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Nutrition - General Feeding Guidelines for Dogs

Updated: Nov 25, 2021


Contributor:

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH Care & Wellness, Nutrition, Pet Services


"What should I feed my dog?"


Perhaps the most common question pet owners ask their veterinarian is "What should I feed my dog?" Feeding your dog an appropriate amount of a well-balanced diet is vital to its overall health and well-being. To understand how and what to feed your dog, you need to understand what the nutritional requirements of dogs are and how these requirements have developed through the process of biological evolution.


Since dogs are carnivores, doesn’t this mean that they need to eat a diet that is meat based?



As a species, the dog is a member of the scientific order Carnivora, a large group of mammalian animals that share a similar tooth structure. The dietary needs of animals belonging to this order vary. Some members of this group have an absolute requirement for meat in their diet (called obligate or true carnivores), while others can meet their nutrient requirements through eating plant material (herbivores) or a combination of meat and plants (omnivores). Cats are an example of an obligate carnivore, cows are an example of an herbivore, and dogs and humans are two examples of omnivores.

Because of the dietary needs of dogs, both their tooth structure and intestinal tract have become adapted to an omnivorous diet. This means that, under normal circumstances, dogs can meet their nutritional needs by eating a combination of plant and animal foods. The source of the proteins and fats is less important than the quality and digestibility of these essential components of the dog's diet.


Because of the dietary needs of dogs, both their tooth structure and intestinal tract have become adapted to an omnivorous diet.

As research into basic and applied nutrition has expanded the knowledge of canine nutrition, it is now known that a well-balanced diet must also include an appropriate amount of minerals, vitamins, certain essential amino acids (from proteins), and specific essential fatty acids (from fats). These components are needed to build and maintain tissue and carry out biological reactions




The fact that the dog's digestive system produces enzymes that are specific for digesting starches and sugars shows that they are capable of digesting carbohydrates.

I was told that dogs cannot digest carbohydrates. Is this true?


To meet their energy needs, dogs have evolved to use proteins and fats as their primary energy sources, but they can also use carbohydrates for energy. The fact that the dog's digestive system produces enzymes that are specific for digesting starches and sugars shows that they are capable of digesting carbohydrates. However, complex carbohydrates such as grains are more digestible when they are cooked.



I have heard that dogs should only eat raw foods and that dogs cannot properly digest cooked foods. Is this true?


Domesticated dogs have adapted over millennia to consume diets provided by their human companions, including foods that have been cooked. As mentioned above, dogs can actually digest complex carbohydrates more easily once they have been cooked. Feeding raw diets can carry a number of risks to the dog as well as people in the home, especially those who are young or immuno-compromised.


What are the nutritional requirements for dogs?

The six basic nutrients are water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. These essential nutrients are required as part of the dog’s regular diet and are involved in all of the basic functions of the body. The minimum dietary requirement has been established for many nutrients.


Nutritional guidelines have been developed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO guidelines are the general basis for the nutritional content of commercial pet foods. Make sure that your dog’s food meets the AAFCO standards. Keep in mind that these are guidelines and your dog may need more or less depending on his health status. Speak to your veterinarian for more information on specific nutrients that your particular dog may need.


What should I look for in a dog food?


The best advice you can receive about feeding your dog is this: feed your dog the highest-quality food you can afford. The differences between a premium food and budget food are not found on the nutrition label; they are found in the quality and source of ingredients. Two dog foods may each contain 27% protein but be vastly different when it comes to digestibility.


The differences between a premium food and budget food are not found on the nutrition label; they are found in the quality and source of ingredients.

Pet food ingredients are listed by order of weight. Each ingredient is weighed when it is added to the batch of food, and ingredients such as fresh meat contain a lot of water, much of which is lost during processing. This means that a dry diet that lists corn as the first ingredient may be nutritionally superior to one listing meat first.


How much should I feed?


The ideal method for determining how many calories to feed your dog is to determine what your dog's lean weight should be and feed according to that weight. Unfortunately, this requires constant monitoring (and weighing) and is not always practical.


How often should I feed my dog?


The biological evolution of dogs as hunters has given them specialized digestive and gastrointestinal adaptations that allow them to ingest a large meal followed by up to days of not eating. However, for most pet dogs, feeding once or twice per day is recommended. Many dogs will benefit from eating equally divided meals two to three times per day.


Regardless of the feeding schedule you choose, avoid allowing your dog to exercise vigorously after consuming a large meal, especially if your dog eats its food rapidly. This will help minimize problems with bloat, intestinal obstruction, or other serious digestive disorders. Be sure your dog has access to fresh, clean water at all times.


Is dry or canned food better?


In terms of nutrition and digestibility, there are simply no differences between dry and canned (wet) dog food. You should make your decision based on your lifestyle, preferences, and budget. For dogs that need to consume more water or have certain special dietary needs, canned foods may be a better choice. Otherwise, most dogs will do fine on dry diet.



Are there any breed differences in nutritional requirements?


In the past several decades, nutritionists and veterinary researchers have identified that there are definite breed variations in metabolism and nutrient requirements. Breeds of dogs that were developed in specific locations, such as Arctic Circle breeds and some of the water breeds, may have adapted to specialized diets that are common in their place of origin. Inbreeding and genetic differences between individuals in each species may result in further need for individualization of the pet's diet in order to optimize health.

In addition to considering your dog's breed, you should also consider your dog's lifestyle. Working pets (hunting dogs, field trial dogs, herding dogs) require different ratios of proteins and fats in their diets than lap dogs or sedentary house dogs.



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