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What you need to know about dog nutrition

Feeding your dog a proper amount of a well-balanced diet is vital to its overall health and well-being. To understand how and what to feed your dog, you need to understand what the nutritional requirements of dogs are and how these requirements have developed through the process of biological evolution.

What is a dog diet

As a species, the dog is a member of the scientific order Carnivora, a large group of mammalian animals that share a similar tooth structure. The dietary needs of animals belonging to this order vary. Some members of this group have an absolute requirement for meat in their diet (called obligate or true carnivores), while others can meet their nutrient requirements through eating plant material (herbivores) or a combination of meat and plants (omnivores). Cats are an example of an obligate carnivore, cows are an example of an herbivore, and dogs and humans are two examples of omnivores.

Because of the dietary needs of dogs, both their tooth structure and intestinal tract have become adapted to an omnivorous diet. This means that, under normal circumstances, dogs can meet their nutritional needs by eating a combination of plant and animal foods. The source of the proteins and fats is less important than the quality and digestibility of these essential components of the dog’s diet. Dogs can thrive if they are fed a properly balanced vegetarian diet. However, an all-meat diet would be unbalanced and would not meet all of a dog’s nutritional requirements.

As research into basic and applied nutrition has expanded the knowledge of canine nutrition, it is now known that a well-balanced diet must also include a proper amount of minerals, vitamins, certain essential amino acids (from proteins), and specific essential fatty acids (from fats). These components are needed to build and maintain tissue and conduct biological reactions, and the necessary amounts vary somewhat with the dog’s stage of life (puppy, adolescent, adult, pregnancy, senior).

Nutritional requirements for dogs

The six basic nutrients are water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins (like iron, selenium, and sodium). These essential nutrients are needed as part of the dog’s regular diet and contribute to basic body function. The minimum dietary requirement has been established for many nutrients. The maximum tolerable amounts of some nutrients are known, and results of toxicity have been established. What is less understood is what may happen over time with marginal deficiencies or excesses.

According to Veterinary Dr. Stephanie Liff, there is some basic math to help you understand if your dog is eating the way they should. Take a close look at those nutritional labels and see how your pup’s diet stacks up.

These are the building blocks of your dog’s diet: 

  • 20-25% protein (poultry, pork, beef, or fish)
  • 14% fat (from meat, dairy, eggs, or plants)
  • 61-66% carbohydrates (things like wheat, barley, corn, potato, millet, oats, or rice)

Balanced dog food should meet your dog’s energy requirements:

Energy requirements for dogs can vary depending on many factors. It is important to meet your dog’s specific energy requirement to sustain their daily lifestyle. Some factors include:

  • Growth
  • Reproduction (intact vs. altered)
  • Adult age groups (young, middle, and older)
  • Activity level
  • Breed
  • Medical and behavioural conditions

A substantial part of energy in the diet comes from fats and proteins, followed by carbohydrates. The energy content of a diet determines the quality of the food and how much food should be consumed on a daily basis. The diet should meet the daily energy requirements of your dog’s individual needs.

All nutrients should be balanced to ensure they are absorbed properly by the body and appropriately used for each bodily system. If the diet does not supply enough energy, your dog’s gastrointestinal tract will physically be unable to consume enough of that diet and they will not be able to get their required nutrients.

For example, dogs eating a diet that is high in energy will eat a smaller amount. It is important in this case to ensure that the percentage of other essential nutrients is high enough to meet the smaller volume consumed.

The only way to determine if a diet has enough energy is to undergo a feeding study to ensure that the ingredients are enough to maintain a healthy daily life.

Wet or dry food?

According to Dr. Liff, there’s no need to stress over whether you go with a 100% kibble diet, or a 100% wet food one; either option could provide your dog more than adequate nutrition.

She does note, however, that kibble can be healthier for oral health, since chewing through kibble can help remove tartar on your dog’s teeth (sort of like how eating an apple cleans our human teeth about as well as a vigorous brush). Of course, you could plan a hybrid diet to get the benefits of both types of food.

Fresh cooked food

Feeding dogs a diet made with natural, real ingredients, such as beef, chicken, lamb, peas, spinach, carrots, and blueberries, can do wonders for their overall well-being — promoting heart health, increasing energy level, making coats shiny and breath smell better, improving eyesight, and even affecting a dog’s stool.

However, cooking for your pet is a process that’s demanding on your time, space, and finances. Merck Veterinary Manual warns that most homemade diets do not undergo the scrutiny and rigorous testing applied to commercial complete and balanced diets. If pet owners wish to feed their pets homemade diets, the diets should be prepared and cooked using recipes formulated by a veterinary nutritionist.

Raw diet

Raw dog food can be homemade, store-bought, freeze-dried, or dehydrated. A raw diet usually includes uncooked organ meats, muscle meat, whole or ground bone, raw eggs, dog-safe fresh fruits and vegetables, and a dairy product such as yogurt. Advocates of raw food diets cite these benefits: shinier coats, healthier skin, improved dental health, increased energy, and smaller stools.

