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Puppy Nutrition

Providing a healthy whole food raw diet for your puppy is easy and very worthwhile!

Puppy Basics
The food a species should consume is defined by what it eats in nature. Your domestic puppy has essentially the same digestive system and physiology as his wild-pup relative. If you want your puppy to live a long and healthy life, you need to feed the foods that he is designed to eat. Growing pups should be fed the quality and quantity of food that supports optimal health throughout growth and provides the dietary foundation for a lifetime of excellent health. Providing too much or the wrong foods early can lead to skeletal disorders that will affect a puppy throughout its life. Growing puppies should be kept lean and well muscled, with their ribs easily felt, but not seen. Proper feeding should be carried out through portion-controlled feeding, rather than free-choice feeding. By the time you bring your new puppy home from the breeder, two or three meals per day are usually sufficient.

Nature's Menu
Published research has provided interesting and valid information that can be used to help understand the developmental and nutritional aspects of wild pups. Larger canids such as the wolf typically prey on moose, caribou, elk, and deer as the mainstay of their diet. Any remains of this prey could potentially become valuable food for the coyote, fox or other scavengers. Smaller game animals such as beaver, hare, and to a lesser extent, rodents, wild birds, and limited amounts of plant material are also consumed. It appears that the stomach content of large prey is consistently left by most wild canids. The diet of the opportunistic coyote is somewhat more diverse than the wolf, consisting of some larger prey such as deer and virtually every small animal from rabbits to rodents, and an assortment of vegetation depending on the region and the season. The foxes’ prey is somewhat smaller than the coyote and wolf, comprising of rabbit, rodents, wild birds, insects and some vegetation. While the size of prey may change according to the size of the canid predator, the nutrition principle really doesn't. The menu consists mostly of whole animals or, if sharing prey with a pack, various components of a whole animal carcass will eventually be consumed over a period of time. Prey animals supply nourishment for the young to the old with nothing more than a change in whether it is regurgitated to pups or devoured by the adults.

Wild Pups

There are four recognized developmental stages in both wild and domestic pups; (1) the neonatal period, from birth to the age of eye-opening, (2) the transition period, from the age of eye opening to twenty days, (3) the period of socialization, from twenty to about seventy-seven days, and (4) the juvenile period, from twelve weeks to maturity. During each stage, a puppy's nutritional needs will evolve as he grows.

Neonatal Period
During the neonatal period, pups are blind and deaf and have little, if any, sense of smell. They have poor ability to regulate their body temperature, but they possess a good sense of balance, taste, and touch. Their motor capabilities are limited to crawling and upon contacting their mother's teats, they begin suckling. When pups during this period are rubbed on their underside with their mother's tongue, they urinate and defecate. This behavior not only removes bodily wastes but is also thought to provide the beginnings of passive submission. "First milk" or colostrum received shortly after birth contains antibodies needed by the newborn pup. The milk that follows is rich in fat and protein and contains immunoglobulins as well as other substances such as essential fatty acids and growth factors that influence the development of the puppy. Milk is not an essential part of a pup's diet after weaning.

Transition Period
The transition period begins when the pup's eyes open around the eleventh to the fifteenth day of age. Even when the eyes are fully open, pups see very poorly and are not able to perceive forms until weeks later. Hearing begins and teeth erupt from the eighteenth to twenty-first day. During the transition period, the abilities of the pups change rapidly, preparing them for a more adult-like life. In the wild, three-week-old pups are still dependent upon their mother for nourishment but they begin to stand, growl and chew. They begin to appear outside the den romping and playing near the entrance.

Socialization Period
Around the fourth week, the period of socialization begins. Play fighting starts and helps establish dominance relationships among the littermates. With wild pups, the only individuals nearby are their littermates and the adult members so emotional attachments become the basis for the formation of the pack. In the very beginning of the socialization period, the pups are forced to nurse while standing to follow the female around near the den and to become accustomed to eating semi-liquid food regurgitated by the female and other adult members of the pack. Nursing is usually completed when the pups are six to eight weeks old. However, intermittent nursing may continue to eleven weeks as there is likely a certain amount of psychological fulfillment in the nursing process even if milk is no longer available.

When an adult approaches the pups, they swarm around and sniff, nip, paw and nuzzle its mouth. The adults seem to enjoy regurgitating food, leaving the offering all at once and letting the pups compete for it. Fresh offerings that are not consumed by pups may be eaten again by the adult or cached. This weaning diet consists of nutrient dense foods such as flesh meat, organs, sinew, connective tissue, and fat.

