A dog looking up at his bowl of healthy dog food

Your fur baby is a beloved family member and you want to make sure you’re providing them with everything they need to live a long, healthy life. That’s why choosing nutritious, well-balanced dog food is so important. But between ingredient lists, different life stages and varying health needs, it can be tough to decide. Don’t worry—these handy tips and expert advice will help you understand dog food nutrition so you can find the best fit for your pup.

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1Dog food nutrition: What should you keep in mind?

“Dogs, like any mammal, require carbs, proteins and fats,” says Dr. Maggie Brown-Bury, a veterinarian at the Veterinary Specialty Centre of Newfoundland and Labrador. “These are the key building blocks for energy, tissue repair and regeneration.” Many pet foods are formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. When in doubt, consult your vet. 

  • Proteins: Essential for growth, proteins with complete amino acid profiles can be found in animal products such as chicken, lamb, turkey, beef, fish and eggs. Vegetables, cereals and soy are also protein sources, but are considered incomplete proteins.[1]
  • Fats: Necessary for energy, cell structure and the production of some hormones, fats also help absorb certain vitamins.[2]
  • Carbohydrates: Carbs are needed for energy, reproduction and intestinal health.[3]
  • Vitamins and minerals: As long as your dog eats a properly balanced diet, Dr. Brown-Bury says pet parents don’t have to worry about added vitamins and minerals.[4]

2How do you read the label to ensure you’re buying healthy dog food?

Dog food label

Ultimately, it comes down to how your individual dog reacts to the diet, says Dr. Brown-Bury: Make sure they’re eating well, having normal, regular bowel movements and their coat is shiny and healthy. Here are a few things you can consider:

  • Number of ingredients: “Look for a short ingredient list with one animal source and two or three plant-based ingredients,” says Dr. Brown-Bury.
  • Meat protein: Ingredients are listed by weight, which means the ones listed first are the heaviest. A meat protein should be one of the first ingredients.
  • By-products: You don’t need to fear the term “animal by-product.” Dr. Brown-Bury says by-products aren’t suitable for human consumption, but they’re still a valuable nutrient source for dogs.
  • Marketing tactics: Be wary of marketing terms like “organic,” which doesn’t have a consistent definition.
  • “Grain-free” foods: Some grain-free dog foods have been linked to canine heart disease.[5]
  • AAFCO statement: There should also be a statement on the package confirming that the pet food has been formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO’s Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.

These dog foods all have meat as the first ingredient and include the AAFCO statement:

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3Should you feed your dog wet, dry or raw dog food?

For the average dog, there’s no significant benefit to choosing wet food versus dry—some dogs actually like a mix of both. It really comes down to your pooch’s preference and what kind of prep and storage you’re ready to deal with.

  • Wet dog food: Some picky eaters may prefer wet food over dry, but it tends to be more expensive and expires much quicker. Always refrigerate after opening.[6]

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  • Dry dog food: Dry food is lower maintenance, says Dr. Brown-Bury. It also tends to be the most affordable option.[7] “If you have a grazer, it keeps well when left out for a while, whereas wet food becomes crusty and unappetizing,” says Dr. Brown-Bury.

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  • Raw dog food: You should only go the raw food route if you’ve done the research to make sure it’s suitable for your lifestyle, says Dr. Brown-Bury. Raw food diets have an increased risk of bacterial contamination, so the approach isn’t ideal for households with children, elderly folks or anyone with a weakened immune system.[8]

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4Does your dog’s age affect the type of food you should buy?

Puppy golden retriever and senior golden retriever

Since there are different requirements for growing puppies versus adult and senior dogs, foods are labeled for three life stages, says Dr. Brown-Bury.

  • Puppies: Puppies (up to six or 24 months, depending on the breed[9]) need up to twice the energy intake of adult dogs and a food that contains 25 to 30 percent protein.[10] It’s a good idea to choose puppy food based on the breed size.

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  • Adult dogs: Adult dogs need the right type and amount of food to meet their energy needs, which will vary depending on size and energy output. Activity levels range dramatically between pets, which affects their ideal caloric intake.[11] Choose food labeled as “adult dog food.”

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  • Senior dogs: A dog transitions to senior status between seven and 12 years of age. At this life stage, they need senior dog food that takes into account changes in metabolism, immune system and body composition. Look for higher levels of antioxidant compounds, such as vitamin E and beta-carotene, which may boost their immune system.[12]

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5Do small breeds and large breeds have different dietary needs?

