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All dogs need nutritionally complete and balanced healthy dog food to achieve the best level of health. Sure, dogs can live on rotten scraps of human food or just chicken thighs for a while. But they won’t feel as good as they could eating a balanced diet. Their skin and coat will be riddled with dryness and sores. Their muscles will be weaker and even their mood will suffer.
We live in a time when science and technology have made it pretty easy for dogs to eat the right amount of nutrients they need to thrive.
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- Doctor, Please Tell Me How to Get My Dog to Drink Water!
- 2 Vet-Approved Recipes: Homemade Food for Senior Dogs
- 4 Vet-Approved Recipes for Homemade Dog Food for Small Dogs
- Save Money with Vet-Approved Affordable Healthy Dog Food
- Best Vet-Approved Low Carb Dog Food Options
- Vet-Recommended Dog Food for Allergies (Prescription & OTC)
- Vet-Recommended Dog Food for Bad Teeth
- Best Dog Food for Picky Eaters: 10 Surprising Vet’s Picks
- Vet-Recommended Best Dog Food for Puppies
- Vet-Recommended Best Dog Food for Urinary Health (Rx & OTC)
- Are the Best Recipes for Homemade Dog Food Safe?
- Vet-Recommended Best Weight Management Dog Food
- Ask a Vet: Cat Treats for Dogs–Which Ones Are Safest?
What Is Healthy Dog Food?
The healthiest dog food for your dog is one that he likes eating, contains the right nutrients, and is consistently produced to be safe and wholesome. Many factors determine what individual dogs need depending on their age, lifestyle and health challenges.
There is not one dog food that is best for every dog. But I’ll show you the most important factors to look for in making a choice of food for your best friend.
Nutritional Requirements of Dogs
We’ve come such a long way in understanding the nutritional needs of dogs. As time goes by, researchers discover new nutritional optimizations that help dogs live better lives.
The most important elements in dog nutrition are water, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins. Other food elements can be fed in widely varying amounts without having a bad effect on a dog. But if they don’t get the right amounts of the basic essential nutrients, they’ll eventually develop health problems.
Water is probably the most important nutrient in a dog’s diet. A dog can go a long time without eating, but without water, a dog may die within days (2).
Water is required to transport other nutrients around the body and carry out chemical reactions needed to support life. It also helps maintain the body’s structure and plays a big role in regulating body temperature.
Obviously, dogs should have a source of fresh water to drink but don’t forget about the water provided in food. Dogs eating dry dog food tend to have a lower total water intake than dogs who consume wet food.
Dogs Need Protein to Build and Grow
Proteins are large molecules made up of many linked amino acids. They come from both animal and plant sources and are used by dogs for creating body tissues like skin, muscle and nerves.
Out of the many amino acids in nature, animal researchers have determined there are 10 amino acids that dogs require in their diet. We call these “essential amino acids” because a dog can’t synthesize them from other amino acids.
Dietary deficiency in any essential amino acid can result in reduced growth, poor appetite, anemia, infertility, hair loss and poor energy level (2).
Essential Fats Must Be in a Dog’s Diet
Also called lipids, fats are made from components called fatty acids. Dietary fats come in solid and liquid form and can be found in both plant and animal-derived food ingredients.
Fats are used for energy, vitamin absorption, making body tissues and carrying out other metabolic processes.
Like amino acids, there are at least 3 specific fatty acids dogs can’t synthesize and thus require them in their diet.
A deficiency of essential fatty acids in a dog’s diet may cause poor wound healing, skin and coat problems and weight loss.
Do Dogs Need Carbohydrates and Fiber?
Carbohydrates (carbs) are molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. We usually think of grains, starchy vegetables and fruits when we talk about carbs.
High-quality carbohydrate sources like rice and sweet potatoes provide a good energy source for dogs. They also improve the taste and a dog’s willingness to eat a given dog food product.
Dogs technically have no dietary requirement for carbohydrates since they can metabolize protein and fat into glucose for energy.
In the wild, canids typically live on a pretty low-carb diet but it’s not necessarily by choice. Domestic dogs often prefer food with some carbs in it.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is resistant to digestion. Plant-derived ingredients like cellulose and bran are common sources of fiber in dog food. Fiber helps regulate the amount of water contained in stool and it feeds gut microorganisms.
