Sorting through the morass of dog and puppy foods can be tough. Determining your puppy's nutritional needs, and how they differ from your adult dog's, requires some label-reading and translation savviness. Interpreting pet food labels is the key to making healthy choices for your pup.
Puppies wean off their mommy's milk at around 8 weeks. After that, they depend on you to provide for all their nutritional needs. They need proteins, fats and carbs, plus a plethora of vitamins and minerals. The quantity of each and number of calories, though, can vary drastically depending on just how old your pup is, his breed, activity level and any medical issues.
Calculating how much of each nutrient your puppy needs requires some math. The National Academy of Sciences recommends feeding a diet that's at least 56 grams crude protein and 21 grams total fat per serving for puppies "weighing 12 pounds, 33 at maturity." The protein needs for adult dogs are less than half this, and their need for fat decreases by one third.
Seems pretty specific, doesn't it? So how do you calculate an ideal serving for a pup who doesn't fit neatly into this weight range?
Whose Food is This, Anyway?
The answer is, you'll have to rely on reading pet food labels and, for lack of a better term, guessing. Dog and puppy foods have to state their percentages of crude protein and total fat. You can determine the grams in your pup's portion by multiplying the weight of the food (in grams) by each percentage, and then calculate how much your pup should be eating in order to get the right number of grams for his current and projected adult weights ... or you can choose a food based on the life stage it's formulated for and marketed to.
Choosing a Food
So what really is the difference between puppy food and adult dog food? It's a matter of proportion. Puppy foods typically contain more protein and fat and fewer carbohydrates. They also tend to have more ingredients designed to make them smellier and tastier.
Here's the rub: you don't necessarily know whether a food is really formulated specifically for puppies or adult dogs -- or both -- unless you look for the American Association of Feed Control Officials nutrient profile label on the bag. The AAFCO label means the food has actually been tested by laboratory analysis and possibly by feeding trials. If the nutrient content hasn't been verified in a laboratory, the bag must state "for intermittent or supplemental feeding only."
AAFCO-verified pet foods can be marketed for either "adult maintenance" (adult dogs only) or "growth and reproduction" (for puppies and pregnant or nursing mothers). If it says "adult maintenance," it isn't for your puppy; if it says "growth and reproduction," it is. That's not all, though. If your bag of chow says "for all life stages," it means exactly that. Dog foods can only say "for all life stages" if they meet the higher nutrient profiles for "growth and reproduction." So a suitable puppy food doesn't have to say "puppy chow," as long as it's AAFCO-verified for "all life stages."
Angela Libal began writing professionally in 2005. She has published several books, specializing in zoology and animal husbandry. Libal holds a degree in behavioral science: animal science from Moorpark College, a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College and is a graduate student in cryptozoology.