During the period of socialization, wild pups learn to run, climb, jump and play in most of the adult patterns. They explore a great deal and chew anything chewable including the leftover bones of prey animals brought near the den by the adults. Between eight to ten weeks, wolf pups are moved from the den to various "rendezvous sites" where they remain throughout the summer.

Juvenile Period
The fourth period of development is the juvenile period. It begins about the twelfth week and continues until the onset of sexual maturity. During this time, the adults continue to bring food to the pups or in the case of large carcasses, they may move the pups to the prey. Hunting comes naturally to wild pups but is limited to pouncing on insects and pursuing small rodents like mice. As well, researchers have found wild pups whose stomachs contained plant material. Over a period of time, wild pups will eat a wide variety of bits and parts of whole prey animals depending on their status among littermates. The milk teeth are replaced between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six weeks as pups would not be physically able to kill larger prey efficiently before that age. By the time the pups develop teeth suitable for hunting, their physical ability to chase and capture food begins to change and the potential to catch various prey increases. During the middle of the juvenile period, physical growth and weight changes level off. The epiphyseal cartilage or growing point of the long bone closes at about one year of age, marking the end of skeletal growth and the beginning of adulthood.

Pampered Wild Pups

Wild pups are at the center of the pack's attention and care. Almost every member of the pack plays an active role in their needs or is affected by the pups' position within the pack. With large prey animals, pack members of all ranks and ages gather around a carcass and feed simultaneously with no status privilege apparent; however, if the prey is smaller, the dominant breeding pair may feed first and control when subordinates feed. Similarly, pups are subordinate to both parents and to older siblings, yet they are always fed preferentially by the parents and even by their older, dominant siblings. The parents both dominate older offspring and restrict their food intake when food is scarce, feeding pups instead. High ranking pups are more assertive in competing for food delivery by adults and sometimes accompany adults on foraging trips at an earlier age than do subordinates.

Urban Pups
In contrast to the diet of wild pups, what people typically feed their urban pup is dramatically different. The food is often heat processed. This eliminates many of the life-enhancing factors supplied by whole, raw foods. Puppy formulas often are comprised of mostly grains instead of high-quality biological protein such as meat, meaty bones, and organs. Grains are a poor replacement for the rich, nourishment present in a whole prey carcass. Some dogs that eat heat processed diets will live to old age but many more will experience some type of health problem by the time they are adolescents. The more resilient will not be affected until late in life. Many serious health problems in dogs have a dietary factor, some are actually caused by diet, and all are affected by it including obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, pancreatitis, arthritis, heart disease, allergies, cancer … the list is almost endless.

Poor quality puppy foods usually contain meat by-products, which are sometimes from questionable sources. Meat by-products may contain bones, feathers, fecal material, feet, beaks, heads, organs and skin and are therefore an unpredictable source of meat protein. Though some may be nutritious, others are not, and especially when they comprise the main protein source in the diet. Cooking meat at high temperatures creates carcinogenic (cancer causing) toxins and destroys or changes the fragile heat-sensitive amino acids.

Puppy foods can contain rendered and rancid fats and can also contain little or no omega-3 essential fatty acids. The best fats puppies can consume come from animals that have been naturally raised with little exposure to toxins and contribute naturally balanced omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids to the diet. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one omega-3 fatty acid that is especially significant for growth and development. DHA plays an important role in the normal development of the central nervous system and in retinal function in the eye of the newborn.

Vitamins and minerals are added to puppy foods. Dog food companies are required to meet, but not exceed the majority of nutrients listed on a bag of puppy food. Therefore, missing or deficient nutrients or improper ratios of nutrients can contribute to poor health. It would be impossible to formulate a diet that provided optimal amounts of nutrients to meet the individual needs of every puppy. Consequently “complete” and “balanced” puppy food does not truly exist except in the minds of those making and selling it.

Herbicides, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics from feed animals are processed into pet food creating toxic conditions for a puppy's liver, kidneys, and immune system. The addition of artificial flavorings, dyes, and preservatives ensure a palatable product that will remain stable on the shelf at the local grocery or pet store. However, chemicals in pet food have been associated with both physical and behavioral problems that may be related to the presence of:

  • Fat preservatives such as ethoxyquin, BHT, BHA, and propyl gallate
  • Moisturizers such as tartaric acid, citric acid, calcium silicate and sorbitol
  • Stabilizers such as sodium nitrate and nitrate
  • Mold retardants such as calcium and sodium propionatesorbic acid and sodium diacetate
  • Coloring dyes that make pet food more appealing to the owner

No matter how good a heat processed pet food is deemed to be, it can never replace the nutritional excellence whole foods supply. The principles of nutrition for a growing puppy are really no different than that of a growing child. Wholesome food is truly the cornerstone of a healthy body.