Essential Minerals in a Dog’s Diet
Minerals are inorganic natural compounds found in food that are used by dogs for creating body structures, maintaining body fluid homeostasis and helping enzymes function.
Macrominerals include calcium, zinc, phosphorus, salt, chloride, potassium and magnesium among others. Trace minerals like copper and iodine are required in smaller quantities but are just as important.
Dogs must eat not only the right amount of each mineral, but some minerals have to be balanced against others for everything to work correctly.
One very important nutritional consideration I see pet owners ignore when feeding homemade food is the calcium to phosphorus ratio. Get this wrong, and your dog is in for all kinds of trouble!
Do Dogs Need Vitamins in Their Food?
Vitamins are organic compounds in food that are required for normal body functioning in dogs. Fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E and K. Water-soluble vitamins include various vitamin B’s, vitamin C and choline.
Dogs can make some vitamins, but others are required in their diet. For instance, did you know that dogs don’t require vitamin C in their diet as humans do?
Commercial dog food contains added vitamins because it’s very difficult to include everything a dog needs with food ingredients alone. When a dog eats the same thing every day (rather than a wide variety of foods like humans), added vitamins are crucial to meeting their nutritional needs.
It’s just as important to make sure your dog doesn’t get too much of each vitamin. Vitamin excess can cause problems as serious as vitamin deficiency.
Healthy Dog Food Should Be Complete and Balanced
After reading about essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins I hope you’re starting to see that feeding your dog isn’t as simple as tossing him a chicken breast and a cup of rice for a meal.
Dogs can survive on a diet that doesn’t have all the nutrients they require for a while before they develop health problems. But the longer they eat an unbalanced diet, the more likely they are to start feeling pretty crummy.
Animal nutritionists have gone to great lengths to determine the perfect amount of each protein, fat, carbohydrate, fiber, mineral and vitamin to help dogs thrive. One of the reasons we have dogs living to be 15+ years old nowadays is the availability of complete and balanced dog food.
How to Tell if Dog Food Is Healthy
In the United States, we have nutritional standards set by an independent board called Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). While they don’t individually test products to prove accuracy in labeling, at least they provide guidelines meant to be followed by dog food manufacturers.
If you buy dog food that has a statement of nutritional adequacy based on AAFCO standards on its label, your dog is very unlikely to develop a nutritional deficiency while eating that product.
But when you make your own dog food, you have so many nutrients to consider. It’s not easy to cover all your bases and make sure you don’t get too much or too little of any one ingredient.
You can make sure your recipe is complete and balanced by using a service like BalanceIT.com. It’s easy to create a homemade dog food recipe with their free software. But you must add their supplement to the food as directed or the meal will be unbalanced.
I’ve heard well-meaning dog owners say that dogs don’t have to eat balanced food at every meal as long as they eat a variety of food. That may be true in theory, I haven’t seen many dogs who eat a truly varied diet. The average dog owner feeds the same 3 or 4 ingredients over and over.
Considering the short life span of dogs, it’s even more important to make sure they’re eating every nutrient they need to be healthy and happy. They don’t have 80+ years to even things out, they only have maybe 15 years, if they’re lucky!
What Happens When Dogs Eat Unhealthy Dog Food?
Overall, dogs are pretty tough. They can survive on a diet lacking all the nutrients needed to thrive for months or years without obvious symptoms. But an unbalanced diet will eventually catch up with them!
Symptoms of an incomplete dog diet include:
- Poor growth in puppies
- Weight loss
- Abnormal bones and cartilage
- Skin and coat problems
- Poor wound healing
- Abnormal vision/eye disease
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
- Chronic diarrhea
- Poor Appetite
Which Dog Food Should I Feed MY Dog?
The best dog food for your dog is one that is complete and balanced based on the recommendations from AAFCO and NRC. It should taste good to your dog and match your need for cost and convenience.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has come up with some guidelines for choosing pet food. The WSAVA advises some of the important things to look for when choosing a dog food include:
- The manufacturer has an animal nutritionist or veterinary nutritionist on staff.
- Recipes are developed by qualified animal nutrition experts.
- Good quality control to make sure food meets AAFCO guidelines.
- Food meets recommended nutritional levels set out by AAFCO.
