Overindulging a puppy is not a kindness


Owners have a major part to play in the development of their puppy. The growth period is the most critical in the puppy’s life, impacting on everything that follows. The period following weaning, which is when the puppy is most likely to find itself in new surroundings, is the most intense the puppy will experience and as such it is a time of high pathological risk. In this period, the puppy needs to meet its nutritional needs, it needs to be vaccinated and it needs to develop the right behaviour.

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A crucial period

This growth period is characterised by various demands:

• Growth itself: weight gain, gain in size and speed of growth (weight gain per unit of time).

• Acquisition of the conformation and the various characteristics of the adult. This is related to the speed of development, enabling the adult stage to be reached more or less quickly depending on the puppy’s eventual adult size.

The start of this period is also a time when the puppy is separated from its mother for good and given a new home by a new owner, which involves important changes in terms of feeding, lifestyle and emotional relationships.

Small, medium, large or giant in adulthood, puppies grow at different rates

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Although they are all members of the same species, different dog breeds can be poles apart in terms of size and weight (from Chihuahuas to Great Danes) and nutritional requirements. These differences really come to the fore during the growth period.

Puppies are not all at the same stage of development when they are born.

A puppy’s birth weight depends on the size of the parents. A Great Dane puppy weighs in at about 600 g, while a Chihuahua puppy hits the scales at just 90 g. No surprise there, then.

But comparing these weights to the mother’s weight, it becomes clear that the giant-breed puppy weighs around 1% of its mother’s weight, while the small-breed puppy weighs just over 6% of its mother’s weight. The giant breed is thus at an earlier stage of development. Small breeds are considered to mature early and large breeds to mature late. This means that the puppies are weaned and adopted at different stages in their growth, which clearly shows that the size of the breed has a major influence on how its growth should be managed, from the moment it is born.

Large breeds grow faster and longer


Puppies do not grow in linear fashion. Their daily weight gain varies with time.


Puppies do not grow in linear fashion. Their daily weight gain varies with time, rising after birth to reach a plateau of variable duration before falling as the animal approaches maturity (adult age and weight).

These reference curves show that at birth and during weaning small breed dogs, which combine slow growth and very early development, are already well developed in terms of weight and size compared with their expected adult weight. The growth-related risks will therefore be different during the period of adoption until adulthood: bone growth will be almost complete in small dogs, so dietary mistakes will have less impact on the skeleton. On the other hand, large-breed dogs will be more sensitive to the risk of developing a bone or joint disease, as they will continue growing for several months.

For example, a small-breed dog reaches 50% of its adult weight within about 3 months, while a large-breed dog takes 5-6 months to do the same. A Poodle takes 8 months to reach its adult weight, by which time it is 20 times its birth weight. But a Newfoundland does not stop growing until anywhere between 18 and 24 months, by which time it is 100 times its birth weight.

A puppy’s growth is differentiated: not all tissues develop at the same speed


The tissues do not develop at the same speed in the body during the growth phase. Bone tissue grows fastest, causing the puppy’s stature to grow quickly in the first few weeks of adoption, which will certainly be noticed by owners. Muscle mass will grow more slowly than bone, which is why large-breed dogs look thin when they are young. The muscles develop strongly during puberty under the influence of the sexual hormones. This is important to remember, because it explains the different risks during growth of small and large dogs. Excessive weight gain should be avoided as it increases the risk of the immature skeleton being deformed. A large-breed dog needs to grow relatively slowly. A slightly restricted diet will slow down growth without affecting the final size of the animal. Large dogs therefore need a specially formulated food that supports longer, more tempered growth. The main concern for small-breed dogs, whose growth is much more advanced and slows rapidly, is not the skeleton but obesity.

The puppy’s specific nutritional needs based on its size

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Generally speaking, the formulation of a puppy’s food must take account of:

• the variety of breeds and growth curves

• the ability to properly digest the food, which can sometimes lead to digestive intolerance to well-balanced foods.


A dog takes energy from the food it consumes.”


A dog takes energy from the food it consumes. This energy is first and foremost used to maintain its tissues and carry out its vital functions (breathing, heart beats). This is referred to as the basic energy requirement. Puppies also need energy to grow and to play. This is referred to as the maintenance energy requirement. If the dog takes in more energy than it expends, it will store the excess in its adipocytes, which are specialised fat storage cells. Dogs are capable of storing fat in this way at any stage of their life.

