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Puppy Food vs. Adult Dog Food: What’s the Difference?

Dr. Karie Johnson, DVM
By Dr. Karie Johnson, DVM
Updated: 5/9/20242-4 minutes
beagle eating out of brown bowl

If a new puppy has joined your family (and stolen your heart), your life has no doubt changed in so many wonderful ways. If you think you’re experiencing a lot of changes, imagine the transformation your puppy will undergo during their first year!  

In addition to becoming a beloved member of a whole new “pack,” your puppy has the monumental task of developing into an adult dog—all in the space of a year (or possibly up to two years, depending on their breed).

Maybe your puppy looks like a miniature version of the adult they will become. Or maybe you have a large breed puppy who is already as big as a small breed dog. Even if your puppy looks or seems like an adult, make no mistake: they need a diet formulated for puppies to give them the start they need to grow into a healthy adult.

Puppy Nutrition—Extra Fuel for Growth

Unlike adult diets, which provide nutrition a dog’s body needs to maintain a healthy condition, puppy diets are formulated to both maintain health and fuel growth. In fact, according to Small Animal Clinical Nutrition 5th Edition, when puppies’ tiny bodies are undergoing massive growth after weaning, they use about half of their nutritional energy to support this development.

Do Puppies Need Special Food?

Why feed puppy food instead of adult dog food? For healthy growth, puppies need a diet complete and balanced for puppies. To meet their specific developmental goals, they need the right amounts of essential nutrients such as protein, fat, calcium, carbohydrates and DHA.

What’s the Difference Between Puppy Food and Adult Dog Food?

The biggest difference between a complete and balanced puppy food and a complete and balanced adult dog food is the nutritional purpose of each. That is, healthy maintenance and growth for puppies versus healthy maintenance only for adult dogs.

Supporting a puppy’s rapid growth and development requires some meaningful differences in formulas, including:

  • More protein in puppy formulas. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommends a minimum of 22.5% protein for dry puppy food. The recommended minimum for adult dog maintenance food, on the other hand, is 18%. 
  • More fat in puppy formulas. Puppy food does have more calories than dog food, because puppies need more calories to support growth. AAFCO recommends a minimum of 8.5% for dry puppy food versus only 5.5% for adult dog food.  
  • More calcium in puppy formulas. Growing teeth and bones need extra support. That’s why AAFCO recommends a minimum of 1.2% calcium in dry puppy food, versus 0.5% for adult dog food.  
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Puppies get DHA first from mother’s milk, then from quality puppy food. Fish oil is the usual source for this nutrient, which is important for brain and eye development. These benefits of DHA have been supported by numerous studies, including one published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association®, which showed that fortifying a diet with DHA can help improve cognitive and retinal functions in young dogs.

For these reasons and more you should give your puppy the advantages of a quality puppy food during their development, until it’s time to switch to adult food.

What Food is Recommended for Puppies?

You’ve now learned some reasons why puppies need different nutrition than adult dog food provides. So what should you feed your puppy?

Here are some things to look for:

Complete and Balanced for Puppies

When choosing a food for your puppy, look for a formula that is complete and balanced, and meets the AAFCO standards for quality puppy nutrition. Read the labels and look for the nutritional adequacy statement for this information.

A Quality Pet Food Brand

A way to make feeding puppies easier, at least in terms of a formula choice, is to focus on pet food companies that follow AAFCO guidelines and set high standards for ingredient and formula quality. Purina offers many quality puppy formula choices to nourish puppies of any size, from small to giant breed.

A Special Note About Large and Giant Breed Puppies

If your puppy is going to be living large, with an adult weight of 60 pounds or more, the veterinary nutrition experts, such as those at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, recommend a puppy food specifically formulated for large and giant breed dogs. By choosing a quality food like Purina® Pro Plan® Puppy Large Breed Chicken & Rice Formula, you can feel confident that you’re giving your puppy nutrition to support not only appropriate growth, but the health of their bones and joints as well.

A Food Made for Puppies Can Make All the Difference 

Puppies are not adult dogs just yet, but you can help yours grow into one. Choose a food formulated for puppies, with the nutrition they need to develop into a healthy adult dog, then feed it consistently until your puppy has fully graduated into adulthood. It’s a gift you can give them now that will benefit them for the rest of their life.

For more expert tips on feeding your puppy, explore our other puppy feeding articles. 

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