Understanding Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs

Table of Contents

For pet owners, worries and questions about feeding your dog will inevitably cross your mind at some point. What is the best food? Does the food I feed my dog meet all the necessary nutrients that my dog needs? 

Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash

The importance of diet to health has become increasingly clear within the last several decades, and at the same time, dog food manufacturers have invested in research and new product development.

Now, more than ever, good information becomes vital for making informed decisions, and understanding the information available is the first step in making the best choice when it comes to your pooch’s food.

Dogs require a variety of nutrients for survival purposes. Among these, we find carbohydrates, fatty acids, amino acids from proteins, minerals, vitamins, water, and of course, animal protein. Dogs will have more specific nutritional needs depending on their breed, size, and life stage together with other considerations. To choose a better-quality dog food, it’s important to understand what your furry BFF requires, how much, and what’s contained in those long ingredient lists on packages.

Proteins and Essential Amino Acids

Canines will not survive if their diets do not contain protein. Protein must contain at least ten amino acids that are known as amino acids. These acids become essential because dogs are not capable of producing these acids on their own. They are the foundation for numerous compounds as well as furnishing carbon chains vital to the production of glucose which then becomes your dog’s supply of energy. Quality protein in a canine’s diet will contain these essential amino acids.

Dogs will select foods that are higher in protein, whether this is due to their instinct as a result of these biological needs or just a question of palatability has yet to be demonstrated. Unlike felines, dogs can survive as vegetarians if their food contains enough plant protein as well as vitamin D.

Fatty Acids and Fats

Within a canine diet, it will be vegetable or plant oils and the fat derived from animal fats that provide your pooch with the highest concentrations of energy. These are the source of essential fatty acids that the body is unable to synthesize and bring fat-soluble vitamins contributing to the structure and function of cells.  Food fats will also contribute to increasing palatability and bettering food texture.

“Essential” fatty acids are for the general health of fur coats and skin. If you feed a puppy a diet low in these fats, skin lesions will develop, fur coats will appear dry and coarse in texture, and the puppy’s skin will be more at risk for infection. The more well-known of these fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6.  When your dog’s diet does not have a sufficient number of omega-3 fatty acids, vision problems may result, while omega-6 fatty acids are vital to physiological systems.

Energy Necessities

All living beings require energy to live an active life, and dogs are no exception. Phases of growth, pregnancies followed by lactation, and physical exercise will all increase energy needs. The measurement of energy is done using units called calories and is provided by three principal components found in any diet:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats
  • Proteins 

Dogs are omnivorous, unlike carnivorous felines. A feline will need approximately 80% of its diet to come from animal protein, whereas a dog is omnivorous and can therefore eat both plants and meats to obtain the necessary nutritional elements for survival.

Canines can satisfy energy needs not only from meat and fish, but from carbohydrates as well and these include fibers, starches, and sugars. The principal carbohydrate sources found in commercial dog foods include legumes, cereals, and other plant parts. 

Carbohydrates can be absorbable, fermentable, or digestible. Examples of absorbable carbohydrates include fructose or glucose, and they do not need to be broken down.  The digestive tract’s enzymes will break down digestible carbohydrates. Fermentable carbohydrates that will include some starches and fibers make their journey through the small intestine without being digested. Upon arrival in the colon, gut microbes will ferment them, modifying them into short-chain fatty gasses and acids.

There also are some non-fermentable carbohydrates such as wheat bran or cellulose that contribute very little nutrition or energy. They lower calorie intake and are often employed in diets specifically designed for weight management canine diets. Should a canine have a severe health issue or disease, energy, and nutritional needs may increase. 

A Puppy’s Energy Needs

A puppy is still growing and developing. Puppies need as much as twice the number of necessary calories as an adult dog of the identical breed per pound. When a puppy reaches its first month, it should begin eating puppy food, as its mother’s milk will no longer meet the pup’s nutritional requirements. Puppies should receive multiple meals that are spaced apart.

A Lactating Mother Dog’s Energy Needs

A new canine mother will suckle newborns for a minimum of six weeks: While mothers are lactating, their caloric needs increase by the number of puppies and the number of weeks they suckle till about a month. Some giant canine breeds have smaller digestive tracts in proportion to their size. Consequently, they will find it difficult to eat enough food to sustain their health during this period. In this case, dog owners or breeders should consider supplemental feeding to puppies earlier.