Whatever the puppy’s breed or size, it always has greater energy and nutrient requirements than an adult per kilogram of body weight. It needs energy for maintenance but also for making new tissue (bone, muscle, blood, skin, hair), which makes it bigger. Its protein, mineral and vitamin requirements are also greater than an adult’s, so it is not possible to feed a puppy food formulated for an adult without risk.

Puppy food must contain a high protein content, even more so in the case of large breeds (more than 30% by dry matter of the food for small breeds, 37-38% for large breeds), and it is essential that the protein is a high quality one.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Young dogs are much more sensitive to insufficient protein intake than adults. Protein deficiency can lead to stunted growth, an irreversible conformation disorder, anaemia, a fall in blood proteins and antibody deficiency resulting in a much higher susceptibility to disease. These are all situations that compromise the dog’s life.

Calcium and phosphorus intake must be rigorously controlled to prevent serious bone disease (nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism), which is the non-mineralisation of the skeleton. This is a familiar disorder among puppies fed exclusively with meat or a home-prepared ration without mineral supplementation. Furthermore, large-breed puppies are more sensitive to excessive calcium intake than small breeds. So, unless the veterinarian recommends it, supplementing calcium or any other mineral or vitamin can lead to serious bone disease. Complete puppy foods factor in specific growth requirements and particular sensitivities based on the size of the animal. A food must contain between 1.3% and 1.6% calcium and between 1% and 1.3% phosphorus by dry matter, depending on energy concentration and the size of the dog.

The digestive capacities of puppies and adults are different. Puppies are also very sensitive to the ingredients in the food they are given.

For example, puppies have a limited tolerance to starch. The younger the puppy, the greater the intolerance (newborns cannot digest starch, but they have no problem digesting the lactose in mother’s milk). The puppy’s capacity for digesting starch improves with time, as the quantity of starch in its food increases. Too much starch too early will put the puppy at risk of diarrhoea.

The composition of food for puppies will accordingly have common characteristics regardless of the breed: high energy density (energy per kg), high concentration of all essential nutrients compared with food for adults and an upper limit in terms of starch content.


However, the size of the breed entails particular adjustments. A large puppy eats more than a small puppy in real terms, but not on a kilogramme for kilogramme basis, which makes things difficult. A 20kg puppy takes in just 1.5 times more energy than a 10kg puppy of the same age. If they consume the same food, the former runs the risk of developing a calcium deficiency, so the food for the large-breed puppy must contain a higher calcium concentration.

As well as composition, kibble size, shape and hardness must also be adapted to suit the size of the puppy. At three weeks, a Terrier weighs 2-3kg, whereas a giant-breed puppy weighs around 20kg, which clearly means that their jaws will be different. Given that dry food is better suited to puppies, the smaller dog will have trouble grasping a medium-sized kibble in its jaws, while a giant one will waste a lot of kibbles. The most sensible solution is to use kibbles that are specifically adapted to the size of the jaw. The breed also has an impact on how long a growth food is given to the puppy: 8-10 months in small breeds, 10-14 months in medium breeds, 14-20 months in large breeds and 16-24 months in giant breeds.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Feeding the puppy properly


The puppy must be fed properly to ensure that it does not develop any growth-related disorders. The important criteria here are quantity, quality and nutritional balance. The puppy must not eat too much or too little. It should never be given too much to eat just to “make it happy”. It is important to remember that its growth should be properly paced, especially if it is a large-breed puppy.

Dry, wet or home-prepared?

Wet processed food, which comes in cans or sachets, and food prepared at home are more likely to lead to overconsumption, due to their high palatability, so they should be fed with careful attention to feeding amounts. In fact, home-prepared rations should only be given if they are prescribed by a veterinarian, because the mixture of meat, vegetables and rice or pasta will not provide a proper balance of minerals and vitamins, which poses a threat to the animal’s health. Random supplementation is also risk-filled.

The best results are achieved with kibbles or soups, because the puppy regulates its daily consumption and the owner is able to measure out the right feeding amount with greater precision. Dry food is also less expensive per kilogram and more hygienic, because it keeps longer.

At the end of the growth period, it is recommended that the dog makes the transition to a food formulated for adults, most often a maintenance food adapted to the size of the animal. Maintenance food has a lower energy, fat and protein content than puppy food. Obesity is the greatest risk, because the consumption of a high-energy food exposes the adult dog to the risk of weight gain unless it is very active, which tends not to be the case with sedentary companion dogs.

Learn more

What should I do to ensure the safe growth of puppies?

For the safe growth of a puppy, the food and the space in which it has been born and grows are very important.

The space should be quiet and warm.

