You wouldn’t choose a collar, bed or squeak toys for your puppy that are meant for a much larger adult dog, right? Your dog food shouldn’t be formulated for adult dogs either.
Puppy foods were formulated to ensure that puppies ranging from diminutive Dachshunds to giant Great Danes receive the essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients to grow from small, wriggling puppies into healthy adults.
Puppy vs Adult Dog Food: What’s the Difference?
It might be impossible to tell the difference between a bowl of puppy food and a bowl of adult food, but that doesn’t mean both formulas are the same.
“Puppies have different nutrient needs than adult dogs,” says Dr. Angela Rollins, clinical associate professor of nutrition at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center and diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.
Specifically, puppies need different amounts of calcium and phosphorus; adult foods don’t contain enough of these essential nutrients for healthy bone development in younger dogs, Rollins says.
Puppy foods also contain higher amounts of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that puppies need for healthy brain development.
Puppy Food: What to Look For
When it comes to choosing the best foods for your growing (and adorable) puppy, obsessing over individual ingredients isn’t important, according to Rollins.
Instead of reading endless ingredient labels, Rollins suggests looking for two things: the “life stage” listed on the bag and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal. Puppies need puppy food, not adult food, to ensure that they receive all of the essential ingredients for optimal growth and development. The AAFCO seal is another indication that a dog food is complete and balanced. In other words, it contains all of the nutrients that dogs require at each life stage and the nutrients are in the correct proportions. Any puppy food with the AAFCO seal is a good choice for a healthy diet, Rollins says.
If you have a large breed puppy—we’re talking about you, German Shepherds, Mastiffs and Rottweilers—look for foods designed with their size in mind.
Rollins notes that large breed puppies have specific nutritional needs and require foods with the right balance of nutrients. These formulations have higher protein levels and essential fatty acids like DHA that were designed to promote slower, steadier growth; large breed puppy foods are also less calorie dense, allowing growing puppies to eat enough to feel full without overeating.
Best Puppy Food Brands
There are several quality pet foods on the market, including these top brands:
- Blue Buffalo
- Diamond Naturals
- Open Farm
- Royal Canin
- Science Diet
7 Best Puppy Food Formulas to Try
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Best Puppy Food: Overall Winner
Our pick: JustFoodForDogs Chicken and White Rice
Made with fresh whole foods like chicken, white rice and nutrient-rich fruits and veggies. It’s chock full of nutrients like vitamin B5, B6, iron, selenium, zinc and niacin. The fresh, frozen food is a premium alternative to conventional kibble and was designed to provide optimal nutrition and flavor.
- Contains the optimal amounts of calcium and phosphorus to support the nutritional needs of growing puppies.
- Made with meat from chicken thighs, which is more nutrient dense than white meat.
- The recipe underwent feeding trials using AAFCO-designed protocols.
- Meats are USDA inspected and approved for human consumption.
- Gluten-free, no preservatives.
- Vet-trained consultants are available to make recommendations and an online feeding calculator provides portion recommendations.
- Available via auto-ship deliveries in small, medium and large boxes (ranging from 7.8 pounds to 31.5 pounds).
Things to Consider
- Transitioning from conventional kibble to fresh frozen puppy foods can take up to 10 days to avoid stomach upset.
- Must be kept frozen and thawed before serving.
- With prices starting at $55.65 for a small box, fresh frozen dog foods could be cost prohibitive.
Sample buyer review: “My dog loves the chicken and rice recipe. I love the fact that he is getting the best food and it’s convenient with the easy to serve portions. Great food for dogs!”
Best Dry Puppy Food
This kibble is billed as “ethically sourced from farm to bowl.” All of the ingredients from chicken, wild-caught salmon, millet, quinoa, cranberries, apples, chia seeds and pumpkin are humanely and sustainably sourced and 100 percent traceable using the lot code on the back of the bag.
- Chicken and pork are 100% Certified Humane and raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Ocean Wise certified salmon, wild caught using sustainable fishing practices.
- 90 percent of protein comes from animal sources.
- No corn, wheat or soy.
- Non-GMO ingredients.
- No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.
Things to Consider
- The ancient grains recipe is not grain-free.
- Not available in big-box pet stores; must be purchased at local stores or purchased online and shipped.
- The kibble comes in one size (small).
- It’s priced as a premium pet food.
Sample buyer review: “Nearly perfect dog food: ethical, humanely sourced, can track everything and all the ingredients are phenomenal, with no fillers or junk. This stuff makes Origen look like junk! I recommend this to ALL of my friends/family from puppyhood on up, especially for rotational feeding. Please keep up the fantastic work, my pups need a company that cares.”
