Support Your Puppy's Growth With Proper Nutrition

When Daisy Lehman of Cleveland brought home her pug puppy last summer, it was with explicit feeding instructions from the breeder. “He told me to transition slowly from the food he’d been giving her to the puppy formula I was planning to give her,” says Lehman. The advice was sound, but Lehman was still not sure what this new puppy food should be.

“Puppies have different nutritional needs than adult and senior dogs,” says Katy Nelson, DVM, a Virginia-based emergency veterinarian. “They need a food specifically formulated for young dogs. They also have size-specific needs.” Small breeds need more protein and calories. Large-breed puppies must have less of both to avoid joint and bone problems as they grow. Below, Nelson offers more advice on what you should look for when choosing a commercial puppy formula for your young best friend.

Prebiotics
Prebiotics are nondigestible ingredients (oligosaccharides) that work in the digestive system to help good bacteria thrive and multiply. This is important because good bacteria help with digestion. Without them, the body loses nutrients and ends up with gastrointestinal tract irregularity. “We see it all the time in dogs, particularly puppies, because their immune systems aren’t sturdy,” says Dr. Nelson.

Prebiotics are especially important in pups because they are naturally nervous critters. Events like thunderstorms, vacuuming, or mom and dad going out of town cause quite a lot of stress. This leads to the release of cortisol, which changes bacteria in the system. Prebiotics help to balance out your puppy’s system, promoting the good bacteria over the bad.

Fish Oil
Plan on teaching your new dog old tricks? A food containing fish oil, which is naturally rich in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) may make your task easier. Numerous studies show that when pregnant and nursing mothers take DHA, their puppies are more trainable. “It’s brain food,” says Dr. Nelson.

Fish oil also helps keep a puppy’s skin and coat healthy. Additionally, it benefits the joints and GI tract by reducing inflammation. “It helps with all body systems,” she explains. “I don’t think we’ve reached the tip of the iceberg in understanding its benefits.”

Antioxidants
Antioxidants are substances thought to protect cells against the effects of disease-causing free radicals. These free radicals are produced when food is broken down and when there is environmental exposure to toxins. Free radicals likely play a role in health problems such as heart disease and cancer, among others. Puppies who take in antioxidants through food are less likely to have growth abnormalities and are generally healthier in the long run.

High-quality Protein
Protein helps puppies to maintain skin and coat health as well as lean muscle mass, but the jury is still out on what constitutes “high quality.” Puppies need a good-quality protein source, whether human grade or directly below. There’s a bad feeling about byproduct meal in the world, but as long as it’s quality-refined, it’s not actually a bad thing. Skin, liver and spleen are nutritious.

Vitamins and Nutrients
Like human infants, puppies have specific nutrient needs. Calcium and phosphorus need to be in proper balance so that bone development is healthy. The same is true for amino acids and vitamins. Look for a commercial food that has been certified “complete and balanced” by AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), the FDA of pet foods.

Following her own veterinarian’s advice, similar to Dr. Nelson’s, Daisy Lehman ultimately chose for her pug’s first year a complete and balanced puppy food formulated specially for toy breeds. She’s happy to report that her flat-faced friend has grown into an energetic and healthy pooch that’s now nearing doggie adulthood.

Food Allergies Can Dog Canines Too

The expression “eat like a dog” comes from the canines’ reputation for gulping down meals of all sorts in a matter of seconds. Their indiscriminate palate, however, isn’t helping their health, and veterinarians are noticing a rise in the number of dogs with food allergies.

“It certainly seems like we’re seeing more dogs with food allergies, similarly to humans,” says Mona Boord, DVM, co-owner of the Animal Dermatology Clinic in San Diego.

Signs of a Food Allergy
Veterinarians caution that there are two types of issues your dog may have with foods.

  • Food intolerance The most common problem is food intolerance, or food sensitivity, which means your dog isn’t digesting a particular type of food well. Food intolerance is a non-immunologic response that can trigger such symptoms as gassiness, vomiting, diarrhea and borborygmus -- also known as stomach growling -- according to Korrin Saker, DMV, associate professor of clinical nutrition at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
  • Food allergy More immediate reactions from a dog’s immune system to an offending food are food allergies. Symptoms may include intestinal distress but typically will also involve itching around the muzzle, ears, paws and sometimes around the anus. The reason itchiness occurs in these places is probably because canines have more mast cells -- which contain histamines and play a key role in the inflammatory process -- in these locations.


