Ultimate Guide To Dog Nutrition

Bulldog bowl on head

Brisk, early-morning walks with my forever-playful dog are the highlight of my day. When I heard about 16 well-known dog food brands that the FDA linked to increased heart disease, I was more than alarmed. Like you, I want my dog to live a happy and pain-free life for as long as possible, so I did a deep dive into dog nutrition research. Here’s what I found.

What Should I Feed My Dog?

Assuming that your dog isn’t sick or has some chronic medical condition, you’ll want to give him or her a consistent diet that supports overall good health. For most people, this means relying on processed dog food that manufacturers have safety tested and that veterinary specialists have approved for pet consumption. Here are some advantages and risks for the most popular types of commercially available dog food.

Semi-Moist, Wet, and Dry

Semi-moist dog food is the type that comes in shelf-stable, single-serve pouches. They come in a variety of flavors and contain portions of cooked meats, grains, and vegetables. Semi-moist dog food has a high water content, which is good for your dog’s digestive system. However, this type of dog food is usually high in sugar, salt, artificial flavorings, and colors. Veterinarians don’t recommend semi-moist dog food for regular meals; semi-moist dog food is more like a treat for dogs.

Wet dog food comes in cans, and most brands have a higher water content than semi-moist dog food. The hearty, stew-like meals are generally more expensive than dry dog food but are appealing to the taste buds of most dogs. While your dog may love these meals the most, wet dog food is associated with greater instances of periodontal issues.

Dry dog food is the most common type of dog food on the market. Most brands contain a careful mix of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and supplements that the veterinary medical establishment deems healthful for dogs. This kibble comes in a variety of meat flavors such as chicken, lamb, and beef, and the crunchy texture appeals to some dogs.

Grain Free Versus Grain Inclusive

There are a lot of discussions among dog owners about foods that contain grains. Since dogs aren’t strictly carnivores, their ideal diet contains meat, vegetables, legumes, and grains. This is in a perfect world. We know that today’s grains are not what they used to be. Grains such as corn and wheat have been modified over the years. Modern wheat is a particular irritant that contributes to arthritis, diabetes, and irritable bowel syndrome in humans according to Dr. William Davis. Since inferior-quality forms of these grains are used in dog foods, it’s best to avoid dog foods that contain these ingredients.

Not all grains trigger allergic reactions or health issues in dogs. Ancient grains such as quinoa, millet, and amaranth haven’t been tampered with, and they show up in many boutique dog food brands that include grains.

Grains are a great source of fiber, protein, and carbohydrates, but they aren’t the only plant-based sources of these nutrients for animals. Grain-free dog foods have gained a popular following with dog owners and veterinarians over the years. These dog foods substitute grains with peas, lentils, and sweet potatoes.

How Much Should I Feed My Dog?

Dog mound of food

While a hungry dog is no fun to have around, it’s far worse to regularly overfeed your dog than underfeed it. Overfeeding your dog not only causes needless weight gain, but it contributes to diabetes, heart problems, and joint issues. An immediate consequence of overfeeding is food bloat. Food bloat occurs when a dog’s stomach is so full of food that its organs, blood flow, and stomach lining are negatively impacted. Find out how to determine the quantity of food that your dog needs based on its size, breed, age, and level of activity.

Breed Size

While large and small-breed dogs can be fed the same type of diet, they need different amounts of food to stay healthy and active. Veterinary specialists have established ideal weight ranges for each dog breed. Pet parents and veterinarians calculate how much food a large or small-breed dog needs based on how close the dog’s weight and height match the ideal range. The American Kennel Club provides a comprehensive breed weight chart to help you to calculate your dog’s nutritional needs. If your adult dog is within its ideal weight range, I recommend feeding it 2.5% of its body weight daily.


Cute little puppies have weasled their way into the hearts and homes of many dog lovers. Novice pet owners don’t realize the large amounts of food that these adorable creatures consume to grow to adults. Growing puppies can eat two to four times as much as an adult dog of the same breed. On the other hand, a senior dog needs 20% fewer calories on average than a younger adult dog of the same breed.