Best Large Breed Puppy Food
In addition to meat, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, the recipe contains LifeSource Bits, a blend of antioxidant-rich ingredients like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to promote healthy skin and coat. A balance of calcium and phosphorus also helps large breed puppies achieve optimal growth and development.
- Made with deboned chicken and whole grains.
- Formulated for healthy muscle growth and bone development in large breed puppies.
- No corn, wheat or soy; no poultry byproducts.
- Available in 15-and 30-pound bags.
Things to Consider
- One formula with chicken as the main ingredient.
- It’s not grain-free.
Sample buyer review: “I was using another high end dog food for my 3 fur babies and they liked it. My sister’s dog passed away and she gave me his food, this Blue Buffalo. I gave it to my dogs and they loved it! Even my 17-year-old picky eater pounded it down. I highly recommend this. I have happy kids now.”
Best Puppy Food for Small Breeds
The formula, which includes chicken, kale, pumpkin, blueberries and oranges, was designed to provide the right balance of nutrients for small breed puppies. The nutrient-rich recipe also contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to support healthy skin, coat, vision and brain health.
- Cage-free chicken is the first ingredient.
- Formulated without corn, wheat, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives.
- The combination of soluble and insoluble fibers support healthy digestion.
- Made in the USA by a family-owned company.
- AAFCO-certified as a complete and balanced food for puppies.
- Available in three sizes: 6-,18- and 40-pound bags.
Things to Consider
- Some ingredients are purchased from global sources.
- It’s not a non-GMO or grain-free formula.
Sample buyer review: “Our puppy is very active and had a rough life before we got him. He was dropping weight and needed something different. We tried 5 different kinds and this was the only one he gobbled down. It has small kibble and honestly even smells good, not like other food. Higher protein and fat content to maintain his weight.”
Best Wet Puppy Food
The combination of chicken, salmon, barley, sweet potatoes and flaxseed supports energy, digestive health, immunity, healthy skin and coat, vision and oral health. Antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids support your puppy’s developing brain.
- Made with two sources of proteins (chicken and salmon).
- Wet food is more aromatic and might entice picky eaters.
- Can be added as a topper to kibble.
- No byproducts, fillers, artificial preservatives or flavors.
Things to Consider
- It’s a paté, and the manufacturer notes that consistency can vary between cans.
- Not designed for large breed puppies that will reach adult weights over 70 pounds.
Sample buyer review: “My 4-month-old German shepherd absolutely LOVES this wet dog food. We use it to fill her Kong for a tasty treat before bedtime to help calm her down. We also have the dry large breed puppy dry food. The texture of this wet dog food is very smooth, easy to spread on a lick-mat, mix in with dry food, or pack inside a Kong. It has a medium-to-strong smell and she knows when I’m opening a can! She comes running!”
Best Puppy Food for Sensitive Stomach
A limited-ingredient diet might be exactly what your puppy needs to calm a roiling tummy. PURE is made with just nine ingredients: chicken, Menhaden fish meal, lentils, peas, potatoes, dried whole egg, chicken fat, alfalfa and flaxseed.
- Made with limited ingredients to minimize stomach upset.
- Contains probiotics, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to support healthy growth and development.
- Made in the USA.
- No artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
Things to Consider
- It’s not a veterinary diet and may not address the underlying cause of stomach upset.
- Expensive compared to other brands.
Sample buyer review: “My 4-month old Pit Bull loves this food. His coat is beautiful, soft and shiny, and he’s had no issues with diarrhea or soft stools that he’s had with other food. Highly recommend!”
Best Grain-Free Puppy Food
With deboned beef as the first ingredient—and 75 percent of the proteins from animal sources—this grain-free formula provides complete and balanced nutrition. The combination of protein and fats add flavor while contributing to healthy skin, coat, joints and brain development.
- Grain-free formula.
- Added glucosamine and chondroitin help maintain healthy joints.
- Contains DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is essential for puppy brain development.
Things to Consider
- Some pet parents reported that their puppies didn’t like the food.
Sample buyer review: “Charlie is a rescue who has been on this food since the day we got him. He loves it and his condition is superb.”
Puppy Food: Tips and Advice
Your puppy needs optimal nutrition for proper growth and development. Follow these feeding tips to keep them healthy.
Use a measuring cup: More than half of dogs are overweight or obese. Measuring out your puppy’s food (instead of filling the bowl and allowing her to graze) can help prevent her from overeating.
Limit treats: Treats are great training tools but avoid offering too many. “Treats shouldn’t make up more than 10 percent of your dog’s daily calories,” Rollins says. Too many treats could also spoil your dog’s appetite, making it harder to get the right balance of nutrients from her puppy food.
Store food safely: Wet food should be kept refrigerated after it’s opened and kibble should remain in its original bag (which lists the expiration date) and stored in a cool, dry place.