy. Our goal is to provide a food that promotes slow lean growth in these puppies. This approach does not change the adult size that a puppy will reach, just the amount of time that it takes for them to obtain it. When designing a diet, it is critical that we consider the overall nutrient profile. We are building our future champions of all types, so optimal nutrition is a must.”


What’s in Dog Food?

There are a lot of ingredients that support a puppy’s growth.

Protein and Fat: Young puppies develop quickly, and that’s why specific amino acid profiles are important.

“A puppy’s muscular development changes rapidly,” said Kelley. “The rate and structure of the change is important for sure, but of equal importance is the connection of the muscle tissue to the skeleton. Our research has shown that kibble for large and giant breed puppies should contain 28% protein and a lower amount of fat. Protein provides the amino acids to support tissue development while the lower fat reduces dietary energy to help control the growth rate. Fat doesn’t reduce the puppy’s overall size, but high quantities of fat will slow down that maturation process. Having too little amounts of fat can equally be an issue; if a puppy’s diet contains low quantities of fat then the muscular growth is very fast. That rapid growth can increase the risk of orthopedic issues. Research has shown that 18% crude fat allows puppies to develop at the correct pace.”

Glucosamine and Chondroitin: “I recently returned from a grouse and woodcock hunt at Pineridge Grouse Camp in Minnesota,” Kelley said. “I remember mentioning to owner Jerry Havel that a dog running through poles in an agility course might twist and turn for five minutes. But a pointer, setter, or Brittany will do that same kind of motion for a few hours at a time, every day, all season long. That’s why glucosamine is important in a puppy’s diet because it can help improve their overall joint health later in life. It’s important to note that studies have not demonstrated a direct benefit of glucosamine to joint health in healthy animals, but we certainly know that joint stress is a part of these dogs daily activities.”

DHA for Brain and Central Nervous System Development: Nutrition can impact the growth and health of the central nervous system for both dams and puppies alike.

“One of the more important nutrients for puppies is docosahexaenoic acid or DHA,” Kelley said. “DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is known to support brain and neuron development during early puppy development. DHA also is linked to improved health in the heart, better vision, and reduced inflammatory responses. DHA is included in adult performance dog foods, but is especially important for puppies. In fact, our research has demonstrated that DHA can improve trainability in puppies. The puppy’s brain, neurons, and dendrites develop at a rapid rate through about their ninth month, and DHA supports that activity.”

Antioxidants and Immune Development: Inoculations against Bordetella, Parvo, and Rabies, among others, help keep puppies healthy. But according to Kelley, diet can help with a puppy’s overall health.

“Antioxidants have been shown to support immune function and can help improve the vaccine response,” he said. “Antioxidants are found in premium adult dog foods as well as puppy formulas. However, the type of antioxidants and/or their levels are typically different. Antioxidants like Vitamins E and C, betacarotene, lutein, and betaglucan are especially important for developing puppies, especially because they have been shown to improve immune function.”

how to choose a dog food for your puppy
From the very beginning puppies have specific nutritional needs that are all key to their gradual development. (Gun Dog photo)

The Sporting Dog Puppy Diet  

Many adult performance formulas have too many calories and not the correct levels of calcium and phosphorus for puppies. Using these formulas may result in rapid growth, which is not always healthy. Also, supplements are not necessary when you select the correct diet. By adding supplements you’re changing the nutrient profile of your dog’s diet. Nothing should be added that will impact the food’s overall nutrient profile. Keep in mind that a formula has been developed to deliver a specific balance of all nutrients; any supplements will alter that balance.


Transition Time  

There are several different theories on when to transition a puppy to adult formulas. Some owners use time as a measure. Another reliable method that is based on weight takes different breeds into account. “Both time and age are good methods for determining when to switch to adult food,” Kelley said. “But all breeds…as well as all dogs…develop a bit differently. The method I like to use is based on the sire and dams’ weight. I’ll look at their sizes, and when the puppy is at 80% of that projected adult weight, I’ll start the transition. Cross reference that projected weight with the 9-point body condition score. I’ll want my dogs to have an hourglass shape from above and a tuck below, with a score being around four. You’ll need to take into consideration that a Lab is different from a pointer, and that’s why looking at the sire and dam is more accurate than just focusing on time.”

how to choose a dog food for your puppy
Gun dogs have higher nutritional demands—make sure your puppy gets what they require. (Photo By: Kali Parmley)

Feeding Goals  

One of the many goals is to feed a puppy so that his weight is correct with his breed, age, and physicality. Puppies that over eat develop additional and larger fat cells; an overweight puppy can be prone to life as an overweight adult. Additional health issues come from carrying extra weight, so it’s far easier to feed to the ideal weight the puppy will be when he’s fully grown. Feed puppies so that when they are 18-months old they’ll be at their proper weight.

Read Your Puppy  

There are some visible signs for determining if your puppy formula is doing its job.

Poor Skin and Coat: A poor skin and coat can indicate a lack of balanced nutrition. A dull coat and dry skin are often early indications of sub-optimal nutrition.

Lethargy: Puppies always are bursting with energy. If they are lethargic then they may not be getting enough nutrients.

Gastrointestinal Health: Puppies explore the world with their mouths, so their gastrointestinal (GI) systems are constantly being challenged. A puppy’s diet can help support GI health and consistently produce firm and formed stools.

how to choose a dog food for your puppy
Focus first on your puppy's nutrition. In doing so, they’ll be healthy and able to perform at their peak. (Gun Dog photo)
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