I recommend my clients choose a major national brand product that fits their budget since smaller boutique and regional brands are less likely to tick all the boxes set out by the WSAVA. Some of the most reputable and popular dry dog foods are made by Royal Canin, Hill’s/Science Diet, Iams, Eukanuba, Purina and Nutro.
Look for an AAFCO statement on the label and scan the ingredient list. Named protein sources are used in higher quality dry dog food, i.e. they will list “chicken” in the ingredients rather than “poultry.” However, remember that chicken meal may not sound as good as “real meat” but it is actually a high-quality protein source. High-quality dog food also tends to have protein sources appearing high on the list of ingredients.
Don’t forget to choose the appropriate food for your dog’s life stage. If your dog is less than a year old, choose puppy food or one that says it is appropriate for all life stages. Seniors may benefit from eating senior dog food, but it’s not as crucial as feeding puppies the right kind of food.
Which Kind of Wet Dog Food Should I Choose?
Although moist dog food is less popular than dry dog food, many dog owners use it as a “topper” for kibble. Many dogs love wet food, but it is quite a bit more costly than dry dog food.
This category also includes fresh refrigerated dog food (like FreshPet) and fresh frozen dog food (raw food like Stella and Chewy’s or cooked like JustFoodForDogs).
An important fact about canned food is that it almost always has a higher fat content than either dry food or fresh food. With so many dogs having a sensitive stomach or even being prone to pancreatitis, please go slowly when introducing canned dog food to your pup’s menu.
When my clients are looking for a single recommendation for the best wet dog food, I recommend they take a look at the Merrick line. They offer a ton of different flavors using different kinds of meat. They even make limited ingredient varieties for dogs who do best on a simple diet.
For people on a tighter budget, I like Purina ONE or Purina Focus canned dog food. The ingredients are high quality and there are different textures and flavors to please almost any dog. Plus, Purina is a company with a long reputation for producing well-researched dog food.
What Kind of Dry Dog Food Is Good?
The vast majority of dog owners in the United States feed their dogs solely on dry dog food. There are so many choices in dry dog food it’s overwhelming to choose just one.
If you have a relaxed budget for dry dog food, my top recommendations are for Purina, Hill’s, Eukanuba and Royal Canin. These are the brands most recommended by veterinarians not because we’ve been bribed (!), but because these companies employ veterinary nutritionists and have long track records for producing safe, consistent dog food.
No company is perfect but considering the amount of dog food these companies sell every year, they have a low rate of problems.
If you a “holistic” style dog food, think about trying Orijen, Earthborn or Canidae. All of these have been around for a long time and have been pretty consistent with their quality control. I’ve had many clients use food from these three companies successfully.
Is Homemade Dog Food Healthy?
You can most definitely feed a home-cooked dog food recipe occasionally or as a maintenance diet.
But you can’t just throw some meat, veggies and sweet potato in a bowl and expect your dog to do well in the long term. You need to make sure any food fed regularly is complete and balanced. It’s hard for people to make safe homemade dog food without help from a veterinarian.
I recommend my clients use the free software and veterinary nutritionist-created supplements available at BalanceIT.com®. You can create endless variations of dog food recipes using different animal protein like ground turkey, chicken, beef or even fish. This is a dependable way to provide your dog with a safe, nutritious, delicious meal without artificial flavors or coloring every day.
Should Dogs Eat Grain-Free Food?
A few years ago, clients started reporting that they had switched their dogs to a grain-free diet. This is often an attempt to remedy GI or skin problems or sometimes just because people have been led to believe grain is unhealthy for dogs to eat.
While some dogs may have a degree of improvement with any diet change, we have little scientific evidence that grain-free diets are any better than those with grains. In fact, some portion of dogs apparently doesn’t do well eating grain-free dog food. Veterinarians noticed more dogs were developing heart disease after eating grain-free food.
I don’t necessarily recommend feeding your dog grain-free food. Since we don’t have good evidence that grain-free dog food improves any health condition in dogs, I urge my clients to be very cautious when going grain-free.
Unless your dog has a specific allergy or sensitivity to grain, you should choose a traditional-style dog food that includes grain.
Is a Low-Carb Diet Good for Dogs?
