The average puppy or kitten enters its new home between 7 and 9 weeks of age. During the subsequent months, your veterinary team stresses the importance of a strong nutritional foundation to help to support the growth and development of the patient throughout this demanding period.
Puppies and kittens are gradually weaned from the mother’s milk to solid food. Weaning usually occurs at weeks 5 to 7 for puppies and weeks 6 to 9 for kittens. This timing coincides with eruption of the deciduous teeth.
In cats and small to medium-sized dogs, adult body weight is reached between 9 and 10 months of age and skeletal maturity, between 9 and 12 months. Large- and giant-breed dogs continue to grow until age 18 months, reaching skeletal maturity between 18 and 24 months. For both dogs and cats, ages 3 to 6 months mark the period of most rapid growth.
Puppies and kittens have very special nutritional requirements compared to adults, including higher levels of protein and certain vitamins and minerals. Therefore, puppies and kittens require a diet that meets growth requirements until they are 1 year of age (18 months in giant-breed dogs).
1. A Balanced Diet Is Even More Important for Growing Animals than for Adults
All animals, regardless of age, need a balanced diet to thrive, but puppies and kittens are especially sensitive to nutritional imbalances.
One example is calcium, an essential dietary mineral that plays a critical role in bone development. In excess, calcium can cause a puppy to develop severe bone changes and orthopedic disease. Large and giant breed puppies are particularly sensitive to this. Adult dogs are better able to regulate calcium absorption when the diet is high in calcium.
2. Puppies Should Not Be Fed Adult Formula Food
Because they are sensitive to nutritional imbalances and their energy needs are greater, puppies should only be fed a growth formula diet.
Growth places the highest energy and nutrient demands than any other life stage on a dog or cat, apart from lactation. The energy needs of a puppy are two-fold: 1) support the tissues already developed and 2) provide the energy required to form new tissues.
Puppies use about 50 percent of their consumed energy for maintenance and 50 percent for new tissue development in the early growth phase. As the puppy gets older, the energy needed to support growth diminishes and proportionately shifts to support maintenance. Energy is provided by protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Thus, growth diets often provide a greater percentage of protein and fat to support growth than do adult maintenance diets. Growth diets also provide optimal amounts of calcium, phosphorus, copper, and essential fatty acids, which have an important role in bone formation and maturation, cartilage maturation, hair color, red blood cell development, and trainability.
3. Unchecked Growth Can Be Harmful to a Dog’s Bones
Feeding a puppy to maintain her ideal body condition promotes the optimal rate of bone development.
The adult weight and size of the animal is not impacted by whether the growth rate is rapid or slow, however, the risk of skeletal deformities increases with the rapidity of growth.
Determining a puppy’s body condition score (BCS) is a reliable way to determine normal growth rate. Body scoring helps you gauge if your dog is maintaining a healthy muscle mass and body fat index. It’s something you can practice at home, using your hands and visual observation. Ask us to show you how.
4. Young Animals Need Multiple Feeding Times to Thrive
Animals rely on reserves for energy in between meals. These energy reservoirs are stored glycogen in the liver or fat deposits throughout the body. Ketones produced by the breakdown of fat or amino acids from muscle can also provide energy. As young animals often have limited reserves and are at risk for the development of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), multiple meals offered throughout the day best averts the onset of lethargy, trembling, weakness, lack of coordination, and seizures.
Puppies should be offered at least three meals per day until they are 4-6 months old, and kittens younger than 6 months should also be fed more often.
This should be accompanied by close monitoring—with your veterinarian—of body weight, muscle condition, and BCS.
5. Nutritional Needs Differ by Breed Size
There are a few key differences in the nutrient needs of large breed puppies as compared to small- to medium sized breeds. Most of these focus on reducing the risk of developing orthopedic disease.
Although the development of musculoskeletal disorders is multi-factorial and a complicated disease process, it has been correlated nutritionally with calcium, phosphorus, the calcium-phosphorus ratio, vitamin D, and energy intake. Large breed growth diets contain a little less than 1 percent calcium and more than adequately meet the growing large breed puppies’ calcium requirement. Be sure to feed your large breed puppy one of these diets. Small- to medium-sized breeds are less sensitive to slightly overfeeding or underfeeding calcium, and as a result, the level of calcium in foods for these puppies have a broader margin of safety.
6. Feeding Methods are not One-Size-Fits-All
Pet parents have three options for feeding growing puppies and kittens: Free choice, which makes the food available 24/7 (like an all-day buffet); time-limited, where food is out for a set period of time; and amount-limited, where portions are pre-determined.
Each have their own benefits and drawbacks and what is right for one animal may not be the best option for another. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you have a discussion with your veterinarian about the best feeding option for your growing pet.