Puppy vs Adult Dog Food: What’s the Difference?

Dr. Maxbetter Vizelberg DVM Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Maxbetter Vizelberg DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Review Summary

Domestic dogs are omnivores. Barring allergies or specific health conditions, they will benefit from a diet that includes both plant and meat sources. All canines need carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to stay healthy. But young, growing puppies have different nutritional and caloric needs than their adult counterparts. You won’t want to feed adult dog food to your puppy, and vice versa. To understand the difference between puppy and adult dog food, we’ll look at the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines. We’ll also discuss flavor options, kibble size, and cost.

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At a Glance

Let’s look at the key points of each product.

Puppy Dog Food

  • AAFCO recommended protein content of 22% dry matter
  • Designed for young dogs that are still growing
  • Smaller kibble for tiny mouths
  • Should consist of at least 20% carbohydrates
  • Higher levels of minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and sodium
  • More calorie-dense than adult dog food

Adult Dog Food

  • AAFCO recommended protein content of 18% dry matter
  • Meets the nutritional needs of most breeds, age 1 year and older
  • Large, adult-sized kibble pieces

Overview of Puppy Dog Food:

labrador retriever puppy eating food from bowl outdoors
Image Credit: SasaStock, Shutterstock

Puppy food is not just clever marketing; it’s a necessity. Young dogs grow rapidly during their first year of life. They need the right amount of calories and nutrients until they reach adulthood. You’re laying the foundation for a lifetime of health when you feed your puppy a high-quality diet.

Most commercial dog food brands offer special formulas for puppies, usually in smaller pieces to accommodate tiny mouths but in fewer flavors and protein choices. If your young dog has an allergy, you may have difficulty finding puppy food made from novel protein sources. Some puppy food brands are breed-specific, while others tailor their food for small, medium, or large breeds. Ask your veterinarian if you have any questions about what to feed your young dog.

  • Meets the nutritional needs of growing puppies
  • Smaller kibble pieces
  • Not as many flavors as adult dog food
  • Smaller packages often cost more per ounce

Overview of Adult Dog Food:

labrador retriever dog eating its food from a bowl
Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

Your dog can switch over to adult dog food once they stop growing. Small breeds like Chihuahuas and pugs could reach adulthood as early as 9 months. Larger breeds like Great Danes can continue to grow for two years. Most dogs reach adulthood on their 1st birthday. Adults dogs who eat puppy food are at risk for obesity, as puppy food is calorie-dense. There are many more options for adult dogs, including specialty foods tailored to specific breeds and allergies. However, not all dogs benefit from transitioning to a novel protein diet. Talk with your veterinarian before switching to a diet that eliminates any one specific food group.

One advantage of having an older dog is that adult dog food often costs less per ounce. Your dog’s nutritional needs will change again when they reach the “senior stage,” around 7 years of age. Senior dog food prevents older dogs from gaining weight while still meeting their dietary requirements.

  • Less expensive per ounce
  • More flavor options
  • More choices for dogs with allergies and other specialty diets
  • While heavily marketed, grain-free diets may pose a health risk to many dogs (as many studies show a linkage to these diets and a specific type of heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy)


What Are the Differences Between Them?

As discussed above, there are several differences between puppy and adult dog food.


Edge: Adult dog food

Puppy food often costs more because it contains more protein.

Flavor Options

Edge: Adult dog food

Puppy food generally comes in chicken or beef. Adults dogs, on the other hand, have choices like salmon, turkey, bison, venison, and more.


Edge: It’s a tie

Puppy food and adult dog food offer the proper nutrition for their respective life stages.



While a toy breed can be done growing at 9 months, a large breed dog can still grow through their 2nd birthday. Most dogs are considered adults on their 1st birthday. Unless your veterinarian specifies otherwise, your dog can eat puppy food until they reach its adult height and weight. Feeding your pet according to its life stage will ensure it enjoys a healthy, active life.

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