As pet parents, we want to give our family the best. But it can feel overwhelming at times because pet companies are moving away from the “one size fits all” approach when it comes to nutrition.
Gone are the days when you would find a small selection of dog food brands at your local market and be able to choose one with confidence knowing you are buying precisely what your dog needs to thrive. Today there are a variety of products that will help you personalize your dog’s nutrition, but it also means there is an explosion of information about those products that can quickly get confusing.
Feeding your four-legged friend shouldn’t be scary, so keep reading to learn more about what your dog truly needs so you can feed them with confidence.
What’s the First Thing You Should Know About Your Dog’s Pet Food?
Understanding nutrient needs, food labels, food safety, ingredient lists, and food marketing can feel very complicated, even for your pet. One of the best resources you can use to navigate these murky waters is the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
This private, nonprofit organization helps define the ingredients used in pet food and helps to ensure that pet food products have undergone the appropriate analysis and have the necessary nutrients. If you’re like most pet owners and are looking for the best quality food for your dog, ensuring your choice includes a Nutritional Adequacy Statement from AAFCO is step one. This Statement confirms that “the food is complete and balanced for a particular life stage, or is intended for supplemental feeding only.” To learn more about label requirements for pet foods, check out the AAFCO website here.
Furthermore, research shows that nutritional diseases are rarely seen in dogs in developed countries when fed well-balanced commercial dog food. Nutrition problems in dogs are more commonly seen when they are fed imbalanced homemade diets. Well-intentioned owners sometimes cause harm by providing their pets a homemade diet that leaves out critical nutrients needed for health. Or by unknowingly feeding little Fido foods that are harmful to dog biology. If you choose to feed your dog homemade food, be sure to speak with your veterinarian to ensure the diet is complete, adequate, and safe for your pet.
Just like humans, dogs are omnivores and can, under normal circumstances, meet their nutritional needs by eating a combination of plant and animal foods. Also, just like humans, every dog is different, and their specific nutrients needs will vary based on age, breed, and activity level. But if your pet food brands a Nutritional Adequacy Statement from the AAFCO you can feel confident that, at a minimum, it includes six essential nutrients that the AAFCO states are required to support life and function in dogs. Let’s discuss these six essential nutrients in more detail.
Without water, life cannot exist. This nutrient is required for many essential body functions such as: regulating body temperature, metabolizing nutrients, lubricating joints, and protecting the nervous system.
Water makes up 70-80% of a mature dog’s lean body mass. According to Dr. Ken Tudor, Holistic Veterinarian, a good rule of thumb is to provide at least one 8oz. cup of water for each 10 lbs of your dog’s body weight. This amount is only a starting estimate and individual needs can vary based on several factors, including the dog’s diet, health, size, activity level, and environment.
While the environment (hot vs cold), the size (Chihuahua vs Great Dane) and the activity level (lap dog vs herding dog) might be obvious modifiers of water consumption, many neglect to consider how a dog’s diet and health might influence fluid intake. Dry dog food, for example, generally contains about 10% water, while canned food contains about 80% water. As a result, dogs consuming canned food generally drink less water than those on dry food diets. Moreover, medical conditions such as diabetes and hypothyroidism, or medications they are prescribed by their veterinarian, may also increase thirst and the need for water intake.
Water balance is a delicate health matter. According to the ASPCA, a 10% decrease in body water can cause serious illness, and a 15% loss can result in death. When provided ample amounts of water, healthy dogs will self-regulate consumption. So, keep those water bowls full and always speak to your vet if you notice changes in your dog’s water intake.
Protein plays many critical roles in dog physiology, such as building and repairing muscles and other body tissues, supporting new skin and hair cells, and creating chemicals like hormones needed for normal function. Dietary protein provides ten specific amino acids that dogs cannot make independently and are essential for building your pet’s many biological compounds and tissues.
Most commercial dog foods contain a combination of protein from plant and animal-based sources with digestibility between 75-90%. Dogs can survive on a vegetarian diet as long as it contains sufficient protein and all essential amino acids. However, protein from meat sources has higher bioavailability, meaning they are easier to digest and utilize, so less protein is required to meet their needs.
To get an idea of the quality of protein in your pet’s food, look for the protein sources listed in the first few ingredients on the label. Examples of good quality sources of protein include chicken, beef, eggs, lamb, fish, and specific meat meals (such as chicken meal), which are nutritious forms of dehydrated meat.
Protein requirements for dogs will differ based on age, activity level, health status, size, and protein quality of their diet. The AAFCO recommends that the daily protein requirements for dog diets include at least 22% dry matter for growing pups and 18% dry mass for fully grown dogs. Current research states that the maximum amount of protein for dogs at any age should not exceed 30% dry mass.
Like humans, dietary fats are a necessary part of a dog’s diet. Dietary fat provides energy, helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins, decreases inflammation, maintains cell membrane integrity, and helps maintain a healthy skin and coat.
Fats in dog food are typically supplied from both animal fat and oils from plants. Requirements for dogs vary with age — diets for growing puppies should contain a minimum of 8% fat as dry matter, and adult dog diets should have a minimum go 5% fat as dry weight. Note that those are minimum requirements. A diet that provides 10-15% fat is considered best to maintain health in normal adult dogs.