The bitch should be fed with 2 high caloric meals per day, to maintain the health of herself and her infants during pregnancy.

In the 3rd week, a suitable milk substitute can be given to the puppies. After the 4th week, the puppies can eat dry food soaked either by using water or milk.

After vaccination has been completed (12th week), puppies should have access outdoors to get socialized.


Mr. Yiannoulis
German Shepherd breeder in Athens

Quantity and distribution


Ideally, growth curves should be used to work out the quantity of food to be given to the puppy, based on its weight. The puppy therefore needs to be weighed regularly so that any deviation from the growth curve can be quickly addressed. There is also a simple way of finding out whether the puppy is overweight: place a hand flat on each side of the thorax (around the ribs) and move them towards the back without applying pressure. All the ribs should be easily discernable. This technique can be applied at any age.

The number of meals changes as the puppy grows older. In the weeks immediately following weaning and during adoption, the puppy should be fed four times a day. This is reduced to three meals, then two midway through the growth phase, although there is no hard and fast rule for this: it all depends on the animal’s appetite and the availability of the owner.

Specific diseases

Given that the formation of new tissues is rapid and intensive, the growth phase is a very demanding time and more so for large-breed puppies for which it is longer. Puppies are susceptible to specific diseases when they are growing, some of them nutritional in origin and so completely avoidable.

This is where preventative medicine comes into its own. This covers various areas, including nutrition, vaccination, behaviour and parasite control. Nutrition is the branch of science that deals with nutrients and health. Any dietary imbalance – be that excess or deficiency – will produce shorter-term or longer-term effects on the animal’s health, which will have an impact throughout its life. The consequences of poor diet are mainly related to bones and joints.

Bone disorders


Bones are constantly being renewed in both puppies and adult dogs.


Bones are constantly being renewed in both puppies and adult dogs. Furthermore, in the growth stage, new bone is created by specialised cells, which means that puppies are subjected to two phenomena that need to be perfectly orchestrated in time and space. The body needs different materials to complete both tasks. The formation of bone is tightly regulated by hormones, but also by nutrients (particularly calcium and vitamin D). Any nutritional issues can thus have adverse consequences for bone growth and hardness.

Dwarfism and stunted growth

Growth can be disrupted permanently in a number of cases:

• Chronic malnutrition due to a lack of nutrients in the diet

• Intestinal parasitism

• Hormone dysfunction (pituitary dwarfism caused by a lack of growth hormone and hypothyroid dwarfism caused by deficiency of thyroid hormone)

• Genetic disorders in the synthesis of cartilage or bone

In practice, a puppy whose growth is stunted should be examined by a veterinarian at the earliest opportunity so the cause can be identified and, where possible, treated.

Calcium deficiency: nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism


This is the most common deficiency disorder among puppies because it is due to a diet that is mistakenly regarded as ideal: the home-prepared diet. A mixture of meat, vegetables and rice or pasta will always contain too little calcium, as well as leading to an imbalance between calcium and phosphorus. Bone is 99% calcium, but meat contains virtually no calcium, although it does contain phosphorus. Only the proper intake of calcium together with correct balance between calcium and phosphorus will ensure that bone grows normally. Without calcium, bone is unable to calcify. At the same time, if calcium intake is inadequate, the body will leach calcium from existing bone, resulting in the decalcification of the skeleton.

These two phenomena lead to a disease characterised by bone and ligament disorders. The puppy’s bones will soften and be deformed under the weight of the animal. This will be painful for the puppy. Weakened bone can break for no apparent cause, so-called “greenstick” fractures, which are very difficult to treat given the softness of the bone.

Treatment is simple and the results can be rapid and dramatic. A normal calcium intake and the correction of the balance between calcium and phosphorus can be achieved by adopting a diet of complete prepared puppy food, although some bone deformation may be irreversible.


This is a well-known disease in human medicine and also affects dogs, although it has become extremely rare. It is characterised by imperfect bone calcification as a consequence of vitamin D deficiency. Bones need vitamin D to be able to calcify. Vitamin D needs to be provided to dogs in their diet as they do not synthesise it via the skin in sunlight as humans do.

Other nutritional deficiencies

Many nutrients impact bone growth, albeit not to the same degree as calcium or vitamin D, and a deficiency can result in long-term disorders. Vitamin A is essential to skeletal development during growth and a deficiency will lead to shortened or deformed bones. It is worth noting, however, that vitamin C does not prevent bone disorders in growing puppies.

