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

If you've just brought home your first puppy (first of all, give them a head scratchy for us!) or you're beginning to noodle around with the idea of getting a puppy, you might be wondering why they need food specifically made for them.

You might also be wondering whether or not you can just skip straight to the adult dog food, but puppy food is a must! We'll notice if you're trying to disguise your puppy as an adult dog in a trench coat to skip this step—we watch for those things!

Bringing a new puppy into the household comes with a lot of uncharted territory, whether it's your first puppy or your fifty-first. (If you have 51 puppies, you probably have bigger problems on your hands, though, like where to find an entire army of Roombas for all the dog hair.) Each individual puppy and breed has their own quirks, traits, and personalities, but we're here to at least take the guess work out of one thing—puppy food.

puppy in a suit

Is Puppy Food Really Any Different Than Adult Dog Food?

Although adult dog food won't harm your puppy in the short term if they sneak in a chomp or two, it could cause health issues down the road. Puppy food is formulated to include the extra nutrients the li'l whipper snappers need for their rapidly growing bodies, such as:


Most importantly, 22.5% of the calories in your puppy's food should come from protein, compared to adult dog food, which only needs to contain 18%. This may seem like a small difference on paper, but a diet lacking in protein can lead to growth and developmental problems in your puppy.


Fat is necessary for energy, and puppies are the real-life equivalents of Energizer bunnies. They. Just. Keep. Going! (What magical sorcery do adult humans need to know to get some of that energy?) It's essential that their food contains enough fat to keep up. This means 8.5% calories from fat, compared to the 5.5% in adult dog food.


Puppy foods should contain 1% calcium to support strong bones. This is almost twice as much as adult dog food, which usually contains 0.6% calcium. Bone Appétit!

DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)

Choose a puppy food containing DHA, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid, to support healthy brain and eye development. Studies have also noted improved memory in puppies whose food contains DHA, as well as those who were weaned from mothers eating a diet rich in DHA. May we suggest the name Einstein for your new genius pup?


While adult dog foods only contain about 0.5% phosphorous, puppy foods should have 0.8–1.3%. Phosphorous aids in the hardening of bones and maintaining a proper PH balance to support healthy kidneys.

dog kibble

What To Look For On Puppy Food Labels

The first two things to keep an eye out for are whether the packaging states that the diet meets the AAFCO dog food nutrition guidelines (if you're in the United States) and whether the food is labeled for puppies or "all life stages."

AAFCO Dog Food Guidelines

AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials) sets the standards for proper nutritional values that puppy foods must abide by.

Puppy Food vs. "All Life Stages" Food

Foods labeled for "all life stages" contain the necessary nutrients for puppy growth and development, as well as for maintenance diets for adult dogs. Keep in mind, though, that these foods contain more protein and fat for puppy growth, so when feeding them to adult dogs you'll need to monitor their weight to ensure they're not gaining too quickly.

For example, BARK Eats puppy food is also labeled for all life stages and meets AAFCO dog food standards, meaning your puppy can start and stay on it as they grow.

Get 50% OFF your first month of BARK Eats‘ nutritionist-crafted, personalized, delivered-to-your-dog-door meals.

bark eats brand dog food

Large Breed and Giant Breed Dog Foods

When choosing a puppy food, consider the breed—some foods are labeled specifically for large breed and giant breed puppies. This will be your big boys, like Great Danes, mastiffs, Malamutes, German shepherds, and even golden and Labrador retrievers.

The cut-off weight for large and giant breeds varies, but is usually any dog over 55 pounds and 24 inches tall once fully grown for large breeds, and over 99 pounds for giant breeds.

Larger breeds are more prone to arthritis and hip dysplasia as they age, which can be worsened by overfeeding and consuming certain excess nutrients, such as calcium and phosphorous, which is in regular puppy foods. The puppy foods for large breed dogs contain lower amounts of calcium and phosphorous, but are higher in fiber; the extra fiber helps these larger puppies feel fuller without all the extra calories that could lead to health issues later in life.

Studies suggest that large breed dogs and puppies on stricter calorie diets show signs of arthritis much later in life (around age 12) compared to those who aren't on strict diets (and show signs around age 6).

dog and puppy with large stick

How Long Should Puppies Be On Puppy Food?

Puppies can start with solid food at about 4 weeks old, when their tiny chompers are starting to come in. This is when they'll begin needing more calories than their mom's milk alone can provide. Pups younger than 8 weeks old may need a bit of extra help with the crunchy kibble, so try moistening it by adding some water.

You can begin transitioning puppies to adult food when they've reached 90% of their expected adult weight. For small breeds this is usually somewhere between 9–12 months old, and 12–18 months for larger breeds.

puppy excited about treats

How Much Food Do Puppies Need?

Look at the label on your puppy food to determine how much food to feed them depending on age, weight, and activity level. Note: these charts are merely recommendations—every dog is different! Here are some signs to look out for that indicate your puppy is doing well with their current food volume:

  • Bunches of energy
  • Gaining weight and filling out (make sure to poke a little fun at them when they're in the gangly leg stage)
  • Shiny, thick coat ("You like, my hair? Gee thanks, just grew it.")
  • Solid, brown poops

It's best to feed puppies 3 times per day for their first 4–6 months after weaning, and 2 times per day after 6 months. Take care to keep them at a healthy, lean weight.

dog eating out of bowl

Do Puppies Need Special Treats?

Puppies are special and do deserve treats, but they don't need special puppy treats. Adult dog treats are ok to use, but you do need to be cautious with how many you're giving them. We know, we know, the puppy eyes demand treats! But no matter how hard those cute little faces are to say no to, there's gotta be limits!

Your puppy shouldn't be eating any more than 5% of their calories from treats. Also, try to choose the appropriate size (smaller treats for smaller breeds). We heard there's a dog petition going around about pups demanding their treats not be snapped in half and passed off as a whole treat, but it does help keep their treat calories in check (just don't tell them we said this)!

You can also offer veggies and fruits as treats too, like plain carrots, green beans, and blueberries—all in moderation.

puppy with dog treat

Things You Should Never Feed Your Puppy (Or Adult Dog)

Most people already know that chocolate is a no-no for dogs, but here's a list of other harmful foods:

  • Chocolate
  • Avocados (especially the pits)
  • Grapes (raisins)
  • Onions
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Xylitol (often found in peanut butter and gum)
  • Raw bread dough
  • Garlic
  • Chives
  • Alcohol
  • Fruit pits
  • Corn itself is safe, but no corn cobs! After I learned that one the hard way as a dog owner, I'm going to add it, because dogs can swallow or bite through chunks of corn cob and get them stuck in their digestive system. Ouch!
  • Be cautious of poisonous houseplants too!

Samantha Erb

1 month ago

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