Puppies are like babies. They need warmth, love and, of course, food and water provided for them. But how do you know if you are feeding the right puppy food? Kylie Baracz investigates.
Dogs are mainly carnivorous animals that eat some omnivorous foods. Therefore, the way you feed your puppy will affect the rest of its life. There is a lot of conflicting advice from breeders, pet shops, vets, people at the local dog park, books, magazines etc. So what should you believe?
What should I feed my puppy?
According to Dr Martine Perkins, veterinary surgeon at Pymble Veterinary Clinic, puppies naturally wean off their mother’s milk at around eight to 12 weeks of age. “I generally suggest introducing some solid food from six to seven weeks of age and slowly allow the pup to wean off their mother’s milk.”
Once solid foods are introduced, Dr Perkins recommends feeding a high-balanced premium commercial puppy food that is appropriate for the lifestyle and health status of your puppy. She also says to check that it complies with the SAI Global Australian Standard: Manufacturing and Marketing of Pet Food AS5812:2011 (visit: infostore.saiglobal.com/store)
Thinking of providing all-natural food for your pup rather than commercial premium pet food? Alla Keogh from natural pet food company FoodiePooch says it’s good to start from the beginning.
“We believe it is important to understand what dogs are designed by nature to eat. That is raw meaty bones and a minimally processed, moisture-rich food consisting of muscle meat, organs, vegetables and fruit. A little bit of a non-glutinous grain such as oats can also be added,” says Keogh. “If raw feeding is not your thing, a natural dehydrated food combined with raw, meaty bones is a great alternative. You can also include puppy oat porridge for added variety, energy and fibre.”
Dr Perkins agrees that natural food can be added to your puppy’s diet such as human-grade raw meaty bones, as long as it is not the main part of the overall meal.
“Introducing fresh, raw meaty bones at around 12 weeks of age ensures they are chewing efficiently when their permanent teeth erupt at four to six months old,” says Dr Perkins. “For most owners, it’s easy to feed 80 per cent premium commercial pet foods so that you know the diet is complete and balanced and, in particular, that the calcium and phosphorus ratios are correct, then supplement with human-grade raw meaty bones to make up the extra 20 per cent.”
How much and how often should I feed my puppy?
Deciding on how much to feed your puppy really depends on what you are providing and the age and size of your pup. If you are feeding premium commercial pet foods, the directions for use are usually on the label. However, Dr Perkins says this is just a guide, so she suggests going to your vet to weigh your puppy and get a body-condition score in order to obtain the right advice for the diet you have chosen.
If you get your puppy from a breeder, they can also provide this advice for you. This will keep things consistent when you first take your pet home.
“Initially, you should offer your puppy food at least four times a day but this will decrease as your puppy grows,” says Dr Perkins. “I like to feed dogs twice daily once they are adults. This is particularly the case with large deep-chested dogs in order to decrease the likelihood of bloat, which can be fatal.”
Keogh agrees and recommends puppies be fed four times a day up to 12 weeks, three times until six months of age and then two meals a day from six months old onwards.
“As puppies have higher energy requirements than adult dogs, they need to be fed more food, sometimes up to twice as much as a same-sized adult and more frequently,” says Keogh. “But, do they need a specially formulated ‘puppy food’? If the principles of natural feeding are applied, I don’t think so.
“I don’t believe that any puppy should be taken from its mother to live with its new family before the age of eight weeks. Once a puppy comes home, I believe that they should be fed a wide variety of foods, such as a raw diet of chicken necks, wings, human-grade meats, organ meats, veggies, fruit and herbs combined with eggs and lamb bones and plenty of raw meaty bones.”
Should you go “natural”?
Just as consumers demand label transparency for their own foods, so too do they expect it for their pets. Keogh believes it is more important than ever to make sure that pet parents know what is in their pet’s foods and treats so that our four-legged friends are getting the best quality and are kept safe from harmful chemicals and additives.
“Consumers are more educated than ever about what is in their food. They shop at farmers’ markets and health food stores for themselves and want to extend the same benefits to their pets. They want to be able to pronounce the ingredients in their pet’s food,” she says.
Keogh says a natural, preservative- and grain-free dog food uses the principles of species-appropriate feeding to create a convenient option for pet owners who want their pets to enjoy the very best diet possible.