Large breed and small breed dogs

Dog foods are often sold according to size: small or large. Once your pup is an adult, buying food according to their size isn’t as important if they’re healthy and maintaining an ideal weight.[13]

However, it is a good idea to do some research on your dog’s breed(s), says Dr. Brown-Bury. “Some breeds have specific predispositions, such as being more active or more sedentary, and may have particular diet requirements,” she says. Miniature Schnauzers, for example, have a higher risk of pancreatitis, so keeping them on a low-fat diet may be a good idea.

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6How can you save money on dog food?

You don’t have to buy the most expensive food to meet your dog’s nutritional needs. Many affordable brands follow AAFCO guidelines just like premium products. That means you can feel comfortable buying dog food if it has an AAFCO statement on its label.

To save money, you can feed your dog dry food (it costs less than wet food) and buy in bulk to save on each portion. You can also subscribe to save five per cent at Walmart with recurring orders.

7What if your dog has health concerns?

If your furry BFF has a health condition, their nutritional requirements can change a lot. Consult with your veterinarian about what kind of dietary changes you should make.[14] In some cases, says Dr. Brown-Bury, a prescription diet may be necessary.

  • Diabetes: A high-fibre diet may help to normalize glucose levels.[15]
  • Pancreatitis: Inflammation of the pancreas can be painful for your pooch. They’ll require smaller, more frequent meals and a diet that’s lower in fat.[16]
  • Tooth decay: Untreated dental issues can lead to tooth loss, painful abscesses and infections. They also increase dogs’ risk of heart disease.[17] Look for dry kibbles that are formulated to help remove plaque and tartar buildup.[18]
  • Arthritis: Osteoarthritis can occur in dogs when the cartilage protecting the bones of their joints is destroyed. A diet with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 fatty acid, may help reduce inflammation.[19]
  • Allergies: Unusually itchy ears and/or paws can be a sign of a food allergy. The most common food allergens for dogs are proteins, especially from dairy, beef, lamb, chicken, chicken, eggs and soy or gluten (from wheat).[20]
  • Excess weight: If your dog is overweight, look at how many calories they’re getting in a day and see how you can reduce that amount, says Dr. Brown-Bury. Treats have calories, too!
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What to Avoid
Table scraps are a big no-no. “A lot of foods we eat—such as onions, garlic, grapes, raisins and chocolate—are toxic for dogs,” says Dr. Brown-Bury. “You also don’t want them to get too much fat or salt.” If you really want to share with Fido, she recommends preparing lean cuts of meat and avoiding seasoning.

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8How often should you feed your dog treats?

“We want to express our love and create a bond with our dog and food is an easy way to do this,” says Dr. Brown-Bury. But it’s important to keep in mind that some treats are very high in calories and are best used as a reward to help shape good behaviours and establish routines. For example, if you give your dog a biscuit before bed, they’ll start to associate it with bedtime.

If you are doing treat-based training, adjust the amount you feed them at mealtimes: treats should account for five per cent or less of your dog’s daily food intake.[21]

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Get Everything You Need

Article Sources

  1. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dog Nutrition Tips.
  2. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dog Nutrition Tips.
  3. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dog Nutrition Tips.
  4. S. Food and Drug Administration. Vitamin D Toxicity in Dogs.
  5. CBC News. FDA names 16 dog-food brands with potential link to canine heart disease.
  6. American Kennel Club. How to Choose the Best Dog Food.
  7. American Kennel Club. How to Choose the Best Dog Food.
  8. Association of American Feed Control Officials. Raw Foods.
  9. American Kennel Club. When Does My Puppy Finish Growing?
  10. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dog Nutrition Tips.
  11. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dog Nutrition Tips.
  12. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dog Nutrition Tips.
  13. Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University, Clinical Nutrition Service. Breed Specific vs All Breed Diets.
  14. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dog Nutrition Tips.
  15. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Common Dog Diseases.
  16. American Kennel Club. Pancreatitis in Dogs – Symptoms, Causes & Treatment.
  17. American Kennel Club. Dog Dental Care: Is It Worth It?
  18. VCA Hospitals. Dental Disease in Dogs.
  19. American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation. Managing Canine Arthritis.
  20. American Kennel Club. Puppy Feeding Fundamentals.
  21. VCA Hospitals. Food Allergies in Dogs.