Dog Nutrition

Pet Alliance veterinarian, Dr. Julie Andersen, gives us a bite-sized look into the world of dog nutrition.

The first thing you should consider regarding your dog’s nutrition is that it is a lot more complicated than you might think. We all like to think that our little wolf descendants just want to sink their teeth into a lot of muscle meat. But the truth is that little wolf would also eat small bones, organs, stomach contents, various forest plants, whole small prey, etc. 

The optimal diet of our canine friends consists of a large variety of nutrients essential for good health. Fortunately for you, there has been a lot of research conducted to create diets that supply all these nutrients in the right proportions. When you go to the store to pick out dog food, you should know that there is an organization called the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that has been independently creating guidelines for pet food labels, ingredients and laboratory standards for more than 100 years in our country. While they do not have any regulatory authority over pet foods, their guidelines are considered the gold standard.

Recommendation #1 – Always choose a diet that states that it meets AAFCO models for the appropriate life stage of your pet. Diets with an AAFCO statement on the label stating they have undergone animal feeding trials for the appropriate life stage are a better choice than diets that are formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles. “Animal feeding trials” means that real animals were fed this diet and thrived on it based on measured data. “Formulated to meet” means numbers generated by computer.

Recommendation #2 – Always choose a reputable, recognizable brand of pet food, preferably one that has been around long enough to demonstrate a commitment to quality and safety.

The next thing you should consider is your budget. It is important to be able to provide a consistent diet that fits within your means. Many dogs do not do well with sudden diet changes (ie. diarrhea, vomiting). I would suggest finding a food that is readily available in your usual shopping zone and affordable. There are many diets that satisfy the above recommendations in a variety of price points. The best diet is the one your canine friend likes and thrives on!

When you are diving deep into ingredient lists, you will generally find protein sources, carbohydrate and fiber sources, fat sources and all the essential vitamins and minerals. Many proteins are available and none is really better than another as long as the diet meets the above recommendations. One protein source that often scares people is “byproducts”. While it sounds like a low quality ingredient that you might want to avoid, it actually just refers to organ tissues that are not sourced for human consumption. Most people in our country are not consuming livers, kidneys, hearts, etc., but these are actually good quality protein sources for dogs. 

Carbohydrates are essential for dogs and are the subject of ongoing debates over benefits vs. harm from grain-free diets. Grain-free diets for dogs were developed to go along with popular low carb and paleo diets for people. Certified veterinary nutritionists were never excited about these diets and there is recent evidence to suggest that grain-free diets may actually cause harm to some dogs. I would not recommend a grain-free diet.

Should you consider a home-cooked diet for your canine friend, I implore you to work directly with a veterinary nutritionist before doing so. While there are many recipes out there on the web, on Pinterest, it is not as simple as throwing together some meat, grains and vegetables. Serious deficiencies can occur if you do not provide correct proportions of protein, carbohydrates and fat, adequate calcium and essential vitamins. Trust the many decades of research that has gone into commercial diets!

Lastly, and most importantly, please talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s diet, especially if your dog has specific dietary concerns such as a food allergy or obesity. Your veterinarian is your best source for information!