What should a German Shepherd Puppy Eat? German Shepherd puppies need a high fat, high protein diet along with lots of vitamins and minerals to aid development and support healthy digestive function as they age. A good quality diet can also manage or even prevent some genetic health conditions that German Shepherds are prone to.
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Just like human babies, the first year of growth is vital for a German Shepherd puppy’s bone growth. By the time he reaches his first birthday, the development of his bones will be almost complete. The quality of the food in his puppy diet is crucial in supporting this phase of his life and will also have an effect on his health as he ages.
The most important thing to remember is that dogs are omnivores. Many sources say German Shepherds are carnivores so do not need vegetables or starches in their diet, however, large breeds have the most digestive similarities to their ancestors, who had at least 15% of their diet made up of root vegetables and berries. They would also eat the contents of their prey’s stomach which was solely vegetation.
So, what nutrients does he need and where should he get them from?
- Protein: necessary for muscle development, maintenance and repair. It is also important in the support of healthy coat and skin. Protein should make up 25-30% from lean meats such as chicken, beef or meat meal (a concentrated form of protein).
- Carbohydrates: during digestion simple carbohydrates like glucose are broken down for energy. Complex carbohydrates such as fiber require different enzymes and are harder to breakdown. Healthy carbohydrates sources include rice, sweet potato, peas and squash. Some dog food companies use grain as fillers because it is cheaper, but dogs do not get any nutritional benefit from grains, so these diets should be avoided.
- Fat: balancing healthy fats is important for the development of a puppy’s brain function. A high fat diet can aid faster learning. Fat also helps support good skin and coat condition, which is essential for dogs who shed a lot. Fatty fish like sardines and mackerel, coconut oil, eggs, lean beef and pork are all good sources of healthy fats.
- Fatty acids: essential for various bodily functions including brain and liver function, good heart and eye health, and healthy skin.
- Alpha-Linolenic Acid is used to make EPA and DHA. Sources of this omega-3 fatty acid are flaxseed, chia, hempseed and walnut oil.
- EPA can be provided in food as well as being made within the body. It is vital for neural development in puppies and can facility faster learning. EPA also has anti-inflammatory properties and deficiencies have been linked to depression in mammals. Salmon, herring and sardines all contain EPA.
- DHA, also found in oily fish, is responsible for both eye and brain development. Memory, sight and hearing can all be impaired if DHA is lacking from a puppy’s diet.
- Linoleic Acid is an omega-6 fatty acid that helps support and maintain healthy skin and coat. Low levels of this can lead to skin conditions and hair loss. Hempseed, soybean and sunflower oil all provide linoleic acid.
- Arachidonic acid is another omega-6 fatty acid which can be found in eggs, poultry and meat. It is a healthy brain fat, important for development. Deficiencies can reduce learning ability.
Vitamins and Minerals
Most pre-packaged or processed dog food contains a selection of necessary vitamins and minerals that are needed to support healthy development in puppies. Although you can purchase supplements, giving too much of certain vitamins can cause more problems than it solves. It is far better to find a high-quality puppy food or sources of such vitamins from fresh ingredients if you are home cooking for your puppy.
Vitamin A helps support healthy immune and eye function. Muscles, nerves, skin, and coat all require vitamin A for proper function. Puppies also need vitamin A for neurological development. Vitamin A can be found in liver, fish oil, sweet potato, carrots, and egg yolk. A premium or natural dog food brand containing these food types will provide a healthy amount of vitamin A. If you are feeding your German Shepherd pup a raw or home-cooked diet, egg yolks can be given once every couple of days, whereas sweet potato can be incorporated in small amounts daily along with vegetables like carrot and kale. A tablespoon of fish oil can be added to one meal per day.
Vitamin B6 is responsible for several processes including the regulation of hormones, the function of the nervous system, immune response, generation of glucose, and the formation of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body via red blood cells. This vitamin can be found in poultry such as chicken and turkey, whole grains like brown rice, eggs, soya beans, organ meats like liver and heart, squash, and spinach.
Vitamin B12 is one of the most important vitamins. It boosts cell growth and ensures the proper functioning of those cells. It is also important in maintaining healthy brain function. There are lots of natural sources including meat, poultry, eggs and liver. A B12 deficiency can lead to digestive issues such as vomiting and diarrhea. It can also cause sluggishness, loss of appetite and seizures.
Vitamin C is an important antioxidant just like it is for us humans. It can help to reduce inflammation, which is good for German Shepherds who are prone to joint conditions like hip dysplasia. Unlike us, dogs are able to make Vitamin C themselves in the liver. It has also been reported that Vitamin C can be used in the treatment of bladder infections in both dogs and cats. Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, and potato are all good sources of Vitamin C.
Vitamin D is affectionately called the sunshine vitamin. It allows your dog’s body to balance important minerals like calcium and phosphorous which are involved in bone growth- vital for growing puppies! Many growth conditions or joint issues can be attributed to a lack of Vitamin D. oily fish such as mackerel and sardines are both healthy sources.
