Browsing the aisles of your local pet food store can be quite the chore, now that the variety of dog foods available exceed the thousands!
Many choices abound including dry kibbles, wet foods, raw foods, natural foods, holistic foods, grain free and more.
But what exactly is it that your dog requires? Is there one diet choice that is better than others? Are they all equal? Continue reading to find out just what those pet labels mean, and what your dog actually needs to stay fit and healthy.
Nutrients are the parts of food needed to maintain a healthy life and to provide building blocks for the cells in the body. They can be macronutrients or micronutrients and come in many forms.
Micronutrients, such as minerals and vitamins, are needed in smaller amounts but are still essential to the body. Water, energy (in the form of carbohydrates), fats, proteins and fiber are all macronutrients needed to provide short and long-term energy as well as body building blocks.
These nutrients are also what is used to help determine how nutritious a food is, by calculating the amount of moisture, protein, fat, ash and fiber content in a food.
These are things such as sugars or grains that provide an energy source to your dog when digested. The brain uses carbohydrates as its primary source of energy, and so these are needed in at least some form for healthy brain function.
These are often meat-based, but many plants have protein sources as well. They are needed to provide longer-term energy as well as used to help build muscle and maintain muscle. Proteins are also broken down and rebuilt in the cells of the body as needed.
Fats are provided in the form of lipids, liquids or solids (think butter) and are needed for long-term storage of energy as well as some function in the brain for energy (mainly when carbohydrates are in short supply). These are often the backup storage system for when your dog has a high energy requirement, or may not be getting enough short-term carbohydrate energy.
Minerals and vitamins are considered micronutrients, but even though they may be needed in small amounts, they are still important to overall health.
An imbalance of either too much or too little of a micronutrient can lead to a myriad of health issues and symptoms of illness. Some examples of micronutrients include Calcium, Potassium, Salt, Copper and Magnesium as well as Vitamin A, Vitamin B, and L-carnitine.
While the exact values of every micro and macro nutrient goes far beyond the scope of this article, it is important to know that there is a balance to each of them.
Deficiencies as well as excesses of every nutrient can have a lasting and harmful effect on dogs. This may range from toxicity leading to neurologic symptoms and seizures, to a deficiency leading to lethargy, loss of appetite and illness.
Luckily, most commercially produced dog foods are required to be nutritionally balanced so much of the guesswork is taken out.
There are a lot of buzzwords that circulate when looking at commercial dog foods these days. Here is a breakdown of several to help better understand what they mean.
Dry foods are kibbles or other shapes that are a form of extruded meal. This means that the food is made into a dough, cut into the shape of the kibble via an extrusion machine, and then baked to retain the nutrients. The kibble is then usually coated with a fat to help preserve it and make it more palatable.
The pros of dry food include longevity and shelf-life and a balanced, complete diet, while the cons include a low moisture content, poor taste quality, and the chance of going rancid due to the fat coating.
Wet foods are usually canned or pouched foods that contain a high moisture content in the form of added water or a flavored gravy. These foods are made by cooking a sort of “meat nugget” of mixed ingredients, and then placing it in the broth and sealing it for preservation.
These diets can often be much more selective about the ingredients placed in it, as the canning, rather than a baking and fat coating process, are what preserves it.
The pros of a wet food include more controlled ingredients, increased moisture content for hydration and increased palatability, while the cons include a food that may become damaged and go bad if the can is damaged, and sometimes may have cheap or poor ingredients included as filler in the broth or meal.
Raw food diets are diets that are given as mostly uncooked or raw ingredients. While most people may think of meat as the only ingredient in a raw diet, raw diets often include raw fruits and vegetables to help round out the nutrition content.
The pros of raw foods include the ability to pick and choose ingredients to avoid food allergies, a “healthier” diet not using fillers and great palatability.
The cons include the time constraint of making a raw diet, the need to carefully handle raw foods, and the chance of passing pathogens to your dog and family through contact. Raw foods should also be avoided in dogs with compromised immune systems or other related health issues.
Holistic and Natural foods are often buzzwords used to describe a diet that contains ingredients from natural sources, or from whole food ingredients, rather than through the use of fillers or chemical additives to provide micro nutrients.
While these diets are useful for owners whose pets have food allergies and thus the need to avoid certain “unhealthy” ingredients, they are used very widely and without regulation. Holistic or natural foods can come in either canned, wet, raw or any other food type out there.
Prescription diets are foods formulated and sold through a veterinary service. These foods are often prescribed as part of a medical treatment and may be given in conjunction with a medication or other treatment.
These foods are also often specifically formulated to meet or treat a medical need such as diabetes, weight control, or organ failure.
While these diets are great for special needs, they are often full of fillers and varying qualities of ingredients depending on the manufacturer.
These foods are really only important if your vet suggests their use to treat a specific condition, however when they are prescribed they can provide great results.
