Strolling down the pet food aisle at your grocery store or big-box pet supply store can overwhelm pet owners. So many brands and varieties to choose from. How do you know what to feed your dog? Should your dog eat dry food, wet food or people food? How much do dogs need to eat? Are there ingredients that are harmful to your dog? We’ve collected 15 dog food nutrition tips to simplify your research.
Tip 1: Choose Age-Appropriate Dog Food
Dog food comes in three basic age-related categories: puppy food, adult dog food, and food for senior dogs. Puppies can eat puppy food for up to 2 years, but defer to your veterinarian’s recommendations. Adult and senior dogs depend on the breed or size and their life expectancy.
- Small dogs: Adults are 18 months to 7 years, senior dogs are 8 and older
- Medium dogs: Adults are 18 months to 5 years, senior dogs are 6 years and older
- Large dogs: Adults are 2 to 5 years, and senior dogs are 6 and older
- Giant dogs: Adults are 2 to 5 years, and seniors are 6 and older
Tip 2: High Price Doesn’t Mean High Quality in Dog Food
High quality dog food does not necessarily mean it has to be high cost. Your veterinarian will recommend brands for you, and you can also look for the “complete and balanced” label from the AAFCO (more about that in the next section).
Tip 3: Look for “Complete and Balanced” Labels
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) allows pet food manufacturers to put their “complete and balanced” label on animal food products that contain all the nutrients they recommend in the right ratio recommended. They are looking for the right ratio of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber and moisture. AAFCO lists around 40 nutrients they require for dog food. You can learn those if you’re feeling super ambitious — or you can simply look for the “complete and balanced” label.
Tip 4: Learn to Interpret Dog Food Labels
If a dog food claims to be made from beef, chicken, or other main ingredient, then 95% of the product must be made up of it. However, some dog food manufacturers use qualifiers to make their food sound more hearty than it actually is. If the manufacturer uses a qualifier like “dinner” or “meal,” as in “beef dinner for dogs,” then the product has to contain only 25% of whatever it is named. If they use the word “with,” as in “dog dinner with beef,” then it has to contain only 3%. Lastly, if the food says it is “flavored with,” it must contain a trace amount, which isn’t specified.
Tip 5: Fat Dogs Can Be Cute, But Are Unhealthy
Overweight dogs are at risk for other health issues just like us, including diabetes, heart disease, and bone and joint problems. Even if your dog does not appear to be overweight, it’s still possible to overfeed him or her. We like what PetMD advises: Feed your pet with love, not with excess food. When you are rewarding your dog with a treat, feed him a low calorie but nutritious dog training treat.
Tip 6: Always Have Water Available for Your Dog
Dogs drink water when they are thirsty. They are pros at knowing when it’s time to hydrate. If your dog spends a lot of time outdoors in the heat, make sure he’s got plenty of water in a shaded area. Change water daily, rinsing the bowl and replacing stagnant water with fresh water from the tap. When you’re on the go, take a portable dog bowl with you.
Tip 7: Dry and Wet Dog Food Are Equally Good
Some people feed their dogs dry food because they believe it helps promote dental health. Some people opt for wet food to ensure that their dogs get enough hydration. And, some people do a mix of both. All are OK, as long as your veterinarian is OK with it, and as long as the foods contain all the nutrients recommended for dogs.
Tip 8: Grain-Free Isn’t Necessarily Better
The human diet trend of eating a grain-free diet is seeing a rise in popularity in dog food. Is a grain-free diet better for dogs? Not necessarily, according to the AKC. Researchers are investigating a link between grain-free diets in dogs and a form of canine heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy. Always defer to your veterinarian’s recommendations for your pets’ diets.
Tip 9: Don’t Play Switcheroo on Your Dog’s Food
Abruptly switching your dog’s diet can upset their stomachs and make them sick. Typical symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting. If you switch their foods, do it gradually and slowly, mixing in the new food with the old. PetMD recommends 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 new food to old food ratio for several days until they’re accustomed to their new food.
Tip 10: Table Scraps Should Comprise Only 10% of a Canine’s Diet
To feed from the table or not to feed — that is the question that divides many households. Perhaps this will help settle the matter in your household: Table scraps should be only 10% of your dog’s daily diet. The rest of the time, feed your dog high quality commercial dog food.
Tip 11: People Food Can Be Toxic to Dogs
Some dogs have iron guts and can eat anything, while others just look at strange foods and it turns their insides out. Learn what “people foods” are bad for dogs and avoid them. We have a separate post about that and, yes, chocolate is on the list of foods that dogs should avoid.
Tip 12: If You Feed Your Dog Homemade Food, You Might Need to Supplement
Because commercial dog foods are engineered to be complete sources of nutrition for dogs, if you opt to feed them homemade meals, you’ll need to do your homework. Share the recipes with your veterinarian or animal nutritionist, so they can review the ingredients to ensure your dog is getting the daily recommended amount of nutrients. They might recommend a supplement.
Tip 13: Choose Portions Based on 3 Factors
All commercial dog foods will include labels that suggest how much you should feed your dog and how often you should feed your dog. You and your veterinarian should determine how much to feed your dog based on three factors: Their size, their age, and their regular activity level. Also, if a female dog is pregnant or nursing, you’ll need to adjust her dietary intake. Likewise, if you give a dog a lot of treats and rewards, you’ll want to adjust their meals.
Tip 14: Don’t Serve Your Dog Cooked Bones
PetMD warns that cooked bones become brittle and can break off and become a hazard to your dog or make them sick. They suggest that if you do give your dog a bone, it should be the same size as its head (to promote gnawing and prevent swallowing). Always monitor your dog when it’s enjoying a bone and don’t let them chew and swallow bone fragments. These can become lodged in their intestines and cause serious health problems. PetMD suggests there are benefits of giving your dog bones, but you should (a) check with a veterinarian nutritionist and (b) grind them into your dog’s meals to prevent problems.
Tip 15: Read Up on Dog Nutrition
Although the guide was published in 2006, the National Academy of Sciences’ “Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs” is still a good baseline for understanding what, when, and how much to feed your dog. It’s only 16 pages, and it is full of easy-to-read charts that illustrate dog food basics. It is authored by 10 veterinary experts and written for people like us, who just want to do the right thing by our pets. Key takeaways:
- Dogs are omnivores, meaning they eat a variety of foods from plants and animals. They can do well with a plant-based vegetarian diet.
- Dogs need protein, fat and carbohydrates to survive: Adult dogs’ calories can come from up to 50% carbs, of which 2.5% to 4.5% can come from fiber; 5.5% from fat; and 10% from protein.
- Puppies need about double the calories per pound of body weight as adult dogs of the same breed, once they’ve weaned from their mothers.
- Senior dogs need about 20% less than adult dogs of similar breed and activity levels.
- Dogs eat less frequently than cats.
The information in this article is not presented as advice. It’s the sum of our research into dog nutrition. If you have concerns or questions about how and what to feed your dog, the best source you can consult is your dog’s veterinarian.