Vitamin E is used by your puppy as a defense against a condition called Oxidative Stress. This can damage cells, proteins, and DNA. All of these contribute to aging. Vitamin E is also responsible for fat metabolism and cell function. Eye and muscle degeneration can be caused by a lack of Vitamin E, as can reproductive problems in bitches. The body also needs Vitamin E to be able to use Vitamin K. To ensure your pup gets enough, they need to have leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, sunflower seeds, or sunflower and corn oils.
Vitamin K is crucial to your puppy’s ability to form blood clots. This is the main reason rodent poison is so dangerous as it blocks Vitamin K absorption and can lead to hemorrhaging. Spinach, kale, Brussel Sprouts, cauliflower, fish, eggs, and liver all contain Vitamin K.
Choline used to make dopamine and acetylcholine; nerve chemicals essential for normal brain function. It is also commonly used as part of a treatment plan for dogs with epilepsy. Choline is naturally occurring in poultry, meat, fish, eggs, broccoli, and Brussel Sprouts.
There are many health conditions that can be managed or prevented by giving the correct proportions of vitamins and minerals. Giving too many can also cause certain medical issues. Phosphorous is found in bone and is an important component in the healthy development of puppies’ bones. However, too much phosphorous can cause a condition called Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism. Essentially, it causes bones to demineralize, leading to limb deformities, such as Ananastasia (the inability to stand) and in some cases, neurological issues. This condition can also be caused by a deficiency of Calcium or a combination of too little Calcium and too much Phosphorous.
Diet can also be used to regulate weight gain or loss. Dogs who have successfully undergone a weight loss program are less likely to regain weight if they are kept on a purpose-formulated diet. Similarly, a high fiber high protein diet has been shown to improve satiety in dogs, meaning they will feel full for longer. This will also have a direct impact on weight management. Since large breeds like the German Shepherd are prone to joint problems, maintaining a healthy weight is important.
Most dog food diets include white rice and soy, but German Shepherds do not seem to be able to process these foods well, so their diet should avoid these. Brown rice has a slightly different composition and can be a good alternative. Other foods to avoid are onion, citrus fruits, grapes and processed human food.
Puppies need a diet with a high fat content of approximately 40%. Fats are used in the absorption of proteins and carbohydrates, which are needed in high quantities during periods of growth. A puppy’s diet should contain healthy sources of fat.
During teething, which occurs around 5 months of age, puppies will require more Calcium than normal. If they do not receive enough, their body will begin to take Calcium stored in their bones, which can lead to skeletal deformities, joint issues and limb pain. Specially formulated puppy diets should contain enough Calcium to prevent this.
If you are feeding home-cooked or raw, there are a few things you can give. Eggshell, washed and ground into a powder, is a great source of Calcium and also Phosphorous, which are needed for bone growth as well as during teething. You can also give a few extra bones during this time to boost Calcium levels, but ensure bones are never cooked and watch your puppy eating them.
Digestive issues are common in German Shepherds, but ingredient quality can ease or even prevent certain conditions. Fresh and natural ingredients have a higher digestibility and are usually cooked in a way that retains more of the nutrients. Cheaper diets with low meat content and lots of grain are generally flash heated, which is quicker and cheaper, but destroy a lot of the vitamins and minerals.
Milk should generally be avoided as dogs do not have the enzymes needed to digest lactose. This can cause diarrhea as well as vomiting and digestive distress if given regularly. You can try your puppy with low-lactose milk, but it is best not given at all.
Coconut oil is a nutritionally valuable ingredient to add to your puppy’s diet. Not only does it have anti-inflammatory properties, but it also aids the immune system in preventing bacterial and antiviral infections, as well as supporting healthy digestion, skin and coat.
The quantity and frequency of meals is crucial in supporting your German Shepherd puppy’s growth. From 8 weeks old when he is weaned onto solid food, he should be fed 3 or 4 small meals per day. Puppies tend to inhale whatever food they are given, even if the portion is more than they little bellies can handle. Over-eating can lead to vomiting and diarrhea, which means your puppy will not be absorbing enough nutrients.
Feeding smaller portions more frequently avoids this bad habit of quick eating. When puppies do this, they also inhale air. This can lead to a condition called ‘bloat’. The stomach becomes full of food and air, causing the stomach lining to swell and sometimes twist. This puts pressure on the blood vessels. Low blood pressure can damage organs if left untreated, causing further medical problems. If not caught quickly, bloat is normally fatal.
A feeding in the morning, followed by another between noon and 1pm, then an evening meal, means your pup’s digestive system has had a chance to process the meal beforehand and will be ready for the next one. It also reduces the chances of your puppy eating too quickly.
Three or four meals per day should be continued from 2 months of age until 6-9 months of age. Speak with your breeder and vet for the best guidance on when your puppy is ready for the transition. From then, you can begin to slowly phase out the lunchtime meal by reducing the portion size, but slowly increasing the morning and evening portions. This should be done slowly and ideally will take a week to 2 weeks to complete.
