As babies develop, they transition from nutrient-rich liquids to soft foods to hard foods. But these are not discrete steps. They build on each other.
When it comes to dogs, are these transitions similar?
L.A. dog trainer Russell Hartstein points out, "Foods are created and designed to be fully balanced and complete for a specific life stage of a dog. A dog requires a different nutrient, vitamin, and mineral profile at different ages."
How and why should their food be transitioned as they move from one growth stage to the next? In this article, we will explain the differences in puppy and adult dog food, as well as when and how to transition between these stages.
Weaning and puppy food
As mammals, newborn puppies start out on a liquid diet of milk, usually provided by their mother, but sometimes in other forms. From there, "Puppies are typically introduced to solid food at six weeks of age while still nursing," explains Jim D Carlson, DVM CVA CVTP, owner and holistic veterinarian of Riverside Animal Clinic and Holistic Center. He adds, "This timing helps introduce proper intestinal microbes to transition to a solid food diet. The diet consists of dry puppy food moistened with milk replacement or wet puppy food in pouches or cans."
Additionally, puppy food has several other intentional benefits. "Puppy food is made to support rapid bone growth and body growth during your puppies first few months, explains dog trainer Marlene Kingston.
Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, serves on the advisory board for Pup Life Today. She explains a few examples of puppy food's special qualities. "For example," she says, "puppies should eat more protein, fat, and certain minerals and amino acids than should most adult dogs. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet has also been shown to promote healthy brain and eye development in young animals."
Not all puppies' needs are alike. In addition to different puppy and adult dog food options, some puppy foods are specifically designed to meet the needs of different sized dogs. Why?
Dr. Coates explains, "Large breed puppies have some extra considerations due to their increased risk of orthopedic problems like hip and elbow dysplasia. In comparison to "regular" puppy foods, large breed puppy foods are a little lower in fat, contain a little less calcium and phosphorus, and have a carefully balanced calcium to phosphorus ratio."
How do you know which is best for your dog?
Danel Grimmett, DVM, Sunset Veterinary Clinic advises, "Owners should ideally consult with their family veterinarian (not the breeder) regarding which puppy food is appropriate for their new baby, how much food they puppy needs each day, and when and how often to feed the new baby."
While pet parents can be overly concerned with their fur baby's food intake and health, "No puppy should ever be given any supplement without consulting a licensed veterinarian," cautions Dr. Grimmett. "Supplements can cause health problems ranging from digestive problems to life-threatening and debilitating orthopedic diseases."
The big switcheroo
"Puppies and adult dogs have different nutritional needs," says Dr. Coates. That's why their foods are formulated differently and the switch to another type of food is necessary. For example, "Puppy food has 22.5 percent protein. Most adult foods have between 18-25 percent protein," says Dr. Carlson. These differences are formulated for a reason.
When should you transition from puppy to adult dog food?
So, when should you make the switch? For this, we got a variety of answers from our experts:
- "As a general rule, dogs should be fed puppy food until they are anywhere between 9–24 months old. This large range is due to the differences in growing rates between breeds."
— Richard Cross, The Dog Clinic
- "The timeline to switch a puppy to adult food is dependent on the size and breed of the puppy. Some puppies need to remain on puppy food until they are a year old, while others may need to be switched to adult food by the age of 3 months."
— Grimmett, DVM
- "At one year of age, your puppy's growth plates have closed (some breeds take longer) and they are considered young adults, similar to human teenagers. It's time for them to transition to adult dog food."
— Carlson, DVM CVA CVTP
- "I recommend my patient to switch from puppy food to adult food around 6–12 months of age. The exact time depends on the size of the dog. The smaller dogs less than 25lbs I will switch around 6 months of age or right after there spay or neuter. Medium size dog 25 to 50 lbs I will switch around 8 months of age. The large to giant breed I switch to adult food around 1 year."
— Sara Ochoa, DVM, Veterinary Consultant for doglab.com
- "Bigger breeds usually take longer to reach physical maturity, so they should be fed puppy food for longer too. The largest dogs, such as Great Danes, may need to remain on puppy food until they are two years old. Smaller breeds, such as those that won't reach more than 20lbs in weight, typically need to be weaned onto adult food at around 9–12 months."
- "Make the switch from puppy food to adult food when dogs have reached their expected height (they'll still have some filling out to do). This occurs at different times based on a dog's size. For toy breeds, it may be as early as 10 months of age. For medium-sized dogs, 12 months is typical, while giant breeds can keep growing until they are 18 months old or more. Appropriate timing will also vary based on an individual dog's weight, activity level, and health, so ask your veterinarian for a precise recommendation."