Some veterinarians warn that raw diets are not proper for dogs who share their homes with young children or people with compromised immune systems. Meticulous care is needed in the handling, preparation, and sanitation of raw food.

How much should I feed my dog?

The ideal method for deciding how many calories to feed your dog is to determine what your dog’s lean weight should be and feed according to that weight. Unfortunately, this requires constant monitoring (and weighing) and is not always practical.

Your veterinarian can estimate how many calories your dog needs each day based on his lifestyle and body condition score. The standard formula used for calculating the energy requirements of the average adult dog that lives inside your home, receives light daily exercise, and is spayed or neutered is:

30 x weight in kg (or pounds divided by 2.2) + 70 = daily caloric needs

Be aware that few of our dogs are ‘average,’ so this formula is merely a starting point. Most dogs will need fewer calories on a daily basis, while a few will need slightly more. This daily caloric total includes not only your dog’s meals, but also any snacks and treats. If your dog needs to lose weight, your veterinarian will recommend caloric restriction (which is usually 70% to 90% of the calculated amount for weight maintenance).

How often should I feed my dog?

The biological evolution of dogs as hunters has given them specialised digestive and gastrointestinal adaptations that allow them to ingest a large meal followed by up to days of not eating. However, for most pet dogs, feeding once or twice per day is recommended. Many dogs will benefit from eating equally divided meals two to three times per day.

Keep in mind that puppies need more daily meals than their adult counterparts. ‘Puppies up to about 6 months old should eat 3 to 4 meals a day to help manage growth requirements and maintain stable blood sugar,’ explains Dr Liff.

Regardless of the feeding schedule you choose, avoid allowing your dog to exercise vigorously after consuming a large meal, especially if your dog devours its food rapidly. This will help minimise problems with bloat, intestinal obstruction, or other serious digestive disorders.

Be sure your dog has access to fresh, clean water at all times.

If you’re unsure or concerned about your pet’s weight, have a conversation with your vet to make sure your dog isn’t at risk of becoming underweight or developing canine obesity.

Are there any breed differences in nutritional requirements?

In the past several decades, nutritionists and veterinary researchers have found that there are definite breed variations in metabolism and nutrient requirements. Breeds of dogs that were developed in specific locations, such as Arctic Circle breeds and some of the water breeds, may have adapted to specialised diets that are common in their place of origin. Inbreeding and genetic differences between individuals in each species may result in further need for individualisation of the pet’s diet in order to optimise health. 

In addition to considering your dog’s breed, you should also consider your dog’s lifestyle. Working pets (hunting dogs, field trial dogs, herding dogs) require different ratios of proteins and fats in their diets than lap dogs or sedentary house dogs.

Also Read: DIY Dog Grooming: How to Groom Your Dog at Home

What dog food to avoid

Not all dog food ingredients are suitable for your dog. Some of them supply little to no nutritional value, while others only function as fillers or preservatives. And the dangerous part? Some pet food ingredients can put your dog’s life at risk.

As a responsible pet owner, it pays to inspect the ingredients of what you feed your dog closely. To help you with this, we have listed some ingredients to avoid in dog food:

  • Melamine
  • BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole), BHT and Ethoxyquin
  • White flour 
  • Propylene Glycol
  • Carrageenan
  • Meat meal
  • Artificial food colouring
  • Corn syrup
  • MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)
  • Sodium Hexametaphosphate
  • Rendered fat
  • Nitrates/Nitrites

Toxic ‘human’ foods

Sometimes it’s easy to think that a food that is healthy for us humans (take avocado, for example) would make a healthy treat for our dogs. But there are a lot of toxic ‘human’ foods out there, and it’s up to us to make sure our cherished pets don’t get a hold of them.

Here’s a list of things your dog should never eat:

  • Onions, garlic, and chives
  • Chocolate
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Corn on the cob
  • Avocado
  • Artificial sweetener (xylitol)
  • Alcohol
  • Cooked bones
  • Grapes and raisins

With this list in mind, you’ll be able to keep an eye on the foods that can make your dog sick. But just as certain foods affect people in diverse ways, the same happens with dogs. Signs of poisoning or an allergic reaction include vomiting, muscle shakes, fever, intense scratching, weakness in the limbs, diarrhoea, breathing problems, and sluggishness. If your dog shows any of these symptoms, get him to the vet at once.

What are good dog food brands?

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) have developed nutritional guidelines. AAFCO guidelines are the general basis for the nutritional content of commercial pet foods. Make sure that your dog’s food meets the AAFCO standards.

What should I look for in dog food?

The best advice you can receive about feeding your dog is this: feed your dog the highest-quality food you can afford. The differences between a premium food and budget food are not found on the nutrition label; they are found in the quality and source of ingredients. Two dog foods may each have 27% protein but be vastly different when it comes to digestibility.

