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How do you know if the dog food you're feeding is giving your pup the right nutrients for his/her health?
Whatever dog food you're feeding your dog -- kibble, raw, homemade, freeze-dried...
How do you know your dog is getting all the food she or he really needs to thrive?
One element of canine nutrition that really helped me figure this out was to stop thinking of my dog's food in terms of... dog food... but rather in terms of nutrients.
What are the six essential nutrients dogs need?
The six nutrient groups dogs need are:
We'll cover all of the nutrients a dog's body needs in Needed Nutrients here in the Basic Nutrition Channel on Dogly, but here's a quick introduction to each of the essential nutrients needed in a dog's daily diet.
#1 Essential Nutrient in Dog Food: Water
Water is the most important nutrient for dogs (and all animals), and yet it's often the most overlooked. Dogs (and cats) eating dry food get very little moisture from their diet -- typically around 10% moisture at most.
That means your dog needs to get the rest of his/her daily water intake from other sources, like a fresh water dish.
#2 Essential Nutrient in Dog Food: Proteins
Proteins are important for dogs because they provide the building blocks for muscle, hair, skin, enzymes, hormones, and more. For more on how to feed and why proteins are important for your dog, go here.
#3 Essential Nutrient in Dog Food: Fats
Fats are an important source of energy for dogs, as well as essential nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fats also help keep a dog's skin and coat healthy. For more on how to feed and why fats and fatty acids are important for your dog, go here.
#4 Essential Nutrient in Dog Food: Carbohydrates (optional)
Carbohydrates are another source of energy for dogs, as well as essential nutrients like fiber. For more on how to feed and why carbohydrates are important for your dog, go here.
#5 Essential Nutrient in Dog Food: Vitamins
Vitamins are essential nutrients that help support a dog's immune system, metabolism, and more. For more on how to feed and why vitamins are important for your dog, go here.
#6 Essential Nutrient in Dog Food: Minerals
Minerals are important for dogs because they help support a variety of bodily functions like muscle contraction, fluid balance, and nerve function. For more on how to feed and why minerals are important for your dog, go here.
Why essential nutrients in dog food matter
Whether your pup is an adult dog or a puppy, the nutrients in dog foods are really what matters for your dog's overall health, wellness, and survival. From a foundational perspective, nutrients are what the body takes from food and turns into proteins, enzymes, amino acids, etc. etc.
That is how our dogs thrive - when the essential nutrients are in place to give our dogs optimal nutritional value through all life stages.
Let's talk about how to know you're giving your dog nutrition that meets their needs whether their dog food is kibble, homemade cooked, or raw...
3 steps to help you match the right food for your dog with your dog's nutrient needs
How to know your dog is getting the essential nutrients your dog needs and which dog foods best meet your dog's nutritional requirements...
Step 1: Figure out your dog's nutritional requirements
The first step in getting a good handle on dog nutrition is to determine how much of each nutrient your dog needs.
Tools you can use to calculate essential nutrients for dog diets
The National Research Council
I go by the NRC, or National Research Council, for this information. They have requirements and guidelines for dogs and cats for feeding, nutrient standards for a pet's diet, and more for a complete and balanced diet to supply energy, maintain a strong immune system, a healthy nervous system, healthy skin, strong bones and joints, and generally, stay healthy overall.
Their giant book will give you all the details on essential nutrients dogs need and standards for the nutrients dogs require. It is not a light read by any means, but for pet owners who are interested, I encourage you to get a copy.
Dog Food Nutrition or Calorie Calculator
You can also find handy dog food nutrition tools online like the nutrient calculator from Raw Fed & Nerdy that can help you understand the value of the nutrients in what your dog eats, from common dog food ingredients to organ meats.
Or the calorie calculator from the Pet Nutrition Alliance, designed to help the veterinary community - and you - know you're giving your dogs complete and balanced diets.
This might be more information than you really want. I know it can be overwhelming but my point is to let you know that nutrients are a big deal when it comes to what our dogs eat and their overall nutritional needs.
Raise your hand if you need a dog nutrition translator!