Excessive vitamin D intake: hypertrophic osteodystrophy

In nutrition, you can often have too much of a good thing. Too much vitamin D is toxic and can lead to demineralisation of bone and calcification of soft tissues. The bones will “swell up” causing the puppy to limp. Unfortunately, excessive intake of calcium and vitamin D is much more common than it should be, especially in large-breed puppies. Hypertrophic osteodystro- phy is virtually irreversible.

It is worth reiterating that a complete growth food specially formulated to suit the size of the puppy does not need to be supplemented with extra minerals or vitamins. Excessive calcium intake is still too often regarded as a way of straightening ears, but ears are composed of cartilage and so are not meant to calcify, which means that calcium is totally ineffective, although it will have a detrimental effect on the skeleton.

Excessive vitamin A intake


Vitamin A is fat-soluble vitamin that accumulates in the liver. Excessive vitamin A intake is much less common among dogs than it is among cats, due to certain bad habits indulged by cat owners, such as the regular feeding of liver. Hypervitaminosis A among dogs is most often due to daily intake of cod liver oil, which contains around 2000 international units (IU) of vitamin A per gram. The unnecessary vitamin A blocks calcification and ossification, causing the shortening of long bones and bone deformation. This process is generally irreversible.

Joint disorders: osteochondrosis


In the joints, bone ends are covered with cartilage, which helps them to move in relation to each other. Puppies are affected by various joint disorders, with large breeds more commonly affected. Disorders include painful cartilage hypertrophy, joint deformation and radius-curvus syndrome. Some very painful chronic limps cause the cartilage in the joint to crack. The classical case is the shoulder in Labradors.

Besides large-scale excessive calcium intake, overall excessive food intake is a major aggravating factor here. Excessive energy intake leads to the puppy gaining too much weight, which increases the stress on the immature joints. The owner may unwittingly encourage this excessive intake:

• Humans sometimes exclusively communicate with and train puppies on the basis of food. The owner supposes that the animal is hungry when it begs for food. If this leads to the owner giving the dog too much to eat between meals it can result in the dog begging for food not because it is hungry but because it knows that this is a simple way of getting food on demand (positive reinforcement);


Excessive energy intake leads to the puppy gaining too much weight, which increases the stress on the immature joints. The owner may unwittingly encourage this excessive intake.


• A food that is very palatable will encourage the dog to consume more. Seeing the dog getting stuck into its food, the owner may wrongly assume it is hungry and so increase its ration.

To treat these disorders, regardless of any surgery that may be needed, the dog’s diet will have to be reassessed in terms of quality (the balance between various nutrients) and quantity (based on the animal’s body condition). Complete dry foods specially formulated to suit the size of the dog appear to be by far the most effective solution. A very strict diet needs to be drawn up by a veterinarian and closely followed, with due observance for the following:

• If the puppy is overweight for its age, the feeding amount will have to be reduced under veterinary supervision.

• Any treats should be included in the daily calorie intake, and should never account for more than 10% of that intake. The best approach is clearly to cut out treats altogether.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin
© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Obesity: a problem for puppies too


While large-breed puppies are predisposed to bone and joint problems, small-breed puppies are at greater risk of obesity. Growth is a period characterised by the multiplication of fat storage cells – adipocytes. Excessive energy intake accelerates this multiplication, leading to juvenile obesity and a predisposition to obesity in the adult dog, because once formed, the cells do not go away. Treats and leftovers are risk factors, as is the size of the dog. A 10 g piece of cheese corresponds to 10% of the daily energy requirement of a 3-month-old puppy weighing 2kg, but only 1.5% of the daily energy requirement of a Great Dane puppy of the same age.

Large breeds are also at risk of excessive weight gain, however, especially those that are very muscular in adulthood. As mentioned already, large-breed puppies are naturally “as thin as a rake” because their muscles do not develop until after puberty. Owners mistakenly think that they need to feed up their dog, which results in excessive energy intake, speeding up growth – with all the related risks that involves – and often the development of fat mass around puberty, which aggravates any existing lesions.

Another cause of obesity in sometimes very young dogs is the idea that puppies are little darlings that deserve to be indulged. Labradors are especially affected by this.


A diet not adapted to the individual dog in terms of quality or quantity is the main cause of specific growth-related diseases.


To conclude, a diet not adapted to the individual dog in terms of quality or quantity is the main cause of specific growth-related diseases. These diseases can be easily prevented: the use of complete prepared foods specially formulated to meet the various requirements of growing puppies and good feeding practices ensure that the puppy grows properly, giving it the best possible start in life.

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Overindulging a puppy is not a kindness
    Overindulging a puppy is not a kindness

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