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Puppy Food vs Adult Food: What’s The Difference?

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When you get a new puppy, you tend to fall in love right away and want to do everything possible to give them the best start in life.

This often means giving them the best food, since quality nutrition helps puppies grow and flourish. But you might be surprised to see that puppy food is quite a bit more expensive than adult dog food.

You wouldn’t be alone in asking what the difference is between puppy food vs adult food.

Though they seem similar at a glance, puppy and adult foods are actually formulated very differently.

Puppy Food vs Adult Food

While all dogs eat fundamentally the same things, growing puppies, just like growing children, need specific nutrients to help them form new muscle, strengthen their rapidly growing bones, develop eyesight and cognitive function, and more.

In this article, I’m going to take you through what exactly the differences are between puppy food vs adult dog food, why those differences matter, and my recommendations for the best food to feed your puppy.

DISCLAIMER: We are not veterinarians. This article is for entertainment purposes only. If you have questions about dog or puppy food please contact your canine nutritionist or veterinarian.

Dog Food Fundamentals

All dog food should have the same basic composition. It should start with good quality meat as a source of protein, fat, and energy and also have a decent amount of fruits and vegetables to provide many of the other nutrients that dogs need. 

Most dog foods will then probably have some grains to help them feel filling and satisfying to eat and be reinforced with a “nutrient pack” containing additional vitamins and minerals just to make sure your dog really is getting everything they need to stay healthy.

Dry vs. Wet Dog Food

Additionally, wet dog food and dry dog food aren’t actually as different as they might seem at first glance.

Wet dog food starts with grinding the protein source and then involves adding a gravy that contains additional vitamins and minerals as well as some grains. This is then all cooked up and sterilized and preserved, usually in cans.

Dry dog food, on the other hand, also starts with the ground protein, to which will be added ground fruits, vegetables, and grains.

This is all pulverized into a consistent dough, which is then cooked and shaped into kibble. The dry kibble is sprayed with fats, oils, vitamins, and minerals before being packaged.

Both types of foods offer more or less the same nutritional value. But wet foods tend to be more tempting for fussy eaters, and they can provide a lot of moisture for dogs that aren’t fans of drinking water.

Wet foods also tend to be more satisfying, so they can be good for dogs on a diet.

Comparatively, dry foods are easier to manage and don’t spoil if they are left out for your dog to eat. They tend to be cheaper, and chewing them actually tends to be great for your dog’s dental health.

We don’t necessarily recommend one formulation over the other; it mainly depends on your dog and your lifestyle.

A combination of the two often works well, for example, maybe offering a wet food when you know your dog is most hungry in the morning, and then making dry food available for the rest of the day. 

However, when you are doing this, it is important to keep a close eye on exactly how many calories your dog is consuming.

How To Identify High-Quality Dog Food

To identify a high-quality dog food of any type, look at the ingredients list. Keep these criteria in mind when deciding on the best food for your dog.

  • It should have a named meat, such as lamb or deboned chicken, like the first, most important ingredient. 
  • It can then contain meat meals or animal by-products, which are ground meats made from everything left over from the butchering process. This includes organs, bones, skin, and more. Organ meat in particular contains lots of nutrients. But the meal or product should be of a named, specific animal and not just a generic mix of unknown meats.
  • Avoid foods with any artificial additives, especially colors and flavors. While these might make the food seem more appetizing to you, your dog doesn’t need them, and many additives can trigger allergies, especially in young dogs.
  • It is also a good idea to choose foods made in countries with strict food-safety protocols, such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Western Europe.

If you tick all these boxes while making a selection, you are probably looking at high-quality dog food.

Some people choose to go grain-free, but the vast majority of dogs don’t have a problem with grains. As long as there is plenty of meaty protein in the mix, the grains won’t do your dog any harm.

Puppy Food vs Adult Food: What’s The Difference?

Now that we know what quality dog food should generally look and taste like, we can move on to the differences between puppy food and food for adult dogs specifically.

Calorie Content

The most notable difference between these two types of dog food is that puppy food is much higher in calories, specifically in the form of proteins and fats. This is because puppies need a lot of energy.