Dog Food Allergy Culprits

A host of ingredients go into many commercial dog foods today. Most pets are fine and thrive on those foods, but a small percentage may be allergic to certain ingredients. Figuring out which ingredient is important to treating an allergic condition.

“It is often a protein source, such as chicken or beef, but it can include a carbohydrate, such as wheat, and in very rare cases corn,” Dr Saker says. 

Dogs can also be allergic to other ingredients, such as preservatives or additives. “I’ve seen dogs that were allergic to peanut butter and tomatoes,” Dr. Boord says. Peanut butter is sometimes an ingredient in dog biscuits, while tomato paste may be an ingredient in dry foods.

Veterinarians used to prescribe a diet based on lamb and rice for dogs with allergic reactions, but even those ingredients have become more common today and might be the source of an allergen. It’s less likely with rice but more so with lamb, experts say.

Treatments for Food Allergies
There are several treatment options for dogs taken to a veterinarian with symptoms of a food allergy:

  • Rule out other ailments The first cause of attack is to make sure that the problems aren’t being caused by something else. An intestinal parasite, for example, can cause similar symptoms. Dogs may also scratch themselves so much that they develop secondary infections. Itchiness can additionally develop as a result of allergies to environmental factors, including mold spores, pollens and cleaners, says Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
  • Elimination diet Once other ailments are ruled out, veterinarians will ask you to chronicle your dog’s food history. Since common proteins like chicken and beef are frequent sources of food allergies, veterinarians will often advise that you look for foods with a “novel protein source” -- something they don’t normally eat.
  • Hypoallergenic foods An assortment of commercial foods is now made for dogs with food allergies. Veterinarians advise that you look for foods with one source of protein and one source of carbohydrates -- both of which should be “novel” for your pet. Kangaroo meat is one such “novel” protein, while potatoes or oats are examples of “novel” carbohydrates. In addition, a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and itching.
  • Medicines Lastly, there is a series of medicines that can help your dog deal with food allergies. Dogs can be given allergy shots to help build up tolerance to a food, Dr. Wakshlag says. In addition, small doses of steroids can be used to make the itchiness more tolerable for your dog. There are also immune suppressive therapies, such as cyclosporine, that can help in treatment.


If your dog shows signs of food allergies, don’t delay. The best recipe for success in treating your pet is to take it to your veterinarian to find the cause of the distress. With quality commercial foods now available that specifically address such problems, your dog will likely be eating its way back to good health in no time.

Seven Indicators of Dog Food Quality

The best evidence that you’ve chosen the right dog food is your dog itself. Your furry pal’s inward and outward appearance is tangible, visible proof that you’re dishing up a food that meets its nutritional needs.

While other factors can also affect your pup’s health and behavior, making sure your dog eats properly is fundamental to its well-being. Fortunately, there are a number of ways your dog reflects your chow choice, say experts. Here are seven signs your dog is thriving on well-balanced, nutritious dog food:

  1. A shiny coat and healthy skin If your dog has a dull, dry and brittle coat with flaking skin, diet could be to blame, says Dr. Bart Iaia, DVM, who practices in Renton, Wash. Look for omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in dog food, says Dr. Iaia. Your pet needs these essential fats. Flaky skin could be a sign of a zinc deficiency, a problem with home-cooked diets.
  1. A healthy digestive system Poop is more than the stuff you, ever the responsible dog owner, scoop on a regular basis. Poop matters, say Dr. Iaia and Dr. Laird Goodman, DVM, a Beaverton, Ore., veterinarian who is on the board of directors for the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association. “You want good stools -- firm, but not dry, and not loose,” advises Dr. Goodman. Note how often your dog poops as well, says Dr. Iaia. If your dog poops more than twice a day, that’s an indication your pal’s food might not contain enough protein in forms it can use. You can be reassured if your dog’s food has “complete and balanced” on the label.
  1. A resilient immune system Vitamin E and antioxidants will help your dog stave off illness, building its immune system, says Dr. Iaia. Veterinary research has found that a diet rich in antioxidants, such as beta-carotene, improves immune system responses. This is particularly important as your dog ages, since a dog’s ability to fight illnesses weakens as it grows older.
  1. Strong bones and joints Calcium and vitamin D make for strong bones in your dog, just as they do for you. Dog owners who simply feed their dog meat, rather than a well-balanced commercial food, run the risk of their pet suffering soft bones, resulting in fractures, experts say. A well-balanced dog food will include all such essential nutrients.