Doing dog nutrition math can seem a bit daunting - sorting through Omega 3 fatty acids, dietary protein, essential amino acids, soluble vitamins, and all the other nutrients can feel like a lot.
Whether you're trying to choose the best packaged food for your dog or you prepare meals yourself or a combination of the two, remember I'm here to help. You can always ask questions in the Community discussion here in the Basic Nutrition Channel on Dogly and I'm happy to answer as best I can. Or if you'd like more personalized support, get started in your dog's nutrition plan.
As a canine nutritionist, connecting the dots with you and your dog is what I love to do.
Step 2: Understand what dog food labels actually tell you about nutrients
Let's talk a bit about processed pet foods (most commercial pet foods, kibble, canned pet foods, etc.) and nutrients. Here's the thing about processed pet foods - you can carefully read the pet food labels for ingredients and nutrients and see what you see, but there is little scientific research conducted to figure out destruction of nutrients in processing.
Okay, tell me more
We do know (not just for processed pet food products specifically) that vitamins are sensitive to cold and heat.
"Many vitamins and other supplements can degrade faster and lose effectiveness when exposed to excessive heat, light, oxygen in the air, or humidity. Even under ideal conditions, vitamins normally degrade over time, but this process is accelerated by poor storage conditions. Although overly degraded supplements may not be unsafe to take, you won't receive the amount of ingredient stated on the label and may not get the desired effect." Source: ConsumerLab.com
What does that mean for you?
While it's important to be an informed dog guardian and read food labels, I would focus on finding foods that have been minimally processed with whole, quality ingredients and do not contain any fillers or by-products. These foods will give your dog the best chance to receive all the nutrients he/she needs for good health - and that's what we're aiming for.
My point in all this is to make you more aware of essential nutrients and specifically how they can relate to your pet's health needs. Some young, active, very healthy dogs are doing fine on commercial pet foods, some aren't. If they aren't, how can you improve this from a nutritional and nutrient standpoint? For more on this, check out my guide on "How to Choose the Right Dog Food" in the Improving Kibble Channel here on Dogly.
Step 3: No matter how or what you feed your dog, make sure it meets all nutritional requirements
Regarding homemade or DIY raw diets - this is where the veterinary community can get upset because unfortunately, many pet parents who are well intentioned are feeding these diets incorrectly. You HAVE to be meeting nutrient requirements in these diets or some serious damage can be done to your dog's body - especially in preparing puppy food.
It is not as simple as the 80/10/10 raw feeding method or throwing together boiled chicken, rice, and some frozen veggies and calling it a meal. Whether adult dogs or puppies, the right nutrient math matters.
Nutrient requirements and commercial dog foods
The thing about most commercial diets in the pet food industry whether kibble, raw, or in-between is that they do adhere to nutrient requirements from AAFCO. AAFCO bases their standards on the NRC and has developed their own processes as well.
While we don't know about the destruction of essential nutrients in all commercial diets (vitamins like vitamin D, dietary proteins, or dietary fats and essential fatty acids as I mentioned before), we do know these diets initially were formulated by nutritionists and food scientists to meet nutrient requirements.
Food matters, but nutrients and what that food provides matters more
The well-intentioned DIY or homemade feeder can often overlook this and say "well, I am feeding fresh foods so that is all that matters!" Not so much, remember it is not as much about the food as it is the nutrients.
A homemade diet can be chock full of lovely vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants found in raw fruits, vegetables, and meats, but if it does not contain all the required essential nutrients for a growing puppy or adult dog - serious problems could arise.
Puppies are especially at risk because they are rapidly growing and developing and require higher levels of many nutrients than adult dogs. They are also more susceptible to deficiencies because their bodies are not as efficient at extracting and utilizing nutrients from food sources.
Next up in the Basic Nutrition Channel on Dogly
Now that you have a good base understanding of nutritional requirements for your dog, let's dive into each individual nutrient and understand why and how to feed each better. Jump to my next step-by-step guides on Proteins, Fats, Carbohydrates, Vitamins and Minerals here.
Or hop over to the Basic Nutrition Channel if you'd like to ask a question in the Community discussion and start any of the other step-by-step guides. If you ever need more personalized nutrition guidance, please reach out!