We all know the difference good nutrition can make to our own health, energy levels and general well-being. Well, the same is true for our canine friends!
If you head to the pet store you will find a huge variety of choices for dog nutrition on offer. Canned food v kibble; life stage diets; breed-specific diets; raw diets; home-cooked diets…. it can all feel a bit daunting!
Then there’s the question of how much to feed your dog and how often. Here we will clear up the confusion, so that you can make informed decisions about the best nutrition for your dog.
Nutritional requirements for dogs
In order to make decisions about the best diet for your dog, you need to understand their nutritional requirements.
Although dogs are in the order Carnivora, their teeth and guts have evolved and adapted to an omnivorous diet. Dogs cannot thrive on a meat-only diet, so plant-based ingredients must be included. However, carefully balanced vegetarian diets are possible, much like in humans.
A dog’s nutritional requirements vary with age, or life-stage. Young puppies have very different needs from elderly dogs. Life-stage diets take these differences into account, and it is very important to feed a diet suitable for your dog’s age.
So, what are the nutritional requirements for dogs? There are 6 basic nutrients that dogs need, which are essential for the body to function. These essential nutrients for dogs are as follows:
Water is the most important nutrient, since dogs cannot survive long without it. The amount of water your dog needs to drink will depend on factors including their diet, overall health and body weight. Climate also plays a part, since in hot weather dogs will need to drink more. As a general rule dogs need around 50 ml of water per kg (2.2 lb) of body weight per day.
Healthy dogs tend to be pretty good at maintaining their own water intake. Canned food tends to be around 75-80% water, compared with around 10-12% water in dry food. So, naturally, a dog on a canned diet will drink less than one fed on kibble because they’re taking in much of their water in their food.
Always make sure there is plenty of fresh water available. You can encourage your pup to drink more water by having multiple water bowls around the house, and using a water fountain. Canned food is also a good way to increase water intake if needed.
Dogs use protein and fats as their main energy sources, but can also use carbohydrates. Protein is essential for tissue growth and repair, as well as enzyme, hormone and immune function.
Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 10 amino acids which are ‘essential’ to dogs. This means dogs cannot make them themselves, therefore they must come from the diet. Essential amino acids aren’t stored in the body for long either, so a constant dietary source is essential.
Most dog foods contain a combination of animal and plant protein sources. As a general rule, most healthy adult dogs need a minimum of 18% protein as dry matter. (Note: the % protein listed on your dog’s diet will be on an as-fed basis. You’ll need to convert it to a dry matter basis in order to compare the protein content between diets.)
The digestibility of the protein, i.e. how easily it can be used by the body, is just as important as the amount. Since protein digestibility is not listed on the pet food label, we have to either rely on the reputation of the brand or contact them for further information.
Fat is a source of energy and essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs are needed for healthy skin and coat, immune function and more. Dietary fats enable the absorption, transport and storage of fat-soluble vitamins. Fat also increases the palatability of the food, meaning it tastes yummy!
We know dietary fat is essential, but too much can lead to obesity and cause deficiencies in other nutrients. Generally, healthy adult dogs need a minimum 5% fat as dry matter.
Carbohydrates provide a source of both energy and fiber. Fiber is important for gut health and motility. Cooked grains and potatoes are often used as the carbohydrate source in manufactured pet foods. It is important they are cooked, as cooked carbohydrates are easier to digest.
Since carbohydrate is not their primary energy source, there is no minimum requirement for dogs. Requirements will be higher during periods of high energy demand, such as for working dogs or nursing bitches.
Carbohydrates are still important. Cells in the body need glucose for energy. If there is not enough glucose from carbohydrate, then the body will use amino acids to make glucose. This diverts them away from their other important functions.
Dogs need two types of vitamins: fat soluble and water soluble. Vitamins are essential for many bodily functions including growth, the immune system and helping organs to function properly.
Minerals are needed for healthy bones and cartilage, enzymes, water balance in the body, oxygen transport around the body, hormone production, and muscle and nerve function.
Are there breed differences in nutritional requirements?
There are differences in metabolism between breeds, and also differences in stomach size! It’s not really surprising that different breeds have different nutritional requirements, when you consider the varying geography and climates that they have evolved from.
Smaller breeds tend to have a faster metabolism and a smaller stomach, so food designed for small breeds tends to be more energy-dense (it has more calories per gram).
Breed specific diets are often designed to help reduce the chances of breed-specific health conditions too. For instance, small breeds are prone to dental disease, so a small-breed diet may contain ingredients to prevent tartar build up.
We must remember, however, that it is more important to look at your individual dog’s needs. Not all dogs within a breed will be the same. So, while a breed-specific diet may be great for some dogs, this may not be the case for others.
For example, an overweight small breed dog would not actually benefit from an energy-rich small breed diet. Similarly, a collie that leads a sedentary lifestyle will have different nutritional needs from a working collie.