Carbohydrates are needed in a dog’s daily diet to provide both energy and fiber. Glucose, a simple carbohydrate, is explicitly required in adequate amounts to energize the brain and central nervous system. Fiber, on the other hand, is essential for a dog’s normal gastrointestinal function and colon health. Sufficient fiber in the diet increases fecal output, normalizes transit time, and supports gut microflora.
No specific amounts of carbohydrates are recommended in a dog’s diet, and the ideal amount will vary depending on activity levels and growth stage. It is generally accepted that grown dogs should be fed a diet with at least 20% carbohydrates. Commercial food products typically exceed this minimum and offer between 30-60% carbohydrates. Typically provided in the form of plants and grains, you can look for items such as barley, oats, brown rice, whole wheat, potato, or millet in the ingredient list.
Like humans, there are quite a few vitamins that dogs require getting from their food. These include fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as water-soluble B vitamins and choline. When your dog is receiving a complete and balanced diet, a vitamin supplement should not be necessary unless recommended by a veterinarian.
Any commercial pet foods with an AAFCO statement should be whole, balanced, and fortified with all required vitamins. Over-supplementation with vitamins and minerals is more common these days than vitamin deficiencies and can be just as harmful to your pet. If you would like further details, AAFCO has a Nutrient Requirements for Dogs table for your reference.
Minerals are nutrients that cannot be synthesized by the animal and must be consumed in the diet. Most often, minerals are responsible for the development and maintenance of structural components such as bones and teeth and maintaining fluid balance and metabolic efficiency.
Minerals to look out for to ensure a balanced diet include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium, chloride, and trace minerals such as iron, copper, zinc, manganese, selenium, and iodine. If you would like further details, the AAFCO published a Nutrient Requirements for Dogs table for your reference.
Omega-3: The 7th Nutrient
Omega-3s are a type of fatty acid that dogs cannot make independently, and recent studies suggest that this is, in fact, a seventh essential nutrient for dogs. Just like in humans, the three most studied Omega-3 fatty acids, ALA, DHA, and EPA, all support the overall health of your pet. More specifically, Omega-3s have been found to support heart health, brain health, immune health, joint health, skin and coat health, and even the behavior and mood of your fur baby.
While ALA from plant foods is often found in commercial dog food products, DHA and EPA may be harder to come by. Be sure to look for sources of omega-3 fatty acids in the ingredient list on your pet’s food. Typical DHA and EPA sources to look for include fish oils (herring, salmon, etc.), and common ALA sources include flaxseed and canola oils. The National Research Council (NRC) recommends levels of DHA and EPA in the diet of 0.13g/1,000kcal for puppies and 0.11g/1,000kcal for adult dogs.
Can You Test Your Dog’s Omega-3 Level?
Wondering if your dog would benefit from more omega-3s in their diet? There is only one way to tell. Test their Omega-3 Index. An Omega-3 Index test reflects your pet’s Omega-3 status over the last four months and will tell you if your dog’s diet is delivering adequate amounts of EPA and DHA.
Unlike the Omega-3 Index test for humans that can be completed at home, you must take your pet’s test to your vet and have them administer the blood draw. The results of the Omega-3 Index test will provide a percentage that indicates the combination of EPA and DHA in their blood. For pets like dogs and cats, the ideal level is around 3% providing benefits up to 8%.
The most efficient way to raise your dog’s Omega-3 Index is to incorporate EPA and DHA into their diet from fish, fortified dog food, or supplements. It will take 3-4 months for your pet’s Omega-3 Index to reach a new level, and it is recommend re-testing at that time. Once your pet has achieved the desired level, it is advised that you re-check their values every six to 12 months. Be sure to check with your vet before adding any supplements or human foods to your pet’s meal lineup!
5 Nutrition Tips to Consider for Your Four-legged Family Member:
It’s always a good idea to ask your veterinarian for food recommendations. However, here are some general tips that can help you decide what your furry friend will be having for dinner.
- The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has developed guidelines for the nutritional content of commercial pet foods. Make sure that your dog’s food meets the AAFCO standards.
- Select food options that have natural, recognizable, whole-food ingredients. If you understand only 2-5 ingredients out of a list of 20-30 items, this could indicate that the quality of the food is poor.
- Pet food labels must list the percentage of protein, fat, fiber, and water in food. When reading labels, keep in mind that what may appear to be a big difference – for example, 8% protein in canned dog food vs. 27% protein in dry dog food – reflects the fact that there is more water in the canned food. Canned food typically has more water, fat, and protein than dry food. Neither is good or bad, but one may benefit your dog more based on their needs and lifestyle.
- Consider your dogs’ breed and lifestyle. Was your dog’s breed developed in the Arctic Circle? Or did they come from a long line of desert dwellers? Are they herding dogs or lap dogs? These considerations can help guide your choices on the type of diet that may be common in the place of origin and how calorie-dense the food should be.
- Measuring essential fats like Omega-3s can help dogs maintain a diet that delivers a healthy amount of these nutrients, which they often lack. Routine testing and adjusting the amount of omega-3 EPA and DHA in your pet’s diet can help you determine the appropriate dose of EPA and DHA needed to maintain an optimal Omega-3 Index.
Are you interested in diving deeper?
Check out the American College of Veterinary Nutrition website for more great information on all things pets.