Like new parents, puppy owners continuously worry about their young dog’s bodily functions and eating habits, especially in those first few weeks at home. In fact, it almost becomes an obsession: puppy is constipated, puppy has diarrhoea, puppy is gulping its food or puppy has stopped eating completely. In my experience, these issues are often due to puppy adapting to its new environment and will settle in time.
However, I also advise new owners to research and take an active interest in their puppy’s gut microbiome. This is the collection of microbes in the digestive tract which have a significant influence on puppy’s overall health and wellbeing. The reason I tend to mention this is that I see an increasing number of client dogs with allergies which could potentially be due to deficiencies in early feeding.
Initially a puppy’s microbiome is developed from its mother so it is important that the breeder considers this. Although there is no evidence to prove it, I always feed my bitch with multiple protein sources during pregnancy. When the puppies are born, I move to a single protein source until they are 3.5 weeks when I begin to introduce a second protein source, and then a third at five weeks.
This slowly introduces the puppies to other sources of protein which I believe helps to reduce the potential for food allergies to develop. The different proteins can be found in dry food such as Platinum (https://www.platinum.co.uk/), raw food and home cooked stews made from meat, vegetables and herbs.
When puppy is home, I would always recommend staying on the food the breeder has used for the first two weeks whilst it is settling in to a new environment. Owners should choose puppy’s new diet carefully and consider the history of feeding. What was mum fed? What foods have they been exposed to so far? In general, high protein and low carbohydrate levels in the diet are better for a healthy gut microbiome.
A good resource for investigating food is www.allaboutdogfood.co.uk where you can check the rating of the food the breeder has used and research potential new foods. If the rating of the breeder’s food is low then there may be a greater need to change puppy. However, I would still advise staying with the protein sources puppy is used to.
Typically, food with more grain and rice will be higher in calories and have lower nutritional value. If possible, owners should look for a good level of meat content and do their research to ensure puppy benefits from the healthiest possible start in life.
A puppy is adjusting to and exploring its new environment, including the garden, where they will be exposed to new microbes which can cause an imbalance in the gut microbiome. However, a healthy puppy should adapt to this and suffer few ill effects other than some loose stools.
Monitor pup’s stools as they can give information on how the gut system is coping. If stool consistency changes it could be due to new microbes or the addition of new protein sources from high value treats. This is normal as the gut microbiome is developing. If stools are loose for two days in a row I would recommend only using food they have been raised on and not introduce anything new until stools have returned to normal.
Establish puppy’s new diet within four weeks and continue to use good protein sources for high value treats. If there are frequent loose stools or diarrhoea then I would recommend a visit to the vet where a puppy’s gut health can be tested – a great starting point for early detection of issues. It also enables owners to change feeding and potentially include a probiotic supplement if advised.
Try not to panic if puppy isn’t responsive to food in the first few days. It will probably be due to all of the changes, which can be overwhelming. Try adding some hot water to the food (wait for it to cool before feeding) or giving small amounts of a protein source which puppy is used to.
Most puppy food is based on chicken so this is normally a hit and will keep some good healthy calories in puppy’s tummy until they adjust. This could be used for training which helps to create positive emotions towards the exercises and your engagement.
If puppy starts leaving food, it might be due to overfeeding, and they are self-regulating their intake. It is tempting to keep offering lots of different food, but this might create a fussy eater and an increase in stomach issues.
It is important to carefully monitor puppy’s food to ensure they receive all the nutrition needed to grow but not more calories than they require, avoiding unnecessary weight on growing joints. How you feed in the first few weeks can depend on the individual puppy. I try to feed puppy twice a day from a bowl. *If puppy has settled and is eating well, I begin positive food bowl exercises with those meals when they are between 9-10 weeks and more settled in their new environment.
*I use puppy’s remaining food to engage them in mental challenges, stimulation and training. You do not need to be strict on feeding times but make sure puppy has something in its belly every 3-4 hours to ensure they are not hungry.
*You could use a Kong, other puzzle games and training as a method to introduce new foods a little at a time, to give pup’s stomach time to adjust.
When training, cooked chicken is a good choice of food for a high reward, especially in the early stages. Most puppy dry food is based on chicken, meaning your puppy should be able to tolerate it. Be mindful that chicken intolerance is increasing so if there are loose stools, I would move on to raw beef as the next protein. The first food I feed to my litter of puppies is raw steak mince (5% fat) so it makes sense to use this for training and in food-based toys which can be cleaned in the dishwasher.
I always recommend that owners contact a veterinarian if they have concerns about puppy’s health.
*Click-2-Heel’s Online Puppy Training Course includes modules on food bowl exercises, training games to keep pup engaged during the day and other activities to introduce new food gradually. https://resources.click2heel.com
Di Martin is the founder of Click-2-Heel, world renowned dog trainer and behaviourist, and former Crufts Competitive Obedience Champion.