Portions sizes will depend on your puppy’s weight. Most food brands provide a feeding guide, but it is also a good idea to consult with your vet who will be able to recommend the best portion size your puppy’s age and weight.
- From weaning to 16 weeks, no more than ½ cup per meal is required.
- 16 weeks to 9 months he can have between 1 cup and 1 and ½ cups, depending on how quickly he is gaining weight. Checking with your vet will give you a better idea.
- Between 9 and 12 months his portion size should be increased to 2 cups per meal.
- 12 months plus should be approximately 3 cups for each meal.
Wet Food vs Dry Food
The next tricky decision when deciding what should a German Shepherd puppy eat is whether to feed dry kibble or wet food. There are various pros and cons to both, but generally, dry food is recommended over wet. The main reason for this is that dry kibble has an abrasive surface, which naturally cleans your puppy’s teeth as he eats. Traditionally, kibble was made using a process called extrusion, which involves high temperatures and the need to coat the kibble in fat to enhance flavor. However, premium and natural brands use processes like cold pressing and air drying which retain a lot more nutrients, resulting in a healthier and more nutritionally balanced product.
Dry food is also easy to store and has a much longer shelf life than wet food. You do not need to worry about preservation, and you can buy dry kibble in bulk. For young puppies, a little warm water can be used to soak the kibble and make it easier to chew until they have passed the teething stage.
Wet food comes in 2 varieties- canned and pouches. Wet food is pasteurized during production, so it contains fewer preservatives than dry food. Cans are also airtight, so can be stored for a few months before being used, however, they need to be eaten with 2-3 days after being opened.
Pouches for puppies are essentially single portions, so you do not need to worry about portion size or weight. The box will have a feeding guide for each stage, so you can feed the required number of pouches and increase as your puppy grows.
The downside to wet food is that the water content is higher, so you are not getting as much nutritional content as dry kibble. This means the feeding amounts are higher, so you will need to purchase bigger quantities to feed the necessary calories and nutrients.
As the demand for more natural recipes has increased within the dog food market, a middle ground has been created in the form of ‘trays’. They can be frozen which means you can buy in bulk and the ratios of meat to vegetables is much better than more traditional brands. The biggest downside to these more natural recipes is the price. The cost of production and sourcing the ingredients is much higher than traditional methods, so this pushes up the price of the final product.
Labelling laws require that ingredients be listed by quantity. For puppies, meat must always make up the bulk of the recipe. Try to stay clear of brands that use ambiguous terms like ‘meat and meat derivatives. You cannot be sure of the quality or type of meat. The higher the percentage the better when it comes to puppy food. The natural brands will have at least 80-85% meat content, with the rest made up of fresh vegetables and natural mineral sources like flaxseed and oils.
Feeding a raw diet has become increasingly popular over the last decade. The biggest advantage is that you know where all the ingredients have come from and can be sure of their quality. It can be daunting to get the ratios right, but dogs thrive off a natural diet.
A puppy’s diet should be half to two thirds meaty bones. Good options are turkey and chicken necks, chicken feet, and veal ribs. Try pork is very small amounts, to begin with as too much can cause diarrhea. You can even feed the whole carcasses. Quail and Rabbit are both great choices.
Ground-up eggshell is a great additional source of calcium. Green tripe is a must to balance out your growing puppy’s nutritional needs but be warned. Tripe smells awful! Tripe is the stomach contents of ruminants and chock full of beneficial gut bacteria. It must be green- white tripe is devoid of any real nutrients and won’t do anything for your puppy.
You may find yourself in a position of wanting to switch the food your puppy’s breeder was giving them and this is completely fine. When weaning from one food to another, it must be done gradually to allow your puppy to adjust to the new food.
Start by mixing a small amount of the new food into their current food. Each day you can add a little more provided you have not seen any side effects such as diarrhea or vomiting. The weaning should take a minimum of four days, but preferable should take a week to 2 weeks.
Speaking to other German Shepherd owners is a great way to get advice. Your vet will be able to suggest other good sources of information such as breeders groups, books, or studies into the German Shepherd diet.
Once you have your puppy on a solid feeding schedule and you know the food is of a good quality, you are already halfway there! Your German Shepherd puppy will be getting all the nutrients he needs to build healthy bones, strong muscles, and a well-developed brain that will no doubt challenge you every day for years to come!
What diet are you feeding your puppy? Do you have any recommendations for particular dog foods or supplements? We’d love to here from you in the comments.
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References Used in this Article
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A.J. German, S.L. Holden, P.J. Morris, V.Biourge (2012) Long term follow up after weight management in obese dogs, The Veterinary Journal, vol 192 issue 1
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Max Hofmann (2013) The German Shepherd Good Food Guide
National Research Council (2006) Nutrient requirements of dogs and cats, National Academies press: Washington