We all know that our food choices affect our health and quality of life, and this also holds true for your dog. A nutritious diet will go a long way toward keeping him healthy and happy from puppyhood through old age. In contrast, a poor-quality diet can contribute to health and problem behaviors, including dry skin, itchiness, hot spots (sores), large or loose stools, hyperactivity or lack of energy, and a host of other problems. Poor nutrition can ultimately shorten your dog’s life.
Deciding what to feed our dogs can be tough. Stores these days offer a mind-boggling variety of commercial dog foods, while many websites, magazines, and books promote a range of homemade options. If you have more than one dog and they differ in size, age, or energy level, the decision can be even more difficult. No matter what diet you choose for your dog, someone will undoubtedly tell you you’ve chosen poorly. What’s a loving, conscientious dog owner to do?
A basic understanding of canine nutritional needs and the ingredients that support those needs will help you make an informed choice that will keep your dog well fed without breaking the bank. Let’s take a look at the basics.
Canine Food Sources
Like his wild cousins, that dog snoring on your couch is a carnivore. Those long canine teeth (fangs) are designed to slash and hang on to prey. Unlike your flat-topped molars, which are designed for chewing, your dog’s molars are sharp and serrated—the perfect tools for shearing off hunks of meat that can be swallowed more or less whole and processed efficiently by the canine digestive system. Although dogs do need some non-meat-based nutrients, their stomachs aren’t very good at breaking down the tough cellulose walls of raw vegetables. In the wild, carnivores get some nutrition from the partially digested plants in the stomachs and intestines of their prey, and wild canines sometimes eat wild berries and fruits. Cooking replaces predigestion for domestic dogs.
What a Healthy Diet Looks Like
The ultimate measure of your dog’s diet is, of course, your dog himself. If he has healthy skin, a glossy coat, no excess fat, and the energy and attitude appropriate to his breed(s) and age, then his diet is probably providing the right nutrients in the proper proportions. If not, it may be time to reassess his diet. According to guidelines from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a properly balanced canine diet (whether commercial or homemade) includes the following components to promote good health.
Approximately 18 to 22 percent of a dog’s diet should be high-quality protein, but age, size, activity level, and health status can affect individual dogs’ needs. Proteins are highly concentrated in meats, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, soy beans, and dehydrated plant extracts.
The AAFCO doesn’t set a minimum dietary requirement for carbohydrates for dogs, but properly cooked vegetables provide the glucose from carbohydrates that is necessary for proper functioning of the brain and certain other tissues. However, dogs don’t digest raw or undercooked starchy foods well and may become flatulent from eating them.
Approximately 5 to 8 percent of a dog’s diet should be dietary fat from meats, milk, butter, and vegetable oils. Dietary fat not only makes food taste better, but also provides energy, cushions internal organs, insulates your dog against the cold, and helps transport nutrients to the organs. Most lower-quality dog foods have more fat than recommended because it’s cheaper than protein. Dogs may appear to thrive on high-fat foods for a while, but a lack of protein, vitamins, and minerals will ultimately take a toll on their health.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals build and strengthen bones and cell tissues, help organs function properly, and promote good health in many other ways. Good commercial dog foods are fortified with proper amounts of vitamins and minerals. Although a lack of these essential nutrients can cause serious health problems, the same is true for excess amounts. Never give your dog supplements without consulting your veterinarian first.
Although water isn’t technically food, it is essential for sound nutrition. With the exception of housetraining, your dog should have access to clean water at all times.
Commercial or Homemade?
Now that we have a handle on the basics of canine nutrition, let’s consider the two main approaches to feeding pet dogs: commercial foods and homemade foods. Each offers benefits and drawbacks, so the key is to choose a healthful option that works for you and your dog.
Commercial dog foods come in dry, semi-moist, canned, and frozen forms. You can find foods for puppies, adults, and seniors; for overweight dogs and active dogs; for dogs with allergies; and for big dogs and small dogs. A few companies even promote special foods for individual breeds. In the end, however, the basic nutrients mentioned earlier determine nutritional quality, so the key to finding a good commercial dog food is reading the label carefully.
Ideally, the first two or three ingredients will be animal proteins, not grains, from human-grade meats. Check that the nutrients fall within AAFCO guidelines. If your dog shows signs of allergies (particularly itchy skin or feet), avoid foods with corn, wheat, and soy—they are frequently linked to canine allergies and digestive problems. In general, the fewer chemical preservatives, dyes, and fillers, the better.
The price tags on commercial dog foods vary wildly, and it can be tempting to go for a cheaper option. Remember that price reflects quality to some extent. Cheap foods use cheap ingredients, and often contain dyes and fillers. Some well-known, high-priced “premium” foods spend enormous amounts of money on advertising (that’s why they’re well-known!) but use lower-quality ingredients than some lesser-known foods. Spend some time in a well-stocked pet supply store or online and study the labels before you choose.
If you find you’re not comfortable with the commercial options, you may want to consider a homemade diet. The major advantage of such a diet is that you control what your dog eats. On the other hand, preparing a homemade diet requires a fair amount of time for research, shopping, and food preparation. You also need refrigerator and freezer space to store meats, dairy products, and vegetables, as well as air-tight, vermin-proof containers to store the dry ingredients.
If you choose to plan a homemade diet for your dog, be sure to use science-based sources of information. There’s a lot of information available at the click of a mouse, but it isn’t all reliable.
Whatever you choose to feed your dog, remember that the ultimate test is how he reacts to his diet. Here’s to healthy weight, joyful energy, glossy fur, and a wagging tail!
Sheila Webster Boneham, PhD, writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, much of it focused on animals, nature, and travel. Sheila has published 17 nonfiction books about animals, six of which have been named best in their categories by the Dog Writers Association of America and the Cat Writers Association. In addition to her own dogs, Sheila has fostered many rescue dogs and cats, and helped found two rescue programs. Sheila trains and competes in several canine sports, and her dogs have served as therapy dogs in schools, hospitals, libraries, and nursing homes. In addition to her Aussies, Sheila has had at least one Labrador Retriever in her home since 1988, and in November 2012, she and her husband adopted a 12-year-young Golden Retriever.