When To Start Weaning Puppies and What To Feed Them

As adorable as they are, puppies won't stay tiny and fragile forever. They'll soon reach a point where they're ready for growth, known as the weaning period, to continue their journey toward adulthood.

Dr. Carling Matejka, a veterinarian and spokesperson for Solid Gold, a pet food company, told Newsweek: "The weaning process refers to the puppies slowly transitioning onto puppy food and decreasing the need for their mom's milk."

This transition can be a delicate process that requires care and attention. Here, dog experts explain when and how to begin weaning puppies.

When Should Puppies Be Weaned?

Weaning is a process that can take several weeks. Matejka said puppies need their mother's milk for proper nutrients and for their immune system in the first three to four weeks of their life.

As they develop, they can slowly begin to wean and be introduced to puppy-specific food around three to four weeks of age. This process can take around three to four weeks to complete, which means puppies should not be sticking to only solid puppy food until they are more than seven to eight weeks old.

Below are some key tips on how to wean puppies, as outlined by Matejka:

  • Take it slow. The weaning process needs to happen gradually over weeks.
  • Begin with short periods of separation. Start the weaning process by separating the whole litter of puppies from their mother for no more than an hour or two. This allows the puppies to begin developing some independence, while still getting milk and security from their mom.
  • Do not separate puppies individually. Instead, keep the litter together.
  • Slowly increase the time apart over weeks as they get used to the time without mom.
  • While away from their mom, they can be introduced to food from a shallow bowl.

Zazie Todd, the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, told Newsweek that it's important to get the timing of the weaning right as some research shows that when puppies are weaned early, they're more likely to have behavior issues, as suggested in an August 2011 study published in The Veterinary Record.

The study, by Italian researchers, found that "compared with dogs that remained with their social group for 60 days, dogs that had been separated from the litter earlier were more likely to exhibit potentially problematic behaviors, especially if they came from a pet shop."

Todd said: "So puppies should not go to their new home before eight weeks of age," noting it can also be illegal to sell puppies below that age in some areas.

Around 27 states and Washington, D.C. have laws barring the sale of puppies under a certain age (typically eight weeks), according to a 2020 publication by the Animal Legal & Historical Center of the Michigan State University College of Law.

A dog nursing her puppies.
A dog nursing her puppies. Begin the weaning process by separating the whole litter of puppies from their mother for no more than an hour or two. iStock/Getty Images Plus

What Should I Feed Puppies?

Todd said puppies need to be fed "high quality food" that's designed specifically for puppies to "make sure they are getting all of the nutrients they need."

Matejka said puppy diets require a precise ratio of minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, protein, and fat for the puppy to develop into a healthy adult dog.

Below are the recommended portion ranges for protein, digestible carbohydrates, fat, calcium and treats for puppies on a dry food basis, as outlined by VCA, one of North America's largest animal hospital chains:

  • Protein: 22 to 32 percent. Protein requirements for growing puppies are highest immediately after weaning, but will steadily decrease after that.
  • Fat: 10 to 25 percent
  • Digestible carbohydrates: 20 percent
  • Calcium: 0.7 to 1.7 percent
  • Treats: Less than 10 percent
Two puppies being weaned on solid food.
Two puppies seen trying a solid food mixture during a weaning process. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Matejka said: "Nutritional deficiencies can have life-long, and sometimes deathly effects, so it is best to stick to a nutritionally balanced, commercial diet."

A diet based on store-purchased food offers several advantages, including being nutritionally balanced for growth, palatable and easy to prepare as well as cost-effective, she said.

Matejka said at around three to four weeks of age, "puppies can start enjoying a small amount of moistened puppy food in their diet." They'll obtain the rest of their calories and nutrients from their mother when they nurse.

  • Start by mixing a small amount of water or canine milk replacer into puppy food.
  • Offer this to the puppies in a shallow dish when separated from their mother.
  • Sometimes puppies need a bit of encouragement to try new foods. You can entice them to try the food by putting a small amount on your finger and letting them lick it off.
  • Don't forget to offer the puppies clean drinking water.
Three puppies eating from metal bowls.
Three puppies eating from metal bowls on the floor of a home. iStock/Getty Images Plus

When Is a Puppy Ready To Eat Only Solid Food?

Once they are eight weeks old, puppies no longer need their mother's milk and can easily digest and absorb the nutrients they need from a puppy diet, said Matejka.

Puppies should be fed primarily puppy-specific food (over 90 percent of their calories per day) until they're finished growing. The age at which a dog is considered fully grown depends on the breed (typically six to 18 months). Speak to your veterinarian about what age you should transition your puppy over to adult food, Matejka said.

Other Key Elements of Feeding Puppies

Below are some other important aspects to bear in mind when feeding puppies, as outlined by Matejka.

  • Puppy food should be verified by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). Check the label for store-bought puppy food to be sure it is of high quality. Look for a claim on the label that states it "meets the nutritional requirements of puppies or all life stages established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials," the veterinarian said.
  • Be mindful of portions. Every type of food has a different number of calories per cup. Check the package for the suggested amount based on the weight and age of your puppy. Puppies need sufficient food for growth, but too much can be dangerous. As puppies get older, the amount of food they need for growth changes. Closely follow the recommendations on the bag or container of food and adjust as needed.
  • Stick to small meals four times a day. As the puppy gets older (more than four to six months old), they can be fed twice a day. It is recommended to stick to "meal-feeding" and measure the exact amount of food they need per day, per meal.
  • Don't overfeed. You do not want puppies to grow too slow or too fast. They may "always act like they are starving," but it is important not to overfeed, as this can predispose them to obesity. Consult your veterinarian if you are concerned about your puppy's weight.
  • Protect their teeth. Puppies' teeth are not very strong. They should be kept away from bones and hard chew toys as these can damage their baby teeth and the developing adult teeth.
A woman feeding a puppy in kitchen.
A woman feeding a puppy in a kitchen at home. Puppies should be fed small meals four times a day. iStock/Getty Images Plus