Not only is it hard work exploring the world on little legs, but they are growing rapidly and maturing every day, and they need the energy to fuel that growth. 

In addition to this, puppies also burn more energy just keeping their bodies warm, as they have not yet learned to regulate their body temperature in a more efficient way than adult dogs do.

So, while a good adult dog food probably has less than 400 calories per cup, puppy foods are much more calorie-dense with around 450 to 500 calories per cup.

These calories mainly come from protein and fat, which should make up a large portion of the food’s total recipe.

As a general rule, vets say that adult dogs need to get about 18% of their calories from protein, while puppies should get 22.5%. You will probably notice that adult dog foods have 20-25% protein, while puppy foods will have between 30-40% protein.

Fat Content

Puppy foods also often have a lot more fat, sometimes as high as 20%, while most adult dog foods have less than 10% fat.

Because of this large difference in fat content, if you give an adult dog puppy food, they will probably become overweight pretty quickly.

Alternatively, if you give a puppy dog food formulated for adults, they will probably not have the energy they need to grow and thrive.

Other Vitamins And Nutrients

Of course, puppy food composition is not just about energy. Because puppies are building their bodies pretty much from scratch, they need a lot of specific amino acids to create muscle and tissue.

These amino acids are principally found in meat proteins, which is another reason why protein needs to be such a big part of a puppy’s diet.

Specifically, the amino acids puppies need include: 

  • Arginine 
  • Histidine 
  • Isoleucine 
  • Leucine 
  • Phenylalanine 
  • Phenylalanine-tyrosine 
  • Thereorine

Puppies need to ingest about twice as much of these amino acids as adult dogs. If adult dogs eat foods too high in these acids, they can develop high cholesterol and heart problems.

Puppies also need to continue consuming lots of DHA, which is a fatty acid found naturally in mother’s milk. It is usually added to puppy foods through fish oils. This is essential for cognitive development and eyesight.

Next, puppies’ growing bones also need lots of calcium and phosphorus. While adult dogs only need about 0.6% calcium in their diet, puppies need at least 1%. Similarly, while adult dogs need just 0.5% phosphorus, puppies need at least 0.8%.

With all of this in mind, it is not hard to see why puppy food is more expensive. The particular ingredients puppies need more of are the most expensive ingredients in the recipe, specifically meat and fish oils.

Best Puppy Foods

Now that we know what makes good puppy food and why you should be feeding it to your growing dog, where do you find good puppy food?

Below are my top three recommendations for kibble for puppies. This can be fed to them exclusively or in combination with almost any decent wet dog food.

1. Blue Buffalo Baby Blue Health Growth Formula Grain-Free High Protein Chicken Pea Recipe Puppy Dry Food

Blue Buffalo offers excellent high-protein food for puppies that does not go overboard on the fat. You can expect their puppy recipes to have 36% percent crude protein and 16% pure fat. 

While they have a few different recipes, we like this one that starts with deboned chicken as its first ingredient, reinforced with chicken meal and chicken fat to give growing puppies all the protein-based nutrients they need.

The recipe also uses menhaden fish meal and fish oil to give your puppy the DHA they need, and it contains 1.2% calcium and 1% phosphorus.

Finally, the recipe is reinforced with a nutrient pack full of vitamins and minerals to boost your dog’s immune system and overall health, and there is nothing artificial added that might irritate their sensitive digestive systems.

Each cup gives a nice 450-calorie energy boost.

Quick Facts:

  • Recipe based on deboned chicken as the first ingredient
  • 36% protein and 16% fat
  • DHA from fish oils
  • Nutrient pack with generous amounts of calcium and phosphorus
  • 450 calories per cup

2. Wellness CORE Wholesome Grains High Protein Dry Dog Food

This recipe from Wellness CORE is another chicken-based recipe, starting with deboned chicken, that ticks all the boxes for puppies. The chicken base is reinforced with chicken meal, turkey meal, and chicken fat to make a 36% protein and 17% fat recipe.

DHA is added with salmon oil, and the nutrient pack contains 2.2% calcium and 1.4% phosphorus. This makes Wellness CORE a good choice for larger dogs that tend to grow quickly and need extra calcium to ensure their bone health.

