Why we don't make puppy food (yet)
If you’re reading this post - congratulations on adding a new pup to your family! Today, Petaluma offers one complete diet for adult dogs and will soon launch a formula specialized for senior dogs. We are big believers in feeding your dog an age-appropriate diet, and we hope to offer a growth-stage diet in the future. This blog post serves as a background on puppy-specific diets and some of our own challenges in offering a plant-based formula for puppies.
What is a ‘growth-stage’ diet and why does it matter?
As your puppy grows and develops, it is particularly important to ensure that they are receiving the proper nutrition to support its growth and overall health. One way to do this is by feeding them a diet tailored to the needs of puppies, also known as a growth-stage formula. Growth-stage formulas are designed to provide the nutrients and energy that puppies need at different stages of development, from weaning to maturity.
AAFCO - the U.S. government organization that sets standards for pet food - has a distinct nutrient profile (i.e. nutritional guidelines) for dogs undergoing “growth or reproduction.” This nutrient profile differs in small but important ways from the guidelines for “adult maintenance” (i.e. adult dogs that should maintain their current weight), which is what most adult formulas (like Petaluma) are tailored to.
What are the main differences between a growth stage and an adult diet?
AAFCO profiles for growth-stage and adults differ in terms of recommended amino acid profile, minerals, and vitamins, but there are typically three major differences: calories coming from protein, DHA fat content, and macro-mineral ratios.
- Calorie and protein content: Puppies need to consume more calories when they’re growing, and typically those additional calories should come from the protein in their diet (rather than fat or carbohydrates). AAFCO has a minimum protein content of 56 g per 1000 kcal for growth stage compared to 45 g/1000 kcal for adults. Puppies also need more essential amino acids (i.e. protein building blocks), which requires some additional formulation attention around balanced protein sources. However, the majority of adult formulas (including Petaluma) exceed the growth-stage minimums for both total protein as well as the individual essential amino acids, so protein is less of a concern unless you are feeding a cheap diet that is cost-cutting by limiting protein to the bare minimum, as it is typically the most expensive macronutrient to source.
- Macro-mineral content: Puppies need more - and often much more - of certain dietary minerals than adult dogs. Calcium and phosphorus are often the defining difference, as AAFCO recommends 3 g calcium / 1000 kcal for puppies vs. 1.25 g / 1000 kcal for adults and 2.5 g phosphorous / 1000 kcal for puppies vs. 1 g / 1000 kcal for an adult. Calcium and phosphorus are tricky to supplement as they also have a low ‘safe upper limit’ - i.e. the maximum safe dose - which makes the acceptable inclusion window relatively small. This is particularly true for large-breed dogs, which have a lower ‘safe upper limit’ for calcium than both small-breed puppies and adult dogs (essentially to avoid bones growing too fast) that have a very small margin of error in dietary calcium inclusion. Growth-stage dogs also require twice as much iron and copper and over three times as much chloride and sodium, although many adult formulas will also meet these guidelines as there is not a listed ‘safe upper limit’ (i.e. far less sensitivity to over-provision).
- Fat and DHA: Puppies require both more total fat (which increases the caloric density of food) as well as increased levels of the long-chain omega-3 fats (EPA and/or DHA). While most adult foods formulas (excluding low-fat diets) exceed the minimum total fat requirement for growth-stage, the inclusion of DHA and/or EPA can be more difficult to consistently achieve. Veterinary nutritionists recommend including more DHA and/or EPA fat in growth-stage formulas due to their role in brain development. AAFCO does not mandate any DHA or EPA in adult dog formulas, whereas growth-stage dogs need a minimum of 100 mg per 1000 kcal. One of the main blockers to a meat-free puppy formula has been the ingredient source of DHA and/or EPA fat in growth-stage formulas. Marine algae are the primary source of animal-free DHA and EPA fat - and are actually the original source of those fats in fish oil (i.e. fish eat the algae and store the fat in their body). However, marine algae suppliers had only gone through the ingredient certification process for use in adult maintenance formulas, as separate trials are required to certify ingredients in growth & reproduction stage dogs. Marine algae suppliers have since sought regulatory approval for the growth stage, which has opened up the possibility for the formulation and regulatory approval of animal-free formulas.
Veterinarians generally advise pet parents to switch from a growth stage to an adult maintenance diet once their pup has reached their adult weight, which is typically one year for most dogs but could be 12-14 months for larger breeds like labradors or golden retrievers or before 9 months for small breeds. The general rule of thumb is to wait until your dog’s weight has stabilized.
Are there any vegan / plant-based diets for dogs available commercially?
Unfortunately, there are no growth-stage-specific puppy formulas in the U.S. that are vegan, but Evolution brand kibble / wet food and Addiction Zen claim to meet the AAFCO criteria for "All Life Stages", which means their products meet the AAFCO nutrient profiles for both ‘growth and reproduction’ as well as ‘adult maintenance’ (i.e. puppies, pregnant/lactating, and adult dogs). We would recommend carefully reviewing the calcium and phosphorus ratios of any All Life Stage formula to ensure it's appropriate for your puppy before feeding.
Why does Petaluma not offer a puppy formula today?
We would love to offer a growth-stage formula but have hit a few product development challenges that have pushed back a puppy formula in our R&D roadmap. The good news is that there has been a ton of innovation in the last decade in terms of vegan alternatives gaining AAFCO approval. As a rule, Petaluma does not use laboratory-owned animals for any testing (either nutritional or palatability), but laboratory animal testing remains the standard for most pet food companies and ingredient suppliers. In addition to being ethically dubious, data collected from animals in a laboratory setting is less transferable to companion animals, and building study protocols using real-world data collection could achieve more accurate results. We have recruited owners of companion dogs to conduct our nutritional and palatability testing in their homes. However, it-home testing with puppies is much more complicated and needs to be done more carefully and slowly (i.e. more expensively) to ensure the well-being of all participants. The costs of testing a growth-stage formula in a way that meets our nutritional and ethical standards have so far been prohibitive as an early-stage company.
I don’t want to feed my puppy a meat-inclusive diet - what are my options?
Right now, your options are unfortunately very limited.
- Homemade food: Some people choose to feed their puppy a homemade diet or supplement an adult formula for puppies, but the latter can be tricky to get right. If you choose to feed a homemade diet to your puppy, we recommend following the guidance of a veterinary nutritionist. For example, PetDiets.com provides nutritional coaching and diet plans for growth-stage dogs and is operated by board-certified veterinary nutritionists.
- All-Life Stage: As mentioned previously, there are a few vegan formulas that meet AAFCO criteria for all stages, but there are some risks with these diets having too little calcium, phosphorus, and protein levels.
- Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, PetMD The Importance of Life Stage Feeding
- Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, PetMD Why Your Dog's Health Depends on Life Stage Diets
Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Growth Guide: Keeping your Puppy on the Right Track