A Senior Dog’s Energy Needs

Senior dogs are naturally less active and will have slower metabolisms. Generally speaking, a senior dog will need approximately 20% fewer calories than an adult dog. Without proper adjustment, as a dog ages, it is at risk of becoming overweight, and overweight or obese canines can have difficulty maintaining normal blood glucose and this, in turn, can lead to diabetes.

Vitamin Needs

Canines, just like humans, require vitamins in their diet, even if in a lesser quantity, and a lack of these was noticed in early canine research almost a century ago.  Any vitamin deficiency will contribute to any number of health issues. One of the earliest canine vitamin deficiencies was vitamin A.  Symptoms observed included skin lesions and increased rates of infection, respiratory problems, and problems in motor skills and vision. A lack of vitamin E led to muscle deterioration, skeletal breakdown, retinal degeneration, and even failure of reproduction.  Too little vitamin D can create problems, but excess amounts can result in toxicity, while a lack of thiamin may create neurological abnormalities and brain lesions. It can also lead to death if chronic.

VitaminNecessityRecommended Daily Dose for an adult approximately 30 lb. dog
CholineCell membranes425 mg
Folic AcidAmino acid68 pg
NiacinEnzyme4 mg
Pantothenic AcidMetabolism energy4 mg
RiboflavinEnzyme1.3 mg
Vitamin AImmune, growth, vision379 pg
Vitamin B1Carbohydrate metabolism0.56 mg
Vitamin B6Red blood cells, nervous system, glucose, immune response, hormone balance0.4 mg
Vitamin B12Enzyme9 pg
Vitamin DMineral and phosphorus balance3.4 pg
Vitamin EProtects from oxidative damage8 mg
Vitamin KBones, clotting0.41 mg

Based on “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats” National Academies Press

Mineral Needs

There are a variety of minerals that are known to be essential to canine nutrition:

  • Calcium
  • Chlorine 
  • Copper 
  • Iodine 
  •  Iron 
  • Magnesium 
  • Manganese 
  • Molybdenum
  • Phosphorous
  • Potassium
  • Selenium
  • Sodium
  • Zinc 

Some of these minerals will be present only in tiny amounts but they aid the body in numerous enzymatic functions. Several minerals can contribute to health issues if present in doses that are too high or too low. One such example is calcium. When excessive, it will cause skeletal abnormalities, but when insufficient it may contribute to hyperparathyroidism resulting in loss of bone and chronic fractures.

Nutrition and Canine Weight

Just as in the case of humans, maintaining a healthy weight is vital to the overall well-being of our pups. Whether underfed and suffering from dietary insufficiencies or overfed, the repercussions on health can be noteworthy, potentially devastating, and in some cases to be irreversible.

Underweight Dogs 

If a dog is underweight with an insufficient intake of calories, ribs, vertebrae, and pelvic bones will be clearly and easily visible. There will also be a loss of muscle mass. A chronically underfed canine will be unable to work, in the case of working dogs. Underfed mothers will experience difficulty when nursing puppies and any underfed dog will be more at risk for bacterial infections and parasite infestations. Underfed puppies may experience stunted growth, while adult dogs may develop osteoporosis.

Overweight Dogs

Many dog owners may not feel their particular pooch is overweight, however, if you cannot feel your dog’s ribs or discern a waist when you view your dog from above, Pooch has most likely packed on one or two pounds too many. Other indications include fat deposits on the back and at the tail base as well as a lack of abdominal tuck when viewed from the side. 

Obesity is increasingly common in canines living in western societies and the risk of a dog gaining weight will increase with age and when a dog is either neutered or spayed. Two of the most common health complications of an overweight dog are osteoarthritis and diabetes.

Balanced Nutrition and the Ideal Canine Weight

As each dog breed along with gender will determine the ideal weight that any specific dog should maintain, some distinct characteristics can indicate if a dog is receiving the correct number of calories and maintaining an ideal weight. Pet parents should easily be able to feel the ribs without a lot of padding added on. The dog’s waist should be apparent when you view your dog from above and an abdominal tuck needs to be visible in the dog’s profile when viewed laterally.

Feeding Your Dog

When it comes time to feed your canine BFF, there can be some confusion about which food is the best, how much should be fed, and numerous questions regarding nutrition.

Do Dogs Require Meat in Their Diet?