Life stage and size plays a critical role in your dog’s nutrient needs and is a great way to determine how much your dog needs in his or her diet. As your dog ages, becomes mature, has litters or experiences other life events his nutrient needs will increase or decrease accordingly. Here are some of the most common life stages and how they affect nutritional needs.
This life stage begins from weaning to about 12 months of age though it may be a shorter period in large and giant breed dogs, and a longer one in small breed dogs. During this time your dog is rapidly growing in both body and mind and is very active as they explore and learn about their surroundings.
Dogs in the puppy stage of life often require large amounts of energy, fat and proteins to provide enough nutrients for growth and energy. Many pet foods also include supplements such as DHA to help encourage and promote brain health- a good thing during those puppy training periods.
This life stage begins at about 1 year and lasts until 7 years of age. This stage is the most variable nutrition-wise, and factors such as your dog’s activity level, size and breed all play into nutrient specifics.
Dogs that are more active in sports or outdoor activities will require more carbohydrates and fats, while dogs that are pets or less active won’t require as much. Large breed dogs may also require a higher level of nutrients than smaller breeds.
For female dogs in breeding programs as adults, pregnancy and lactation becomes its own category. This is often a time where the female’s nutrient needs increase greatly, especially during the last month of pregnancy and the following weeks of lactation.
Many owners opt to feed a puppy formula during this time as it offers the huge boost in carbohydrates, fats and protein needed to help puppies develop while keeping the mother at a healthy weight.
The senior life stage begins around 7 years of age, however it will begin earlier in large or giant breed dogs, and later in small breed dogs. During this time, energy requirements often decrease as your dog becomes less active compared to an adult dog.
Dogs in this life stage may also require extra supplements such as glucosamine to help protect joints, or supplements to help provide a boost to organ health and function.
This refers to the size and breed of your dog, and the nutrient needs may vary. Small breed dogs often need smaller, more frequent meals to provide enough lasting energy throughout the day, while large and giant breed dogs need foods that slow growth in puppyhood to reduce stress on the joints, and provide longer-lasting energy through adulthood.
Depending on who you ask, the need for supplementation in your dog’s diet can vary greatly. Some nutritionists and veterinarians recommend a great number of supplements to help balance out any specific needs of your dog, while others say that just feeding a complete diet is enough.
The quality of food you feed is also important for determining the need for supplementation, as well as your dog’s life stage. There are also supplements that are a great additive regardless of life stage and food quality just to provide an extra boost to your dog’s health.
Supplements such as joint, heart health and liver health formulas are all great to use if your dog has an underlying condition that requires extra care.
These supplements can help to boost body and organ function making your dog more comfortable and aiding in treatment of specific medical conditions.
Many vets will actually recommend these supplements in addition to medications and will want to know if your dog is taking any to adjust their treatment plan as needed.
Coat, and body health supplements are a great supplement to add to any dog’s diet, and can help give an extra boost to the body that food can’t. These include omega-3 and fish oil type supplements, vitamin E supplements and other oils to help improve coat health.
While many foods offer these as part of their ingredients, they are often broken down by the cooking process and so do not provide as much nutrient value as suggested. Adding in a pill or liquid supplement to the food helps to counteract that by providing an ingredient that has not been broken down via cooking.
Probiotics and Prebiotics are another up and coming category of supplements and they can provide several benefits.
Prebiotics help aid in the breakdown of nutrients and can make foods more digestible. These are often found inside of pet food formulas rather than as a separate supplement due to their function.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that seed the gut and help to break down ingredients and food inside the gut, help to remove “bad” bacteria from the gut, and can help reduce digestive upset and gas from meals.
Probiotics are being prescribed more and more in patients with chronic digestive issues and the results have been positive.
Supplements that just provide a few regular vitamins and minerals are likely to be less needed, especially if a balanced commercial diet is provided and may not help at all.
However, in cases where a homemade diet is provided or a raw food that is nutritionally incomplete is used these supplements can be a plus to prevent nutrient deficiency.
The world of nutrition is a vast topic that spans volumes and volumes of books just for dogs! While it may seem confusing to try and learn everything about nutrition, the basic topics provided above are a great way to be more informed about what your dog needs, and what is going on when he eats that bite of kibble.
Nutrient needs vary greatly from dog to dog, and over time and one food does not fit all in when it comes to providing the best for a dog. Looking out for the right foods, the right supplements and the right extras to add to your dog’s diet are the best way of providing a wonderful building block to a healthy and long life.
Hand, Michael, ed. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. 5th ed. Topeka: Mark Morris Institute, 2010. 1314. Print.
Campbell, Karen. Companion Animals: Their Biology, Care, Health & Management. 1st ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2005. 612. Print.
Nutrition Nook: Supplements Every Pet Needs (IVC Journal) Summer 2015 Issue.