Health conscious dog owners are very interested in what they are putting into their dog’s mouths and for a good reason. Not only is the pet food industry not being regulated the same way our food is overseen, but also there are so many claims by pet food manufacturers that suggest their food is better than their competitors. Additionally, people are becoming concerned about what ingredients go into a commercial dog food diet. The first way to know if you are providing a healthy diet for your dog is to discover the nutritional requirements your dog needs to stay healthy.
In this guide, we will look at canine nutrition so we can better understand what to look for in good dog food.
Canine Nutrition: The Macronutrients
Canine nutrition is comprised of two major types of components, the macronutrients, and the micronutrients. As the name implies, the macronutrients are those that must be supplied in greater quantities. These include protein, carbohydrates, fats, and of course water. Micronutrients are the substances that are needed in much smaller amounts, and these contain the vitamins and the minerals.
There are no calories in water, but it is the one component that must be present for anyone including dogs to live. Dogs can go for weeks without food, but just a small percentage of water loss in their body can lead to death. If fresh, clean water is available dogs can maintain the amount of water they require by drinking when they feel thirsty. A healthy dog should be drinking at least an ounce of water per pound of body weight.
When dogs do not drink enough, they risk becoming dehydrates. Dehydration can be a medical emergency and need immediate vet attention. Symptoms of dehydration include lethargy, anorexia, dry mouth, and depression.
A quick way to decide whether your dog is dehydrated is to pinch a bit of skin on the dog’s back, near the shoulder blades and pull up gently. Healthy dogs’ skin will spring back into place immediately. The skin of a dehydrated dog will slowly return to its original position.
To ensure your dog gets enough water provide clean, fresh water that is frequently replaced. Before filling the bowl, wash with soap and water and rinse thoroughly. If regular tap water is not pure, consider serving bottled water instead.
Proteins and Amino Acids
Proteins are nutrients needed by dogs, but protein can come from both animal and plant sources. Animal sources of proteins include foods such as meat, fish, and eggs, and plant sources as the name implies are plants that contain protein such as corn, peas, grains, fruit, and so forth. Higher quality dog foods will use more meats, fish, and eggs as the primary protein source whereas low-quality foods will use plants as the source of protein because plant sources are far less expensive.
Another factor to consider when discussing protein is digestibility. Digestibility just means the body’s ability to digest food in such a way that the nutrients within the food can be used by the body. The most highly digestible proteins are eggs, muscle meat, and organ meat.
Any protein that cannot be digested is passed through the gastrointestinal system without adding any nutrient value to the dog. Even if a dog is eating a high protein content food, if the protein source is not being utilized by the body, the food is really of no value. Dogs eating a meal without the proper amount and type of protein will not be as nutritional fit as those eating one with an excellent source of protein. If there is more protein in the food that is needed by the dog’s body, the extra protein will not go to waste, but instead, it will be metabolized and used as an energy source.
Signs of a protein deficiency include poor appetite, poor skin, and coat, reduced growth and anemia. Dog food manufacturers are required to list the minimum percentages of proteins on their label.
Fats and Fatty Acids
The body uses fats to provide energy and flavor to the food, but they also have some other significant roles to play. Fats or lipids are made up of fatty acids, or long chains of organic molecules. Just like the amino acids in proteins, fatty acids can be broken down into both essential and non-essential fatty acids.
Essential fatty acids must be available in the dog food, and those that can be produced within the body are called nonessential. Animal fat is the most common fats found in dog food, but fats or oils from plants and seeds are also used.
Two of the essential fatty acids include the omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. As the name implies, they must be part of the diet because the body is unable to manufacture them. Lack of these fatty acids can result in skin and coat problems. They must also be in the right quantities and correct ratios to prevent additional issues such as hormonal imbalances, weight gains, and even behavioral problems. Puppies that don’t have enough of these fats in their diet can suffer from learning difficulties and vision problems.
The Omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acids should be present in one form or another in dog foods, although the AAFCO does not recognize them as essential nutrients. If they are present, they should be in the right quantity and proper ratio.
Some examples of the essential fatty acids include Linoleic acid, Arachidonic acid, Alpha-linolenic acid Eicosapentaenoic acid, and docosahexaenoic acid.
- Linoleic acid can be found in corn, soy, canola, safflower, sunflower oils, whole grains, and animal fats.