A veterinarian can use X-rays to evaluate your dog’s bone density if a problem is suspected, says Dr. Korinn E. Saker, DVM, Ph.D., diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and a clinical nutritionist at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. X-rays can also detect hairline fractures and other “less obvious” health problems caused by poor nutrition, such as urinary tract stones, adds Dr. Saker.

  1. Healthy teeth and gums Your dog’s teeth should be strong and white, with healthy, pink gums covering the roots. If you notice a reddening of the gums, a buildup of tartar on the teeth or bad breath, it can indicate dental problems, says Dr. Iaia. Some dry foods and dog treats are designed to slow the progress of dental disease, so look for products that specifically mention dental care or tartar-fighting properties.
  2. Strong muscles Hourglass figures aren’t just for movie stars. Your dog should maintain good muscle tone, with an hourglass shape when viewed from above, says Dr. Saker. “Obese dogs have lost the tucked up appearance just after the ribcage, when viewed from the side,” she says. You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs but not see them. If your dog is eating a lot but looks too thin, you’re probably not feeding a high-quality dog food, says Dr. Iaia.
  3. A healthy heart A well-balanced, complete dog food will include protein, calcium, amino acids, fatty acids, potassium and sodium to promote heart health. Your veterinarian can evaluate your dog’s heart health through regular checkups, and if needed, blood work.

Seven could be your dog’s lucky number, in terms of future health, if it exhibits these positive signs. Dr. Goodman advises that you should avoid feeding your dog table scrap handouts, along with too many treat snacks. Instead, stick to a quality diet that both you and your dog can count on. And don’t be afraid to discuss the matter with your veterinarian, who may be able to provide additional nutrition-related advice. Dr. Goodman suggests, “Take the label from your food to the veterinarian to have a better understanding of what you’re providing your dog.”

Why All Proteins Aren't the Same

Veterinarian Trisha Joyce, DVM, of New York City Veterinary Specialists, has seen the consequences of canine protein deprivation. Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Joyce headed to New Orleans to volunteer her time providing care for animals impacted by the storm. “The dog was like a skeleton with skin on it,” she recalls. “Without the normal amount of protein, the body just begins to break down. The poor animal could barely walk.”

As Dr. Joyce and her colleagues set out to put meat back on the beagle’s bones, it was protein that played a major part in returning the pooch to its fighting weight. Below, Dr. Joyce weighs in on the importance of protein and what kinds your dog needs to stay healthy.

Why Protein?
Dogs evolved from wolves in the wild, surviving primarily on a diet of other animals. Their digestive systems learned to utilize meat, fat and bones. This diet provided them with amino acids, the building blocks of protein they needed and could only get from animal food sources. They came to rely on these amino acids to build, maintain and repair their bodies -- from skin to muscle tissue. But not just any protein will do. “Like humans, dogs need a variety of amino acids, and not all proteins contain them,” says Dr. Joyce.

Animal vs. Plant Protein
Dogs are omnivorous, meaning they are able to make use of the nutrients in both plant and animal sources. However, plant protein alone does not supply the amino acid balances they need to thrive. “For dogs,” says Dr. Joyce, “vegetable protein is definitely inferior to animal protein.”

While protein in commercial dog foods comes from both meat and plant sources, the most nutritious dog food will have a high-quality animal protein listed as one of its first (if not the first) ingredient. “Higher-quality animal protein is more easily used by the body,” explains Dr. Joyce.

Types of High-quality Protein
Meats and meat byproducts provide high-quality protein for dogs. Byproducts -- which include blood, internal organs and bones -- might not sound appetizing to a human palate but were a necessity for canines in the wild. Before becoming companion animals to humans who fed them promptly and nutritiously every morning, these dogs could not afford to leave any part of their prey uneaten. Their bodies came to rely on the whole animal as a nutrition source.

How to Identify a High-quality Protein Food
This will only take a minute but may require that you put on your reading glasses. As mentioned above, the first ingredient listed on your furry friend’s food bag should be a specifically identified high-quality protein source. “The label should specify which animal the protein comes from -- for example, chicken or beef,” says Dr. Joyce. So any variation on, say, chicken is acceptable (for example, chicken meal or chicken byproduct meal).

