You want to give your canine companion only the best of everything, including their food. Today’s endless store-bought dog food options tend to come with confusing labels that can perplex the most practiced pet parent. Are you wondering if the food you give your dog meets his nutritional needs? This guide discusses what essential nutrients your dog needs and deciphers those complex dog food labels.
What Nutrients Do Dogs Need?
Like humans, dogs require certain nutrients to maintain good health. And, just like us, dogs have different nutritional needs during different ages and life stages such as pregnant and nursing females, dogs with illness-related deficiencies, and dogs that have special needs.
Proteins and Amino Acids
Dietary protein comes from building blocks called amino acids that your dog cannot make on his own but is necessary for his survival. These essential organic compounds are responsible for immune system function, hormone production, muscle growth, support of hair and nails, and carrying nutrients throughout the body.
Dogs can experience several health problems without enough protein, such as poor digestion, weight loss, muscle loss, weakness, and fluid build-up in their abdomen or chest. The best sources of essential amino acids are meat, chicken, and eggs.
Fats and Fatty Acids
Mainly derived from animal fats and plant seed oils, dietary fats provide a concentrated source of energy. These fats supply the body with essential fatty acids the body cannot produce, plus they aid cell growth, support the immune system, and help maintain healthy skin.
Lack of adequate fats in your pet’s diet can lead to areas of hair loss in your dog’s coat, or hair may become dry, brittle, dull, or lose its color. Fats in dog food are usually derived from animal fats such as salmon or herring and plant oils like canola or flaxseed.
While carbohydrates aren’t a necessary nutrient, carbohydrates provide a source of energy and fiber for your dog. They come from plants and grains and typically make up 30-70% of dry dog food. Without carbohydrates, your dog will have less energy and have issues with weight as the fiber in carbs helps keep your dog full, aids digestion, supports colon health, and can help control blood sugar levels in diabetic canines. On a bag of dog food, look for familiar carbohydrate sources in the first few ingredients, such as:
- Barley (pearled)
- Brown rice
- Oats (or whole oats)
- Potato (or sweet potato)
- Whole corn
- Whole wheat
Quality ingredients often include the word “whole” to indicate the product contains important nutrients and fiber that can keep your pet satisfied and energized.
What vitamins do dogs need?
Your dog needs several vitamins, including A, C, D, E, K, along with B vitamins like B6, B12, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, and folic acid. These vitamins help your dog’s body with many functions, such as regulating the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates, bone growth, hormone regulation, and immune response.
Before you read the following list, please be advised that any dog food that includes the words “complete and balanced” already has all of the following. The lists below are given to help you understand the benefits of the vitamins and minerals and what would happen in the rare case of a dog being deficient.
- Vitamin A (beta-carotene) deficiency can lead to dry skin, nighttime blindness, and a weakened immune system. Good sources of vitamin K include carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin.
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) deficiency is evidenced by flaky skin, fainting, stunted growth, and possible heart failure. Look for whole grains, vegetables, and leafy greens in your pet’s food.
- Vitamin B3 (niacin) deficiency can cause your dog’s tongue to take on a black or brown color, inflamed gums and lips, loss of appetite, bloody diarrhea, seizures, and possibly death. Good sources include vegetables, whole grains such as oats, brown rice, and quinoa.
- Vitamin B6 deficiency often results in epilepsy, kidney damage, allergies, asthma, arterial disease, and cancer. Look for sweet potatoes, pumpkin, bananas, peanut butter, and oats in your dog’s food.
- Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets, swollen joints, and bowed legs. Too much vitamin D can cause too much calcium to build up in your dog’s muscle, including the heart, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, hemorrhaging, and bone pain. Because it can cause toxicity, your pet is best off getting his Vitamin D from the sun.
- Vitamin E deficiency results in issues with the eyes, muscles, nerves, heart, and liver. Too much Vitamin E can prevent your dog’s body from absorbing vitamins A and K. Good sources include peanut butter, almond butter, and other healthy oils.
- Vitamin K deficiency can cause hemorrhaging because the body is unable to clot blood. You can find Vitamin K in leafy greens like kale and spinach.
What minerals do dogs need?
Minerals are essential nutrients for your dog’s health and well-being. Calcium and phosphorus are fundamental to strong teeth and bones. Magnesium helps muscle and bone development, while sodium and chloride control the fluid in and around the body’s cells. Potassium also helps regulate fluid balance and is essential for muscle and nerve function. Sulfur aids in the maintenance of healthy hair, skin, and nails. Trace minerals such as zinc, copper, iron, manganese, and selenium also play roles in many bodily functions, such as providing oxygen to organs and muscles and boosting your dog’s immune system.
- Insufficient levels of calcium or phosphorus can lead to weakness, bone deformities, and fractures. Since magnesium helps the body absorb calcium, you’ll want ingredients that contain all three of these macrominerals, such as bone meal, beans, fish, muscle and organ meats, vegetables, and wheat bran.
- An imbalance of either sodium or chloride can cause hair loss, dehydration, fatigue, and paralysis.
- Potassium deficiency can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, and other issues similar to those seen from sodium and calcium deficiencies. Sources include carrots, potatoes, peas, and beans.
- A sulfur deficiency causes skin conditions to develop. Look for eggs, fish, meat, and molasses in your pet’s food.
Now that you know your dog nutritional requirements, let’s look at how to decipher a dog food label.
Reading Dog Food Labels
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets the standards for pet food. They tell pet food manufacturers what is and isn’t acceptable in your dog’s food. While there is a wide variety of commercial dog food available, labels have standard components as set by the AAFCO that include:
- Brand and product name that must follow rules including:
- The 95% rule holds that 95% of the dog food must be the ingredient in the product name, such as “beef for dogs.” The remaining 5% must be vitamins, minerals, and small amounts of nutritional ingredients.
- The 25% rule is similar in that the dog food must contain 25% of the main ingredient listed in the product name, such as “duck and sweet potato entrée.” Products that fall into this category (between 25-95%) must contain the words dinner, entrée, or platter.
- The “with” rule states if the product name has the word “with” like “doggie platter with chicken and vegetables,” the product only needs to contain at least 3% of the “with” ingredient, in this case, chicken.
- Guaranteed analysis specifies the amount of nutrients, including the minimums of crude protein and fat and maximums of crude fiber and moisture. If you come across “crude” in the ingredients list, this represents the estimated percentage of protein, fat, and fiber in the dog food.
- Ingredients by amounts (weights) in decreasing order. So, in other words, the product contains more of the first listed ingredient than the second, third, fourth, etc. Some common ingredients include meat, poultry, and by-products, all of which contain some animal parts to a specified degree.
- Nutritional adequacy statement indicates the food contains a certain level of nutrients and what specific or combination of life stages it is intended for, like growth, reproduction, and adult maintenance.
Do Dogs Need Vitamins and Supplements?
If you are concerned that your dog isn’t getting the right amount of nutrition from its food, talk to your veterinarian about supplementing your dog’s daily meals.
Many commercial dog foods contain the recommended daily allowances of nutrients for dogs if the package has a “complete and balanced” label on it. However, you might consider supplementing your dog’s diet if your female dog is pregnant or nursing, if you feed your dog homemade dog food, if your dog is overweight or underweight. A water soluble or water added supplement is recommended because it is easy to administer and it contains no additional calories.