— Coates, DVM
- "Puppies can be given adult dog food when they have reached approximately 80 percent of their expected adult size. Dog weight varies and this occurs at different times for different breeds. Extremely small dogs, for example, reaches this point at about 8–9 months. Medium-sized dogs, on the other hand, can consume puppy food until they are about 12 months old. Large or giant dog breeds take a longer time to reach maturity. You should switch to an adult dog food diet when your pet is anywhere from 18–24 months old."
— Madeleine Seah, Pet Lovers Centre
"Puppies are weaned ideally at 8–10 weeks of age and remain on the transition diet. The fastest growth rate occurs from weaning until 6–7 months of age. At this stage of development, puppies will have grown their main adult teeth but their molars can take another year to fully emerge. The puppies can then transition to a primarily solid dog food. Raw food diets may be introduced slowly at this time if preferred. Be sure to discuss transitioning to raw with your veterinarian."
— Carlson, DVM CVA CVTP
No wonder why it is so complicated. This ideal time to switch from puppy chow to pet food formulated for adult dogs isn't exactly on your dog's first birthday, just like it isn't for humans. Everyone, including dogs, grow, develop, and mature at different rates. Ideally, says Grimmett, pet owners should consult their veterinarian about "when to make a switch to adult food."
How should you shift your puppy to adult food?
The big switch to grown-up food can be trying on your dog's digestive system, so a cold-turkey approach is not advised. To get an idea of how this transition works, here is an example from Danielle Mühlenberg, a dog trainer with Pawleaks:
"I transitioned my Rottweiler from puppy food to a raw diet when she was six months old. I was feeding my dog a high protein ‘growth' food which should be transitioned earlier at about 6–12 months of age. A healthy raw diet was always my long term plan and with this diet, you have to be even more careful than just switching to adult food. A dog is naturally made to eat raw meat but a puppy that has been raised with commercial food is not used to this.
I slowly started sprinkling raw meat, organs, vegetables, or fruit over her daily meals and always monitored her well-being by checking the stool. Then I began to replace small amounts of puppy food (about 10 percent) with her new diet. Depending on how well your dog takes it, you can start with a smaller or larger amount. Gradually build up the replaced amount over time.
This transition can take a few days or a few weeks. I tried it really slowly so it took me about three weeks. A few days in, my puppy started vomiting. If this happens to your dog, it means that you have switched too fast and you should take a step back. She felt immediately better the day after that. Six months later, she loves her new food and is healthier than ever."
As you can see, helping your pup to transition to a new diet isn't exactly a picnic for both parties involved. We asked the experts for guidance and found that while all of them recommended a slow transition, there isn't an exact right answer. There are several techniques for gradually and safely transitioning your dog to a new diet. Here are a few examples:
- "When transitioning diets, expect to add one quarter of the pet's new food to the meal weekly. This gives the intestine time to adjust to the new diet and reduces the risk of transitional diarrhea and stomach upset."
— Carlson, DVM CVA CVTP
- "When switching dog foods, it is helpful to go slowly to prevent upset stomach and diarrhea. Change only 1/8th or so of your puppy's old food for their new food and monitor your puppies stool to see how they are digesting their new dog food."
— Hartstein, CDBC CPDT-KA
- "To help their digestive system adjust, we recommend combining the two dry foods in one bowl in order to wean your puppy off the food they are used to. This is an important transition in a dog's life because as they grow, they need more nutrients and calories as an adult dog than they would as a puppy."
— Shawn Hostetter, President, Keystone Puppies
- "When switching, it's important not to make an abrupt switch. Your puppy has been processing this puppy food all of their life so switching too fast can hurt their digestive system. I recommend starting with 10 percent adult food in their puppy food for a few days and then gradually increase by 10 percent every few days until the switch is complete."
- "Changes to a dog's diet should always be made slowly, regardless of the reason. Take a week or two to gradually mix in increasing amounts of the new food with decreasing amounts of the old. Revert to the old food and talk to your veterinarian if, at any time, your dog stops eating or develops vomiting or diarrhea."
— Coates, DVM
- "When switching to adult food, make sure you take into account your dog's metabolism and activity levels. Keep a close eye on your dog's weight and talk to your vet about his diet."
If we have learned anything from our panel of experts, it's that all dogs are different. They mature at different rates and transitioning techniques that will work for one dog may not work for another. As your fur baby is growing and maturing, be sure to check in with your veterinarian to make sure that you are feeding him the best diet possible.