“It’s common sense that a carnivore such as a dog would require meat as their main protein source. But what’s not immediately evident, due to clever marketing, is that supermarket pet foods in fact use poor-quality, non-meat proteins such as grains and by-products to meet the nutritional levels required,” says Keogh. “Poor-quality proteins are very difficult to digest and cause unnecessary stress to the kidneys, liver and metabolism in general. You may not see the impact of a poor diet in a young and otherwise healthy animal but it becomes a problem particularly as an animal ages and the quality of their protein becomes critical.”
Dr Perkins says she doesn’t have a problem with natural food but believes some people can get a little misled by some of the so-called “natural” pet foods on the market and need to be careful with what they are buying.
“The term ‘natural’ has been legally defined and means that the pet food must consist of only natural ingredients without chemical alterations except for vitamins and minerals,” explains Dr Perkins.
“Any pet food can use the term ‘holistic’ and this actually has no meaning or defined regulations with regards to pet food. The term ‘organic’ means the same rules are applied to human foods so natural and organic are not interchangeable. I don’t think they are ‘natural’, in the sense that it is still a commercially sold and prepared pet food, which is not the natural way a dog would eat in the wild.”
Dr Perkins is sure there are plenty of good natural pet foods on the market but recommends people do their research before buying. “I most certainly do like the idea of a biologically appropriate diet for a dog that mimics what its wild ancestors ate. It consists of raw whole foods similar to those eaten by their wild relatives. This food includes such things as muscle meat, bone, fat, organ meat and vegetable materials. It can, however, be hard practically for people to often follow these accurately and if they are going to follow such recommendations, they need to implement it properly. Otherwise, they are best to stick to a commercial premium pet food.”
Both Keogh and Dr Perkins agree it is not necessary to provide supplements to a puppy unless specifically told to by a veterinarian. Although Keogh does provide natural supplements such as kelp, chia seeds, brewer’s yeast and vitamin C for adult dogs. “You can also use a multivitamin, such as Natural Animal Solutions DigestaVite Plus, and good-quality omega oil is an important addition to every dog’s diet,” she advises.
What are the signs of inadequate nutrition?
There are many ways in which a puppy may show signs of an inadequate diet. Some of these may be obvious such as a poor coat, being under or overweight and any signs of lameness. Dr Perkins says there can be other, very serious signs to look out for as well.
“Some musculoskeletal abnormalities may be subtle and may be picked up by your veterinarian,” says Dr Perkins. “Neurological problems can also occur with certain preservatives such as sulphites in raw pet meats. The SAI Global Australian Standard: Manufacturing and Marketing of Pet Food AS5812:2011 contains clauses that address the sulphite issue. However, RSPCA Australia still has concerns about raw pet meat products and any other product that doesn’t fall under the scope of the pet food standard.
“To avoid this concern, feed high-quality premium commercial foods that comply with Australian Standards and when buying raw meat or meaty bones, choose products labelled for human consumption. Avoid human-grade sausages, sausage meats and cooked manufactured meats as they can contain sulphites.”
Decipher pet food labelling
Dr Perkins shares some tips to use when shopping for your puppy’s premium pet food:
- Check that it complies with the SAI Global Australian Standard AS5812:2011.
- If a pet food states that the food is an “all life-stage” product, then this means it has high-nutrient levels for growing dogs and may not be the correct pet food for a mature pet or animals with certain illnesses — so check with your vet.
- Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Chicken, beef and lamb can weigh more than dry foods such as grains, meals and vitamins.
- Moisture levels in pet foods vary considerably, making it virtually impossible for the average pet owner to accurately compare pet food information so, when evaluating different pet foods, it is important to check how the manufacturer substantiates its nutritional claims, particularly for “complete and balanced” products.
- The best way to evaluate the nutritional value of a pet food is to feed it to the animals for which it is intended, over a prolonged period of time. This is called a “feeding trial” and is the gold standard. A claim based on the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ (AAFCO) feeding trial protocols provides evidence that the food is digestible and the nutrients are bio-available.
- The other method is the “formulation method”, which is quicker and cheaper to run but does not involve feeding the food to animals in order to guarantee its pet acceptance and nutrient availability. Therefore, we don’t really know if the pets eat it or how well they perform on it in terms of the bio-availability of nutrients.