Carnivore-Appropriate Food for Pups

The food you feed your puppy can either strengthen him by providing the building blocks for disease resistance or injure him by introducing toxins to his various canine body systems. The single most effective way for you to ensure the best health for your puppy is to choose a diet that provides him with all the essential nutrients in the most digestible and absorbable forms. That means your puppy needs to eat a carnivore-appropriate diet.

A Puppy Requires Raw Meat and Organs
Puppies need protein to synthesize tissue for growth and replace that which is broken down and lost from the body each day. And that amount is quite a bit, as they grow quickly! The protein in a puppy's food should be of high quality and very digestible. A variety of raw meat naturally fulfills this role and ensures that sufficient levels of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, will be absorbed for use in growth and development. Along with meats, animal organs provide an enzyme-rich mixture of protein, B-complex vitamins, vitamins A and D, some vitamin C, and the fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA). Organs contain almost every important mineral that puppies need. However, meat and organs contain little calcium. For this reason, a puppy's diet must contain connective tissue such as bones and cartilage.

A Puppy Requires Bone and Cartilage
Calcium is vital for normal skeletal development, however; supplemental calcium should not be fed to growing pups. The most useful and beneficial way to provide balanced calcium and phosphorus in a puppy's diet is by feeding fresh bone and cartilage together with raw meat. Besides calcium and phosphorus, bones also contain small amounts of other minerals such as copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, zinc, and manganese. Whether bones are fed in a ground form or whole, they are vital to growing puppies. Most domestic pups also miss out on the chewing exercise whole bones offer. Chewing bones is a very important component of the exercise regime of pups that promotes healthy growth, and contributes to disease free bones and joints.

A Puppy's Diet Can Include Some Plant Matter or Green Tripe
Puppies lack salivary amylase, the enzyme responsible for initiating carbohydrate digestion. Many pet owners and pet food manufacturers insist on adding vegetables or grains to dog foods claiming that they would eat them along with the stomach and intestines of their prey. However, this does not take into account that the amount of vegetable matter in small prey is little and more often than not, the stomach and the intestines are not eaten from large prey.

Puppies, like dogs, do not have a requirement for carbohydrates. However, they do have a metabolic requirement for glucose. This requirement can be supplied either through endogenous synthesis (endogenous synthesis refers to the synthesis of a compound by the body) of glucose or from carbohydrate food sources. Metabolic pathways in the liver and kidney use proteins and fats to produce glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. This glucose is then released into the bloodstream to be carried to the body’s tissues. This way, a dog can maintain normal blood glucose levels and health even when fed a carbohydrate-free diet. Although largely a “meat eater”, a puppy can be fed some plant matter such as greens and fruits to provide vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and if required, some fiber in the diet. Green tripe is a highly valuable food for puppies. It consists of the stomach wall and fermented ingesta from ruminant animals and supplies beneficial bacteria, protein, essential fatty acids and other nutrients that support growth.

A Puppy's Diet Should Provide Adequate Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamin and mineral requirements for puppies are similar to adult dogs with a few exceptions. Puppies are said to need approximately double the amount of vitamin E as an adult. The requirement for vitamin E is directly proportionate to the amounts and types of fats in the diet. The more polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet, the more vitamin E is required to protect against the destructive effects of free radicals. The requirement also increases if dietary fat is not fresh.

Indoor puppies may not receive sufficient vitamin D through sunlight to meet nutritional requirements for efficient absorption of calcium. Iron is imperative for puppies. Puppies that are deficient in iron may be listless and lack normal coloration of gums if insufficient sources of iron are not provided in the diet. There is no dietary requirement for vitamin C in the dog as it can be manufactured within the body from glucose. However, some puppies may benefit from the antioxidant and immune boosting effects of vitamin C. A proper carnivore-appropriate puppy diet that incorporates a rotation of various animal and plant foods will supply a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. Any additional supplementation should serve to enhance the diet and must be carried out judiciously to ensure toxicities or imbalances are not created.

A Puppy Requires Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFA) are vital to the development of the nervous system, immune system, and inflammatory system. One particular omega-3 EFA, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the most abundant fatty acid in mother's milk and it is also found in high concentration in the retina of the eye). Puppies cannot manufacture essential fatty acids in their body so they should continue to receive them in their diet after they are weaned. DHA is found in cold water fish, fish oils and animal organs such as brain, kidneys, and liver.