Pet food ingredients are listed by order of weight. Each ingredient is weighed when it is added to the batch of food, and ingredients such as fresh meat have a lot of water, much of which is lost during processing. This means that a dry diet that lists corn as the first ingredient may be nutritionally superior to one listing meat first.

Here are some general tips to help you decide what should go into your dog’s food bowl:

Select diets with real, recognisable, whole-food ingredients. If the majority of listed ingredients is unfamiliar to you, find another diet.

Select a low-calorie diet. Most adult, indoor, spayed, or neutered dogs have low energy requirements. Your dog’s diet should have a relatively small number of calories per cup; ideally less than 350 calories. If your dog food contains 500 calories per cup and you have a 20-pound dog, the amount you should feed is tiny (and unsatisfying!). Making matters worse, high-calorie foods mean even a few extra kibbles can really pack on the pounds.

Choosing the best dog food

The best food for your dog is ultimately up to you to decide. As an owner, you are the one who sees your dog on a regular basis. If your dog produces firm, healthy stool, is active and fit, and has a healthy appetite, then your dog food is probably working just fine. 

If you are concerned about which is the best dog food for your dog’s life stage, consult your veterinarian to see what stage food is appropriate for your dog.

Best dog food for small and large breeds:

Small breed dogs and large breed dogs have different nutritional needs. Large breed dogs are more prone to musculoskeletal problems than smaller breeds, and so they often require large-breed dog food with different balances of certain nutrients to promote musculoskeletal health, especially as puppies. 

There are many good brands, but I have listed a few top-rated brands for you: Wellness Core, Blue Buffalo Wilderness, Ollie Fresh human-grade, Merrick, Purina Pro Plan, Orijen, Instinct Original, Iams ProActive Health.

Small breed dogs, on the other hand, can choke on large-sized kibble and have their own nutritional requirements that can be accommodated with a small-breed dog food. Research your dog’s breed to find out if there are any additional nutritional requirements you should be aware of. 

There are many good brands, but I have listed a few top-rated brands for you: Taste of the Wild Appalachian Valley, Wellness Small Breed, Blue Buffalo Life Protection Small Breed, Instinct small breed, Merrick Classic Small Breed, Diamond Naturals Small Breed, Nutro Natural Choice Small Breed, Purina Pro Plan Adult Small Breed.

Best dog food for puppies:

The nutritional needs of dogs vary throughout their life. Most dog food companies carry specially formulated puppy foods for each stage of a dog’s life, making it easier to narrow down your choices. 

Your puppy needs a different nutrient balance than an adult dog. This is especially true for large breeds. Feeding a large breed puppy food can help, as their growth needs to be monitored carefully to prevent bone and joint problems. The best food for your puppy depends on your puppy’s size and breed. Always consult your veterinarian for recommendations on puppy feeding, and advice on how to switch puppies to adult dog food. 

There are many good brands, but I have listed a few top-rated brands for you: Royal Canin, Farmina N&D, Purina Pro Plan Focus Puppy, Hill’s Science Diet Puppy, NomNom human-grade for puppies, The Farmer’s Dog Fresh food for puppies.

Best dog food for senior dogs:

Senior dogs, usually considered 7+ years, vary in their individual nutritional needs. Younger senior dogs may struggle with being overweight and older senior dogs may struggle with being underweight, which is why there is such a variety.

Choosing the best senior dog food may come down to what your dog finds palatable. Many older dogs prefer wet food while others may need their food warmed up to enhance the aromas. Ultimately, your vet can help choose the best dog food for an older pet. 

There are many good brands, but I have listed a few top-rated brands for you: Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind, Blue Buffalo Homestyle Recipe Senior, Iams ProActive Health Mature, Orijen Senior, Wellness Natural Pet Food Complete Health, Hill’s Diet Science, Royal Canin.

Best food for overweight dogs:

For weight loss Veterinary specialist, Dr Donna Spector, recommends feeding your overweight dog a food that contains:

  • Above-average protein
  • Below-average fat
  • Below-average calories

There are many good brands, but I have listed a few top-rated brands for you: Blue Buffalo Life Protection Healthy Weight, Victor Purpose Senior Healthy Weight Dog Food, Orijen Fit and Trim Dog Food, Hill’s Science Diet Adult Perfect Weight, Merrick Grain Free Healthy Weight, Wellness Core Reduced Fat Dog Food, Natural Balance Fat Dogs.

Best food for dogs with special dietary needs:

Allergies, sensitive stomachs, and dietary restrictions affect dogs, as well as people. Feeding dogs with special dietary needs can be tricky. Your best course of action is to consult your veterinarian for advice about the dog food that best helps with their condition.

There are many good brands, but I have listed a few top-rated brands for you: Royal Canin Veterinary Diet, Purina Pro Plan Sensitive Skin & Stomach, Diamond Care Sensitive Stomach, Blue Buffalo Basics Skin & Stomach, Wellness Complete Health.


We know you want to do everything in your power to give your dog the best life possible. Adequate nutrition and having a vet you trust are two vital parts of nurturing your dog’s long-term health and your peace of mind.

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