- Arachidonic acid is found in body fat of poultry, lean meat, egg yolks, some fish oils.
- Alpha-linolenic Acid is in flaxseed and fish oil.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid is found in phytoplankton and fish oil.
- Docosahexaenoic acid is also found in phytoplankton and fish oil.
Fats are also a required component on the Guaranteed Analysis on a dog food label. You will find the minimum percentages of the food.
Carbohydrates are the most controversial component in the dog’s diet and are needed for energy and stored as glycogen or fat. Much of the debate revolves around how much and what types are used in dog food. Vegetables and fruits, as well as grains and dietary fiber, make up the carbohydrate group.
Carbohydrates from a chemical standpoint include three categories of nutrients, plus fiber. Each of these categories is named based on their molecular structure. The monosaccharides include glucose, (the blood sugar) fructose (fruit sugar), and galactose (milk sugar). Disaccharides are sucrose, lactose, maltose and the Polysaccharides which include your starches and amylose.
Fiber is needed in the body and should not be considered “a filler.” Fiber plays a role in good digestive tract health, aiding in digestion and giving the dog a sense of being full. Fiber is also needed to bulk up the stool. More fiber is often added to “diet” recipes to reduce the number of calories the dog will eat.
There is no requirement for the minimal amount of carbohydrates in dog food, but you can assume that diets with less protein and fat will have higher quantities of carbohydrates. There is a specific mathematical formula that can be applied to determine the number of carbs in food, but it is beyond the scope of this article.
The next group is the micronutrients of vitamins and minerals. Though they are not needed in large quantities, they do play a vital role in the health of the dog.
Vitamins are essential for dogs because they help regulate metabolism, growth and development, maintenance and play a role in reproduction. Not all vitamins can be synthesized by the body so they must be present in the diet. Each vitamin has a specific function, and too much or too little of that vitamin can lead to poor health and disease.
Vitamins fall into two main categories, fat soluble and water soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins include Vitamins A, D, E, and K. The water-soluble vitamins are B and C. The B vitamins are essential but dogs can manufacture their own vitamin c.
There are also some vitamin-like substances such as Carnitine, Carotenoids, Bioflavonoids which play essential roles in the body but are not considered vitamins.
Minerals are made up of inorganic compounds, some of which are needed in large quantities than others. Those that are demanded in more copious amounts are called the macro minerals whereas those required in smaller portions are called microminerals. Dogs get the minerals they need through the food they eat, some coming from plant sources and others from meat sources.
Twelve minerals are known to be essential, meaning that the dog must obtain them through their food. Some of the most common minerals include Calcium and phosphorus, needed for healthy bones and teeth. Magnesium, potassium, and sodium are involved in nervous system functions. Other minerals serve in different ways such as metabolism, wound healing, and blood cell formation.
Like vitamins, minerals must be added back to commercial dog foods because much of the vitamin, mineral content of food is lost due to the manufacturing process.
Dogs need at least a minimum of energy to sustain life, and most of the energy needs are met by consuming proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. The energy needs of dogs vary widely according to their life stage and activity level. Puppies, pregnant and lactating dogs and very active dogs need the most energy while inactive and senior dogs require less. Energy is measured in calories or kilocalories. Dogs ingest this energy through their food.
Getting the correct number of daily calories is crucial to good health and will determine whether the dog can maintain his ideal body weight. Too many calories based on his activity level will result in weight gain and too little cause weight loss.
You can always tell if you are providing the correct energy needs by observation. A quick rule of thumb is that if you can see and feel a dog’s ribs, he is underweight. If you can feel the ribs but not see them, then he is at his ideal weight. Neither seeing or feeling ribs indicates overweight to obese.
Learning about proper dog nutrition is only the first step towards providing a healthy diet, but it an essential step. Knowing what nutritional needs are required by dogs is necessary but also getting the correct nutrients in the right quantities and ratios are just as important. Most people rely on the dog food manufacturers to get these numbers correct. Any deviation from the ideal ingredients and amounts can make the difference between excellent and poor health. Not enough of an essential component of the diet can be detrimental, but excessive amounts or amounts in the wrong ratios can also play havoc in your dog’s diet.
Janice Jones is an avid dog lover and blogger at Small Dog Place. When not writing, she enjoys time with her family and their large pack of canine children.