Updated: Feb 29, 2020
Hariamrit Khalsa contributed to this post.
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[Note: this post is about feeding puppies once they reach weaning age. If you are having issues with feeding puppies that still require all of their nutrition from nursing, please see this post instead]
There are a number of misconceptions about free feeding puppies, and I want to cover some of those here.
The most common ones are
Puppies can't over eat
Free feeding isn't harmful to proper joint development
Free feeding is healthy
I want to cover those here, because free feeding equals overeating and overeating is highly correlated with problems later in life, including a significant increase in the prevalence of hip dysplasia. The danger of overfeeding starts at weaning. Not when the puppies go home. When your puppies are being weaned, they are in a very critical physical development stage and the last thing you want is to have this affect their later health.
Overfeeding causes myriad problems, including:
Creation of new fat cells. The more fat cells an individual has, the more likely that individual is to be obese
Diabetes. Overfeeding increases the likelihood of insulin resistance, which is the first stage before we se diabetes.
Rapid bone growth. Fast bone growth is associated with hip dysplasia and other joint problems
Abdominal pain. Overfeeding a puppy causes gas, which can be very painful. It can also lead to diarrhea or constipation, both of which are painful and can quickly endanger a puppy’s life. Bloat. Even puppies can bloat.
Shorter life span. The ultimate consequence of all of the problems listed above is a shorter life span for the dog.
Malnourishment. It's fairly intuitive that free feeding can cause puppies to be overweight. But in breeds that tend toward picky eaters, it can also cause puppies to be UNDERweight and undernourished. Constant availability of food prevents puppies from experiencing true hunger and developing a healthy appetite into adulthood. So if you have a breed with eating issues, free feeding can be problem there as well. Additionally, even if your puppies eat well when free fed, if they are getting loose stool from overeating, then they aren't retaining the full nutrition of the food and can have nourishment issues from that as well.
The possibility for overfeeding starts when the puppies start eating—at weaning. We all know early nutrition is critical, and this is an important aspect of nutrition. It's not just what we feed our dogs and puppies, but HOW we feed them.
Myth 1: Puppies can't overeat
Assuming parasites have been ruled out, the number one cause of puppy diarrhea is overfeeding. It may not happen to all litters, but it happens to many. It's also more likely to be a problem with a higher quality food, as higher quality foods are much more digestible, so that instead of pooping out the extra nutrition, the dog's body tries to absorb it, causing more potential gastric upset.
Myth 2: Free feeding isn't harmful to proper joint development.
This is a big one. And of consequence and concern to all of us as responsible breeders.
There are a number of studies (please see the References below) showing the impact of overfeeding on the likelihood of hip dysplasia in dogs.
Please see this post about why many dogs are failing or doing more poorly than they should have on PennHip and OFA evaluations for more specifics about the studies showing the dangers of free feeding (aka overfeeding).
Myth 3: Free feeding is healthy
Free feeding/overfeeding is associated with many lifestyle problems in our dogs. In addition to growth that is too fast, overfeeding and feeding too frequently causes insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is at the root of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and many other preventable diseases and conditions.
Again, free feeding can also cause malnourishment in dogs that are picky eaters. Picky dogs need the opportunity to get hungry and build their appetite. Free feeding prevents some dogs from experiencing actual hunger, and can cause eating issues.
What to do about it
Overfeeding starts with us and has serious consequences for our puppies. But there's an easy fix, and we should all change our puppy feeding habits for the good of our puppies, as well as for the impact on our breeding programs.
How to feed puppies
Assuming weaning starts at an age appropriate time for our breed, we begin with 4-5 meals a day. This is one of those instances where size matters. The smaller a puppy (or dog), the higher the risk for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). This means for smaller dogs, we feed one meal more than older dogs. So, for example, if we had a litter of toy sized puppies we would wean them to 5 meals a day, but for a medium or larger breed we would wean to 4 meals a day. By the time puppies go home, they would be eating either 3 to 4 meals a day (depending on breed size).
Many dogs naturally desire less feedings a day, and we recommend that by adulthood dogs are eating 1 meal a day. The exception is a very small dog that may have issues with hypoglycemia.
How to find the Goldilocks zone for your puppies
There's an easy way to determine if your puppies are eating too little, too much, or if they are juuuuuuust right! You should check their body condition score on a near daily basis. This doesn't even take more time out of your day, just more of an awareness. I assume that anyone reading this blog is handling their puppies daily anyway, so in your daily handling, just put hands on their ribs and evaluate their body condition score. Easy peasy.
It's hard sometimes to wrap our minds around the fact that we don't want plump, roly-poly puppies. But a health puppy has very easily palpable ribs. Please see this post to learn how to evaluate a health body condition for your puppies and dogs. This is a critical skill, and not only should we all know it as breeders, we should teach it to our puppy families.
Need more help?
You are not alone! Please reach out to us and we will be HAPPY to work with you. Book with Ji or Hariamrit
Huck JL1, Biery DN, Lawler DF, Gregor TP, Runge JJ, Evans RH, Kealy RD, Smith GK. A Longitudinal Study of the Influence of Lifetime Food Restriction on Development of Osteoarthritis in the Canine Elbow. Vet Surg. 2009 Feb;38(2):192-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-950X.2008.00487.x.
Kealy RD1, Lawler DF, Ballam JM, Lust G, Biery DN, Smith GK, Mantz SL. Evaluation of the effect of limited food consumption on radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000 Dec 1;217(11):1678-80.
Kealy RD1, Olsson SE, Monti KL, Lawler DF, Biery DN, Helms RW, Lust G, Smith GK. Effects of limited food consumption on the incidence of hip dysplasia in growing dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1992 Sep 15;201(6):857-63.
Lawler DF1, Evans RH, Larson BT, Spitznagel EL, Ellersieck MR, Kealy RD. Influence of lifetime food restriction on causes, time, and predictors of death in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2005 Jan 15;226(2):225-31.
Smith GK1, Paster ER, Powers MY, Lawler DF, Biery DN, Shofer FS, McKelvie PJ, Kealy RD. Lifelong diet restriction and radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis of the hip joint in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2006 Sep 1;229(5):690-3.