Low-carb diets have been popular with humans for several decades now. Most people use them for weight loss and wonder about feeding low-carb dog food to their overweight dogs. Low-carb dog food may help dogs achieve a healthy weight without being super hungry all the time.
Domestic dogs have adapted to eating a higher level of carbohydrates than their wild ancestors. However, some dogs might do better eating fewer carbohydrates. We need more scientific studies before making a decision about low-carb dog food’s value.
Prescription Dog Food for Health Issues
Research and technology have developed some wonderful therapeutic pet foods. Some require a prescription from a veterinarian but others are available over the counter.
If your dog has any sort of health issue, it’s worthwhile to consider the role of his diet. Consult your vet to find out if you could help your dog feel better by altering his diet.
Canine diseases that benefit from a special diet include:
- Kidney and Bladder Disease
- Heart Disease
- Allergic Skin Disease
- Bowel Disease
- Orthopedic Disease
- Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
- Liver Disease
- Weight Abnormalities (Over- or Underweight)
How Much Should I Feed My Dog?
Answering this question in a sentence or two is impossible. It’s like asking how much food should a human eat. Many factors must be considered including body size, body condition, activity level and age.
Veterinarians use these formulas from the National Research Council (NRC) to calculate the caloric needs for dogs:
Active Adult: 130 kcal x BWkg0.75
Inactive Adult: 95 kcal x BWkg0.75
If you don’t like math and you have a healthy, adult dog you can consult the calorie needs chart provided by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA).
I’ve provided a few calculations of caloric needs for typical adult spayed/neutered dogs. These are very rough estimates only. Your dog may need up to 50% more or fewer calories:
|Weight in Pounds||Daily Caloric Needs|
If you have a puppy, pregnant, nursing or working dog enlist the help of your veterinarian to calculate your dog’s caloric needs.
Calorie content of a particular dog food can be found by reading the label, consulting the manufacturer’s website, looking up the food on Chewy.com or calling the food manufacturer.
Dog food varies a lot in its calorie content. Some dry dog foods have fewer than 300 calories per cup while others have more than 500 calories per cup. You can’t base the amount you feed on cups unless you use the feeding guide on the food’s label.
Many commercial dog food products have a feeding guide on the label but I’ve found most overestimate the amount an average house dog needs to take in. Knowing how many calories your dog needs will allow you to dial in the amount more closely, adjusting up or down according to body condition and scale weight.
Where Is the Best Place to Buy Dog Food?
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices to two or three dog food products, next you need to figure out the best place to buy it. You’re lucky to live in a time when we have so many options for purchasing pet products.
The most obvious place to buy dog food is from the grocery store where you buy your own food. Although they usually stock a range of products, grocery stores tend to have more of low- and mid-priced dog foods.
If you’ve decided to feed premium or specialty dog food, check out local pet food stores like PetSmart, PetCo and Pet Club. They have a huge variety of dry dog food, moist food, fresh food and even raw food. It’s a little less convenient than getting food at the grocery store and likely to be more expensive but the selection is great.
If you’re organized and want to save money, check out online retailers like Amazon.com and Chewy.com. They have hundreds of different dog foods and will ship them to your door, often with no shipping charge. But you could be out of luck if you forget to order food and run out.
Prescription and specific specialty foods can be found at your veterinary clinic, some pet food stores like PetSmart and some online retailers. Pricing on prescription food is often the same no matter where you buy it, so convenience might be the deciding factor.
The best food for your dog is one that is affordable, nutritionally complete and balanced, safe/wholesome and convenient. It should also be suited to your dog’s life stage and any special nutritional requirements like a sensitive stomach or skin. Major national brands tend to provide safe, consistent products formulated and overseen by animal nutritionists.
- Dämmrich, K. (1991). Relationship between nutrition and bone growth in large and giant dogs. The Journal of nutrition, 121(suppl_11), S114-S121.
- Hand MS, Thatcher CD, Remillard RL, Roudebush P, eds. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th ed. Marceline, MO: Mark Morris Institute.
- Larsen, J. (2010). Focus on nutrition-feeding large-breed puppies. Compendium Continuing Education for Veterinarians, 32(5).National Research Council (2006, July 24). YOUR DOG’S NUTRITIONAL NEEDS A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners. Retrieved August 29, 2021 from https://www.nap.edu/resource/10668/dog_nutrition_final_fix.pdf