Activity Level

Activity level was one of the first things that I considered when I adopted my dog. A dog’s activity level is based on its breed, personality, and its owner’s willingness to indulge in some dog park time. High-performance dogs naturally need more calories than dogs that enjoy snoozing in front of fireplaces.

To get a more accurate measure of how much to feed your dog, consult with your veterinarian. She can customize your dog’s daily food allowance based on its weight, health, and active lifestyle.

How Often Does My Dog Need Food?

You may be tempted to indulge your furry friend throughout the day with a full bowl of his favorite kibble, specialty snacks, and gourmet treats, but don’t give in. Find out why a regular feeding schedule is the best option for your beloved pet and how to adopt a schedule that matches your dog’s digestive makeup.

Why Buffet-Style Meals Aren’t Good

Abundant living is something that we all enjoy. However, this isn’t always optimal when it comes to feeding your favorite pet. Besides contributing to obesity, allowing dogs to eat all day can cause house training accidents. Adult dogs need to relieve themselves eight to 10 hours after eating a meal. If your dog eats all day, his bathroom habits will become unpredictable.

Meals are also a good indicator of the health of your dog. When all is well, your dog will clean her bowl of food during a feeding. If she’s unwell, she may only eat a portion of her food. If you fill her bowl for all-day consumption, you may not notice if her appetite has lessened.

Once a Day Versus Twice a Day

Feeding your dog once or twice per day is the accepted practice within the veterinary medical community. Many veterinarians favor twice-per-day feedings over once-a-day meals. Meals are fully digested by dogs within 12 hours. After 12 hours, some dogs experience increased acidity in their stomachs, which causes retching. By feeding your dog every 12 hours, she’ll avoid this form of indigestion.

Dog Food Label Take-Aways

Good dog nutrition is in the details. Examining dog food labels gives you insight about the ingredients and feeding quantities that veterinary specialists recommend. Nutritional claims are strictly regulated.

Ingredient List

The list of ingredients on a dog food package is one of your best sources of information when it comes to maintaining your furry friend’s health. Dog food ingredients are listed in order based on the amounts present in the food. If a dog food contains 60% beef and 40% corn, the beef will appear first on the list of ingredients.

Meat meal is a common ingredient that shows up on the ingredients list of commercial dog food products. The term “meat” is regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). It refers to the striate muscle portion of the “clean flesh of slaughtered mammals.” Meat meal can refer to any part of a mammal’s tissues that food processors render to remove fat and water. AAFCO-regulated labeling ensures that a dog food product that’s 60% chicken meal isn’t falsely advertised as chicken meat.

Nutritional Adequacy Statement

AAFCO has done a great job of establishing nutritional profiles for dogs at different stages of life. Its nutritional adequacy statement on dog food labels ensure that dog food brands’ claims match nutritional standards on its profiles. A dog food brand that claims that it has “complete and balanced” nutrition for dogs has to prove it according to AAFCO standards for safety reasons.

Feeding Directions

Dog food manufacturers give a rough estimate of how much food to feed your dog based largely on her weight. They offer suggestions to increase or decrease the amount of food based on stage of life and lifestyle factors. Growing puppies and nursing mothers get more food according to the manufacturers’ direction. Obese dogs get less food.

Making Your Own Dog Food

Dog chef

Have a picky eater on your hands? Don’t trust commercial dog food brands? The thought of crafting gourmet dog food at home has likely crossed your mind. Many pet owners opt for a diet that’s filled with fresh, raw foods for themselves and their dogs. Here are some benefits and risks that are associated with DIY dog food whether it’s the cooked or raw variety.

Is It Safe?

The short answer is “yes.” However, there are some caveats. Homemade dog foods bypass the rigorous standards and safety testing that commercial dog foods must undergo. Commercial dog food products are made to be shelf stable and easily stored. Your homemade dog food must be stored properly, or the product will spoil and make your dog sick.

The benefits of homemade dog food outweigh the risks for many pet parents. Although AAFCO has strict standards for commercial dog food products, many popular brands are full of artificial flavorings, chemical dyes, and preservatives. Some dogs are allergic to common ingredients in commercial dog food products. When you make your dog’s food at home, you can tailor the ingredients to avoid allergy-causing foods, fillers, and chemical additives that rob your dog of good health.