A Puppy’s Immune System Needs Bacteria
Dogs evolved eating foods with bacteria. That means puppies do too. The environment where they are born and eventually eat their food is replete with bacteria. The eating habits of puppies are not always sensible or hygienic. Puppies sniff and lick all sorts of unsanitary places. They are geared to bury bones and eat dead or rotting foods. They instinctively clean their private parts which are home to all sorts of bacteria. Sometimes, to the disgust of pet owners, they will even eat their own stools. Bacteria are part of a puppy’s life!

The new puppy's defense against bacteria is primarily nonspecific innate immunity and passively acquired maternal antibody. As the puppy develops, the body provides numerous defense mechanisms to successfully deal with bacteria. Good nutrition is essential to develop and keep a puppy’s immune system healthy and strong. Nutritional deficiencies may be responsible for health problems as it is easier for bacteria (or viruses) to take hold when important nutrients are missing in the diet.

When functioning properly, the immune system fights organisms such as bacteria. Puppies eating a raw diet are continuously exposed to bacteria, but exposure does not mean a puppy will get sick. A strong immune system provides a puppy with powerful natural defenses. Conversely, a puppy with a weakened immune system is vulnerable to illnesses and bacterial overgrowth.

A Puppy Needs To Be Fed Appropriate Amounts of Food
The idea that diets high in fat and protein cause over-nutrition, especially in large breed puppies, is invalid. On the contrary, orthopedic problems are more often due to overweight puppies. If a puppy consumes too many calories for his energy requirements and becomes overweight, then the risk for skeletal problems increases. In a 14-year study done by Purina ®, dogs prone to Hip Dysplasia were fed all they wanted (control group) or 75 percent of what the control group ate (restricted group). The two groups were easy to tell apart – they were either obese or lean. By five years of age, 52 percent of the control dogs showed signs of arthritis in their hips while only 13 percent of the restricted group were affected. A dog genetically set up for Hip Dysplasia may not develop the clinical disease if kept lean.Keeping a puppy lean throughout the period of development is key. Over feeding damages developing cartilage and growth plates, promotes bone disorders, premature closure of growth plates and weaker bone structure.

Puppy Needs Adequate But Appropriate Exercise for Normal Development
Big or small, all puppies need daily activity to maintain a healthy attitude and burn off excess energy and calories. However, the type of exercise provided to a puppy may be critical to the future quality of his life. Large and giant breeds take time to mature and while their body is undergoing this task their skeleton has a lot of "puppy" to uphold. In young growing pups, skeletal bones initially develop from cartilage which is gradually converted into hard bone. Good muscle tone is important to support the pup's framework during the process of ossification. Wild pups are kept close to home during the critical growth and development periods of their life. Pack and littermate interactions and playing with nature fulfills most of their daily exercise requirements until they have physically matured to hunt with the adult members.

While animal research has shown that low to moderate intensity exercise has a positive effect on bone development; high-intensity exercise may actually compromise bone development. Providing just the right amount of exercise can be challenging when you have a puppy that is highly active. Small breeds can obtain much of their "free" exercise requirements within the confines of the home and yard. Large breeds may need to be taken to a larger, safe area outside of the home or yard in order to provide sufficient free exercise that the puppy can initiate and end on his own. Daily exercise may involve the games that most young puppies instinctually know - chasing a bird or insect, wrestling with a favorite toy, playing tag or tug with humans or other canine family members, pouncing on leaves or ambushing a misplaced slipper. Providing an area outside to dig, gives a puppy the opportunity to exercise in a completely natural way. A large, meaty recreational bone is another way to provide natural exercise for a puppy's entire body and it also encourages proper development of the jaws and forefront. The action of ripping and pulling the meat from the bone is a satisfying workout that will leave a puppy happily tired.

Puppies can go on walks but if the walk is too long, muscles will tire, causing stress on developing bones. When heading out on a walk remember that your puppy has to be able to make the return trip home without tiring. Large and giant breeds should not receive excessive exercise. Road work including biking, jogging or treadmills, repeatedly running to fetch a ball or jumping exercises that are part of canine sports such as obedience or agility should not be undertaken until their second year when long bone growth has ended. Both large and small breed puppies should be discouraged from jumping off furniture, such as the sofa or from laps. The most important point to remember is that the puppy can stop activity when it wants. Inactivity such as extended crate or kennel time is just as unhealthy as over-exercising puppies. Normal appropriate activity helps to tone muscles and contributes to healthy skeletal development.


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The information on this website is not intended to replace Veterinary medical advice.