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We want what’s best for our dogs, especially regarding their food. A proper diet sets the stage for overall good health. However, with dog food commercials galore and a bewildering array of dog foods from which to choose, how can a pet parent know what to feed their dog?
Because so many factors (e.g., breed, life stage, health status) determine a dog’s ideal diet, your veterinarian will be the best source of information for what your dog should eat. That being said, it certainly helps to learn some dog food basics so you can be better informed about what to feed your dog.
Dog food basics
Dogs are omnivores, meaning that they eat meat and plants to meet their nutritional requirements. There are six primary components of a healthy dog diet:
- Water. Like people, dogs can’t survive without water. Dogs must have free access to fresh, clean water. Water can also come from food; canned foods are at least 60% water, and dry foods have up to about 10% water. Without enough water, dogs become dehydrated and can develop serious health problems.
- Protein. Proteins are the building blocks for just about everything in the body. They help the body grow, repair itself, and maintain normal functioning. Proteins are either animal-based, like chicken and salmon, or plant-based. Animal-based proteins tend to be more digestible than plant-based proteins. A protein deficiency can lead to many problems, including weight loss and impaired healing.
- Fats. Fats are the most energy-dense component of a dog’s diet. Among many functions, fats provide insulation and protect internal organs. Essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can be obtained only through the diet. Fat deficiencies in dogs are rare but can cause signs such as a dull coat and reduced physical activity.
- Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are another dietary energy source. Fiber, which comes from foods like plants and vegetables, is a type of carbohydrate that promotes proper food digestion. Although there is no minimum requirement for carbohydrates in a dog’s diet, dogs with high-energy needs, such as working dogs, need a lot of carbohydrates.
- Vitamins. Vitamins like A, C, and E play vital roles in a dog’s health. Many vitamins can be obtained only through the diet. Vitamin supplementation should be given only if a dog has a diagnosed vitamin deficiency; vitamin over supplementation can make dogs quite sick.
- Minerals. Minerals must come from the diet. Their functions include providing structural support for bones and teeth and helping with metabolism. Dogs eating well-balanced diets rarely develop mineral deficiencies.
How to choose a dog food
Select the best-quality dog food that your budget will allow. How do you know what’s high-quality, though? First, look for the Association of American Feed Control Officials label on the bag of dog food. This label indicates the food is “complete and balanced,” meaning that it meets all of the minimum nutrient requirements for dogs.
Next, scan the food label. Admittedly, dog food labels are hard to understand. Here are some basic guidelines for reading the label:
- Look for whole-food ingredients that are real, recognizable, and pronounceable.
- Pay attention to the order of ingredients, which is by weight. Fresh meat will be listed lower because, after processing, it loses most of its water and becomes lighter.
- Do not automatically discount animal byproducts. Quality animal byproducts can be very nutritious.
- Contact the company if you’d like more information about their food. Also, talk to your veterinarian if you’re unfamiliar with certain ingredients.
Although grain-free diets for dogs are becoming more popular, they are typically only necessary for dogs with grain allergies. Moreover, grain-free diets are currently being investigated by the FDA because of a possible link to heart problems. Do not feed your dog a grain-free diet unless your veterinarian recommends it.
As mentioned earlier, a lot of factors determine an individual dog’s ideal diet. For example, puppies need more nutrients that support a growing body, while senior dogs need a nutrient mix that will help manage chronic diseases. Other dogs have to avoid certain ingredients because of food allergies. Your veterinarian will consider all of these factors and advise you on which diet would be best for your dog.
In summary, dogs need a complete and balanced diet (fed in the proper amount, of course) to be healthy. Deciding what to feed your dog can be complicated and even overwhelming. Take time to learn how to read a food label and work with your veterinarian to select the highest quality and most appropriate food for your dog.
Content provided by JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM. Dr. Pendergrass is owner and founder of JPen Communications, a medical communications company specializing in consumer education.
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