Dogs are omnivores, unlike felines that are carnivores. This means that they are adaptable and open to eating many varied ingredients as well as forms of food and textures of food. This is not to say that your pooch may not prefer to eat meat or fish, but that your dog is capable of meeting dietary and nutrition needs also when supplied from other sources. Dogs are capable of survival and can thrive when placed on a vegetarian diet if nutritional needs are met.

Adult dogs need to receive a minimum of 10% of their calorie intake from protein, regardless of whether the source is an animal-based protein or a plant-based protein. Senior dogs will require more than this, and in some cases as much as 50%, to maintain their natural protein reserves.

Is Fiber Necessary to a Dog’s Diet and How Much?

Fiber is necessary for the overall health of the canine gastrointestinal tract and can be a tool in canine weight management. A typical adult dog diet will register between 2.5% and 4.5% fiber content, but commercial weight management dog foods may concern a higher percentage so that a dog will feel fuller longer when trying to lose weight. Fiber contributes to a feeling of being “full” while consuming a more limited number of calories. High fiber canine menus can also aid in managing high blood sugar known as hyperglycemia and in digestive function.

However, canine diets that are too high in fiber content can negatively affect the digestion of other necessary nutrients causing loose stool elimination and diarrhea or a frequent need to defecate. Too much fiber content can also negatively affect the taste of the dog food, meaning your dog may not find dinner particularly palatable. Barley products and wheat bran will be commonly found in dog food ingredient lists because of their high fiber content. But fiber is not to be confused with starch content. Ingredients like potatoes and rice are also common ingredients but they contain less fiber.

  • When and How Often Should I Feed A Dog?

The “when to feed a dog” can be a choice of convenience for a dog that maintains a healthy weight. For overweight dogs, it may be advisable to feed your pup in the morning so there’s all day to consume calories before going to bed. 

Dogs eat less frequently than felines that eat numerous small meals in the course of a day. An adult dog should eat once daily or at the most twice if the total daily calorie intake is divided. In the case of developing puppies, two to three meals daily may be a better choice.

It makes sense to use an automatic pet feeder like Petlibro to manage your pet’s diet. You can easily schedule and portion the proper amount of food for your pup even when you’re not around.

The Importance of Water in Canine Nutrition

Fresh water is crucial to canine survival. Approximately 60% of an adult dog is made up of water and the percentage is higher in puppies. Water is vital for a dog’s digestive system because it aids in breaking down food and absorbing the nutrients in it. While dogs can last as long as a week without food, they can only last three days without water. 

According to Pet MD, a canine will require approximately an ounce of water for every pound of body weight daily. If the weather is hot, your pup may easily need double. Water needs will increase also in accord with physical exercise and expended energy.

Food Choices

Unless you are preparing your dog’s food at home under the guidance of a veterinary nutritionist, most pet parents opt for the convenience of commercial dog foods that are available in a variety of forms, textures, and formulas to meet specific nutritional or dietary needs. Dog food can be found as

  • Dry kibble
  • Canned wet food
  • Semi-moist food
  •  Freeze-dried food 

Depending on which you opt for, the moisture content will vary from 6% to 10% in dry kibble to as much as 75% in canned wet food. Canned food tends to contain more protein and fats, while kibble will contain more carbohydrates. Canned food will also generally have a high amount of animal protein and fat as well.

Commercial pet food labels should list the percentages of fat, protein, fiber, and water contained in their product. It’s important to note that while some dry canine foods may appear to have a higher percentage of protein than canned wet foods, this is due to the amount of moisture in the food.

Some pet food manufacturers will offer organic diets and food choices that replicate a natural canine diet such as Timberwolf Organics, so choices are numerous and varied.

Dog Food Additives

Antioxidants work to protect body cells from damage due to free radicals. Herbs or botanical components may be included for their natural medicinal effect or as flavoring, so don’t be surprised if they appear on ingredient lists, and many will be in the form of extracts. Also, expect to see flavorings derived from animal sources such as fish and poultry.

Colorings used in commercial dog foods actually enhance the natural color, and only those approved for human consumption are allowed in pet food, and aside from these, synthetics are generally not used or rarely so. 

In Conclusion

If you have questions or doubts about your dog’s nutritional needs and how to best satisfy them, a consultation with your veterinarian is the first step to guaranteeing your canine BFF’s general overall health and well-being.