Protein Dos and Don’ts

  • Do feed your normal-weight dog a commercial food that contains high-quality protein like chicken, chicken meal or chicken byproduct meal.
  • Do consult your veterinarian about the special dietary needs of your pet at all life stages.
  • Don’t feed your dog table scraps. Your pet’s protein needs should be satisfied during mealtime. Any extras may lead to stomach problems and weight gain.
  • Don’t give your dog protein supplements (unless your veterinarian recommends them).

With a diet rich in high-quality protein, your dog will maintain muscle mass as it ages and be more likely to experience long-term health and well-being -- just like Dr. Joyce’s once anorexic beagle. Dr. Joyce reports that it is now living in Florida, fat and happy with its lucky new family.

Can Dog Food Protect Your Pet?

When Jerome Kogan’s eight-year-old pug, Grady, begs for her dinner, it’s probably not because she’s concerned about her health. “Grady starts asking for dinner about 3 o’clock every afternoon,” says the 39-year-old resident of New York City. “I try to hold off until 4, though sometimes her incessant whining gets to me, and I feed her earlier. She just really loves to eat.”

Kogan is certainly aware that Grady’s dinner satisfies her, if only for a few hours. He concedes that she is, after all, a pug. What he is less aware of is that Grady’s vittles are the product of years, if not decades, of research on canine nutrition.

“The pet food industry is 150 years old, and it’s come a long way,” says Duane Ekedahl, president of the Washington D.C.-based Pet Food Institute. “In the past -- say forty years ago -- there was no emphasis on nutrition, but that’s changed dramatically. Today’s dogs are living longer, healthier lives partly because of advances in veterinary care but also because of better nutrition.”

Eating Right the Dog Way
Like the average healthy human, the average healthy dog has to eat right to stay that way. According to Ekedahl, it’s easier for dogs to do that now. “Dog foods have evolved into very complex products,” he says. Many of the products he refers to address common canine health maintenance issues, such as immune system functioning and joint maintenance. “A variety of today’s products meet a variety of health needs. Some tackle a host of issues in one fell swoop.”

Simply feeding a dog these days can be a preventative health measure. Today, thanks to nutrition research, you can attempt to stave off the most run-of-the-mill doggie issues. And while you never want to feed a dog a medical diet for conditions it’s not been diagnosed with (e.g., kidney problems or weight issues), a diet based on ideas of health maintenance may be a beneficial option.

Edible Protection for Your Pet
Step No. 1 in preventative health: shoring up your dog’s immune system. “Oxidative stress can have negative impacts on the immune system, so adequate antioxidant defense is important,” says Dr. Sally Perea, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist in Davis, Calif. “Antioxidants, such as vitamin E and vitamin C, help defend the body from free radical, oxidative damage.” Beta carotene, an organic compound in certain foods that enhances your dog’s ability to respond to vaccinations, also makes good immune system sense.

Equally important to your pet’s quality of life are its joints. Arthritis commonly occurs across many breeds as dogs age, changing the structure and function of the connective tissue that covers their bones at their knees and hips. Foods that contain natural sources of the compounds glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate today can help prevent arthritis from developing tomorrow. Studies suggest they decrease the activity of enzymes that can break down cartilage in your dog’s joints. Helping your dog maintain a steady weight, by feeding it quality foods following recommended servings, also supports joint and overall bone health.

Nourish Your Dog’s Coat and Mind
You’re not the only one who can have bad skin and hair days. For canines, as for humans, skin and hair health reflect overall well-being. To grow and maintain healthy skin and fur, dogs need fatty acids. “Dogs have an essential requirement for linolenic [Omega-6] acid. Recent recommendations by the National Research Council also suggest that alpha-linolenic [Omega-3] acids be included in the diet, especially for reproducing dogs and puppies, because they’re important for brain and retinal development,” says Dr. Perea. Look for foods that contain flaxseed and fish oil to ensure your dog gets both types of fat.

Proper Doggie Digestion
Finally, your dog’s entire digestive system could use some protection. This starts with its teeth. Kibble fortified with sodium hexametaphosphate, also found in some toothpastes, fights tartar. And to keep things moving along, Fructooligosaccharides (or FOS) come to the rescue. Says Perea, “FOS is a type of nondigestible carbohydrate, and it produces fatty acids that provide energy to the large intestinal mucosal (dog mucous membrane). Basically, they promote large intestinal health.”

Living in the present, you and your dog can take advantage of what nutritionists and researchers have learned in the past, ensuring your dog’s health and happiness in the future. And that, as Ekedahl says, is the bottom line.