Homemade dog food is often tastier and more satisfying to dogs than commercial dog food. Once you begin giving your dog homemade meals, you’ll have to maintain the chore. She’ll soon consider commercial dog food a downgrade to her standard of living.

The Challenge of Achieving Balance

One of the biggest risks to making your own dog food is nutritional imbalance. AAFCO, dog food manufacturers, and other veterinary organizations do a lot of research to establish food formulas that give pups adequate nutrition. Getting the ratios of micro to macro nutrients wrong results in a poorly nourished dog. A way that many pet parents avoid nutritional deficiencies with homemade food products is by adopting vet-approved recipes.

Common sense has taken center stage with pet parents who have to decide between feeding their furry friends fresh, homemade dog food or commercial dog food preparations. We know that fresh, raw foods are the building blocks for healthy living in humans, so they possibly work the same wonders for canines. The anecdotal evidence is astounding in many cases.

Owners of dogs that have chronic medical conditions have reported great results when they put their pets on a raw, whole-foods diet that includes fresh vegetables and clean, high-quality meats. Shinier coats, healthier skin and teeth, and higher energy level are some of the beneficial side effects of a properly proportioned raw food diet.

Dr. Doug Knueven of Beaver Animal Clinic in Pennsylvania said that most animals would benefit more from a raw, home-prepared diet than from one that consisted of commercially processed foods. He doesn’t recommend raw food diets for all dogs, however. He said that puppies, dogs that have cancers, and pups with late-stage kidney failure are better served with cooked meals or commercial preparations.

Foods to Avoid

Introducing new foods into your dog’s diet can be a satisfying experience. You’ll enjoy seeing her get excited when she discovers a flavor that she loves. However, not all foods are good for her health. Some foods are even toxic to her. Here are some dog food ingredients that experts say to avoid and a list of people foods that are toxic to dogs.

Harmful Dog Food Ingredients

Every commercial dog food ingredient is at least classified as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by AAFCO and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, many of these ingredients don’t contribute to vibrant health. Artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives are common GRAS ingredients that do harm when eaten in high amounts and for long periods of time.

If your dog’s food features colored kibble that resembles red meat, it probably contains a chemical dye that’s labeled FD&C Red No 3. The dye is something that healthy humans avoid in their own diets, and responsible pet parents skip dog foods that contain this useless additive. Petco determined that research warranted avoidance of artificial dyes in pet foods, and the retailer now refuses to carry pet foods and treats that contain the chemical colorings.

Ethoxyquin is another harmful chemical additive that you should avoid when choosing dog foods. Ethoxyquin is a preservative that prevents commercial dog food from going bad as it sits on retail shelves waiting to be purchased. This chemical preservative causes liver damage when consumed in high quantities.

Toxic People Foods

Offering your dog people-food treats can be a fatal decision. Raisins and grapes are healthy foods for people but do great harm in dogs. If your dog consumes this fruit or foods that contain it, she will get sick and start to vomit. A long-term consequence of feeding your dog raisins or grapes is kidney failure.

Onions and garlic are used to flavor meat and vegetable dishes on many pet parents’ plates. When dogs digest these aromatic vegetables, they get weak and develop breathing issues. Garlic and onions destroy the red blood cells in dogs, which leads to anemia.

Nuts are high in fats, antioxidants, and other beneficial plant nutrients. However, dogs don’t process them the same way as humans, and many nuts are harmful to dogs. A handful of macadamia nuts can make a dog sick enough to develop muscle shakes, a high fever, and weakness in its legs.

Sweeteners such as xylitol get glowing reviews from doctors and dentists for humans who want to lower their sugar intake without totally renouncing sweet treats. You may think that your overweight dog would benefit from the same type of treats. However, xylitol can cause liver failure in dogs.


Good nutrition is just as important for dogs as it is for humans. My research prompted me to be more careful about what I feed the furriest member of my family. He might not initially like all of the changes that I make to his snacking routine, but he’ll learn to live with them.

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Barry Ryan

Barry Ryan

As a pet owner, Barry’s belief is that a pet is part of the family and should be treated that way. As a lover of the outdoors, he loves nothing more than long walks with his dog. Barry’s mission is to use his experience to help others enjoy being with their pets to the full.

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