Pet food labels
Comparing nutrient contents in different pet foods can get confusing! We cannot compare % nutrients in diets unless we also take into account recommended feeding amounts, as well as water content. These contribute to how much of that nutrient your pup is actually eating.
As an example, a canned food may appear to have a much lower % protein content than a dry counterpart, but this is just because of the higher water content. When comparing nutrient content in different diets, compare the percentage of that nutrient ‘as dry matter’, since this takes into account water content, and therefore will be a true comparison.
When comparing nutrient contents, it is also important to compare feeding guidelines. The % of a nutrient needs to be looked at alongside how much you are advised to feed. Feeding guidelines of a complete pet food will take into account differing nutrient levels, and ensure that your pup gets the right amounts of each.
Feeding guidelines on pet food labels are a good starting point when working out how much to feed your dog. However, you will need to adjust these based on your dog’s individual needs. It’s important to remember that the feeding guidelines are only guidelines!
Recommended feeding amounts are designed to keep the average dog at their current weight. They can’t take into account activity levels and individual variations. If your dog needs to lose or gain weight, you will need to adjust these guidelines accordingly.
How much should I feed my dog?
How much you should feed your dog will depend on a number of factors, including age, breed, weight, overall health, activity levels, the climate and the quality of their food. The best way to work out how much to feed your adult dog is by basing it on their ‘body condition score’.
Body condition scoring is a way of assessing if your dog is at their optimal weight. You can learn to do this at home! Look at your dog from above and the side. Run your hands along their ribs. You should be able to see a clear waist and be able to easily feel, but not see, their ribs.
If your dog is overweight, you will need to feed for the body weight you would like them to be, rather than the body weight they actually are. Start with the recommended amount for their actual weight and gradually decrease the food you are offering every 1-2 weeks, keeping an eye on their body condition score as you go.
If feeding dry food, it’s much more accurate to weigh your dog’s food than to use measuring cups. Even a small error can make a big difference over time!
If your dog is under or over-weight, you should consult your veterinarian before changing their diet. Your veterinarian will check for any underlying medical conditions causing weight problems, and advise you on the best diet plan for your dog’s individual needs. It is important that weight loss and weight gain happens at a safe rate and in a controlled manner.
What about treats?
We all enjoy the odd treat, and there’s no reason why your dog shouldn’t too! Of course if your dog is overweight or has a medical condition, you should discuss this with your veterinarian first, since many treats won’t be suitable.
Treats should not make up more than 10% of your dog’s daily calorie intake. Too many treats can cause weight gain and nutritional imbalances. You could try giving some of your dog’s daily ration, outside of usual mealtimes, as a treat instead.
How often should I feed my dog?
In the wild, dogs would hunt and feed on large meals and then potentially go days without eating. Most adult dogs do well with one or two meals a day.
How often you feed your dog will also be influenced by your lifestyle and your dog’s individual preferences. Some dogs like to graze, so ad-lib feeding of kibble could be a good option. Remember to weigh their daily allowance each morning so you know how much they can have! Other dogs will eat everything offered at once, so do better with set mealtimes.
Puppies have very small stomachs and need to eat little and often, starting with 4-5 meals a day and gradually reducing as they get older. Larger breeds are best fed little and often too, since they are prone to bloat, which can be very serious.
When should I feed my dog?
When you feed your dog mostly depends on what suits your lifestyle! Dogs like routine, so find a time that works for you and stick to it.
Never feed your dog before, or immediately after, exercising them. This can cause a nasty stomach-ache, or more seriously can cause bloat. Bloat can lead to a twisted stomach, which is an emergency. This is especially important in large breeds.
Diet Supplements and Adding to Your Dog’s Diet
Whole food additives for your dog
There are 23 essential vitamins and minerals for dogs listed on the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Controls) Dog Nutrient Profile. These need to be included in dog food in order for the manufacturers to label it as a ‘complete’ food.
This means that it is rarely necessary to add vitamin supplements to your dog’s diet, if you are feeding a ‘complete’ food. Over-supplementing some vitamins and minerals can, in fact, be harmful, because the ratio of certain ingredients is also important.
If you are considering using a vitamin supplement for your dog, it’s always best to seek advice from your veterinarian first.
Supplements for medical conditions
Your veterinarian may well suggest certain supplements designed to help with specific medical conditions. For example, glucosamine and chondroitin are known to be useful in the early stages of arthritis. Another example is supplements to support urinary health, should your dog suffer with water infections.
So now you know how to make informed choices about your dog’s nutrition. Chose a high-quality complete food, designed for your dog’s life stage, activity level and possibly breed.
Every dog is unique, with unique nutritional needs. Your veterinarian is the best person to advise you on diet if your dog has any underlying health issues, is over or under-weight, or if you just aren’t sure!