Overall, the recipe is energy-rich, with 457 calories per cup. It’s the perfect formulation to keep your puppy powering through each adventurous day.

Quick Facts:

  • Recipe based on deboned chicken as the first ingredient
  • 36% protein and 17% fat
  • DHA from salmon oils
  • Very high in calcium and phosphorus
  • 457 calories per cup

3. Purina Pro Plan High Protein DHA Lamb Rice Formula Puppy Food

Our final top-choice recipe is based on lamb as the first ingredient, but extra protein is added through chicken by-product meal and beef fat. This high-protein recipe ultimately delivers 28% protein and 18% fat.

Fish meal and fish oil are used as a source of DHA, and the whole recipe is reinforced with a nutrient pack that delivers 1.1% calcium and 0.9% phosphorus. It is balanced to contain everything vets recommend for growing puppies.

This puppy food uses a high-energy recipe with 447 calories per cup, and there is nothing artificial added. However, it is fortified with live probiotics to help establish your puppy’s gut health from the outset.

Quick Facts:

  • Recipe based on lab with chicken meal and beef fat
  • 28% protein and 18% fat
  • DHA from fish oil
  • Reinforced with probiotics
  • 447 calories per cup

When To Switch From Puppy Food To Adult Food

It is clear why puppies need special food and why it is not such a good idea to give the same food to adult dogs unless they are very active working dogs who burn a lot of calories each day. But when exactly do you make the transition?

The best advice is to start moving your dog from puppy to adult food when they reach about 80% of their predicted full size. This differs depending on the dog breed.

As a very general rule, smaller dogs reach maturity faster and are usually already fully grown by one year. Larger dogs need more time and may take 2 to 3 years to reach their full size. Still, every breed is different, and you should research your dog’s specific breed.

When you do make the change, don’t abruptly switch them from one food to another. Dogs don’t tend to like sudden changes in their diet in general, and the change in the composition of their diet can upset their equilibrium.

Gradually mix their food, starting with 80% puppy food and 20% adult food, slowly moving towards only adult dog food over a period of about a month.

Monitor your dog throughout this period to make sure their energy levels stay consistent. It is also a good idea to stay in close contact with your vet during this vital stage in their lives.

FAQs: Feeding Puppies

Should you worry about a puppy eating an older dog’s food?

While puppies and adult dogs generally should each eat the food that is specifically designed for them, if your puppy happens to eat a bowl of adult dog food, it is not going to do them any real harm.

It’s not toxic; it just doesn’t have the nutrients they need. As a result, one bowl shouldn’t make any difference to them.

Of course, you would not want this to become a common occurrence, not least because stealing the food of other dogs is rather rude behavior. Consider how you can train your dog to only eat food from their own bowl or perhaps change when you offer it to them.

When can puppies start eating puppy food?

You can start to wean puppies off mother’s milk and move on to puppy food from about four weeks old. Initially, if they are eating kibble, you may need to crush it and add some water to help them to chew and swallow the food.

Do puppies need milk?

Puppies benefit from drinking mother’s milk or a milk replacement until they are about 12 weeks old. But after this, they don’t need milk and should be drinking only water.

How many times a day should a puppy eat?

Puppies have small stomachs yet rapid metabolisms, so they should have small meals on a regular basis.

They should eat 3 to 4 times a day until they are about 4 to 5 months old. From there, you can lower this to two times a day over time. As adult dogs, they should only need to eat twice a day.

The Verdict

While puppy food and food for adult dogs might look the same at a glance, there are important differences between the two.

Puppies need lots of energy to grow as well as specific nutrients as their bones and muscles are developing. They won’t get what nutrition they need from adult food. 

Meanwhile, puppy food can be too rich and calorie-dense for many adult dogs, leading them to put on weight or develop other problems such as high cholesterol.

In short, always feed puppies food designed for puppies, and feed adult dogs food designed for adults.

You will also probably need to change their diet again if your dog gets pregnant, as gestational dogs need the same extra energy as growing pups. Senior dogs need different food yet again as their energy levels decrease and metabolism slows.

You will always give your dog the best chance of thriving if you give them the right food for their particular life stage.

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Puppy Food vs Adult Food: What's The Difference? - yellow puppies around a bowl of kibble

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