What Do Dogs Eat - Dog Nutrition Guide with EvidencePet owners are regularly bombarded with information from a variety of sources with advice on what do dogs eat.

Unfortunately, some of that canine nutrition guidance, while well-intentioned, can be confusing and – more importantly – misleading.

But it’s not just online resources alone that delude dog owners. Even regulated pet food labels can often be mislabeled [1], which is why it’s important for pet owners to keep their eyes open and educate themselves thru evidence-based approach on what do dogs eat.

Many diseases in dogs have been linked to poor canine nutrition [2]: liver disease, obesity, malnutrition, pancreatitis and dermatopathies (dog’s skin disease), just to name a few [3].

Fortunately, current research on optimizing dog nutrition has given us direct ability to influence our pets’ health with picking the right food for our dogs [1].

Most canine nutritionists and veterinarians agree that using commercial dog food is still the best way to ensure a complete and balanced diet to optimize dog’s health [1]. The trick is in knowing which dog food is best for your pet.

Understanding the basics of dog nutrition and pet food labels, and reading evidence-based dog food reviews can help to determine whether pet food you are feeding is healthy, accurately labeled and has sufficient amount of nutrients or not.

Understanding Canine Nutrition Basics

Just as humans, our domesticated animals require a certain amount of nutrients: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. A special attention must be paid to the amount of food fed to dogs.

Understanding what do dogs eat and how to optimize their diet can lead to a much healthier, happier canine and a longer lifespan.

What Do Dogs Eat - Science-based Canine Nutrition GuideCalorie restrictions

Calories are needed for the dog to sustain growth and maintain healthy body condition [4]. Through the basics of canine nutrition, we can also employ accurate calorie restrictions for dogs.

Improper pet nutrition is a common issue in the US. It’s not unusual for veterinarians to see problems associated with owners feeding dogs too many calories which quickly leads to obesity [5, 6].

Obesity in dogs is a risk factor for a whole host of other canine diseases, just as it is in humans [6]. Overfeeding your dog will usually lead to serious health consequences [7, 8, 9].

The good news is that pet owners can easily prevent any damage to their dog’s health by employing proper feeding practices and ensure their pets consume the right amount of the best type of dog food [10].

Diet changes take time to have significant effect. It’s essential to stick with your dog’s new diet long-term and include regular exercises to prevent your pet from regaining weight [11, 12].

A dog’s calorie requirements will vary widely based on your pet’s body size, activity level, stage of life, gender and health condition [13, 14].

Pet owners must remember that there’s no definite answer as to which is the best commercial dog food diet [15].

How many calories?

With the new pet food laws enforced by the FDA, dog food labels now contain calorie requirements for pets. These are a good starting point.

However, feeding guidelines on commercial pet food bags can sometimes over-estimate the amount of food needed to maintain a healthy weight since these numbers are regulated loosely.

If ever in doubt, always ask your veterinarian to help you determine the correct amount to feed your dog.

Protein for dogs

Protein is often the first component scrutinized by pet owners.

Studies have shown that good quality protein source is important for a dog’s overall health and lifespan [16, 17].

High protein diets aren’t harmful to canine’s kidneys as previously believed [18, 19, 20].

How much protein?

The minimal percentage of protein appropriate for adult dogs without complicating health factors is 18%.

For growing dogs it is around 22% [21].

Fats for dogs

What Do Dogs Eat - Fats for Dogs from FishFat tends to get a bad rap – both in human and canine nutrition – but it’s only a myth that still will not die [22]. We’ve previously discussed the importance of healthy fats for canines, particularly when feeding fish to dogs.

Tons of studies have already proven that a sufficient amount of fats is absolutely vital for the body to function optimally [22]. Fats are especially important to maintain a healthy condition of dogs’ skin and coat [23].

However, restrictions must apply to avoid adverse effects from too much fats in the dog’s diet [24].

How much fats?

The amount of dietary fat dogs need in their diet is very small, and varies depending on dogs’ breed and size.

Commercial diets usually have the number down, but pet owners should consult with a vet if ever in doubt.

Avoiding fats altogether is a bad idea as it has very important implications for the health of cell membranes, and for canine immune system health [21], on top of what has already been mentioned above.

Vitamins and minerals for dogs

Vitamins and minerals are essential for dogs’ cells to function properly.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are directly correlated to a variety of well-documented diseases mostly through human studies [25].

How much vitamins and minerals?

Proper balance of vitamin and mineral administration to dogs will vary depending on dogs’ age, size and breed, as well as the type of antioxidants given.

Research with dogs is still lacking in this area, but vitamin C has been shown to provide multiple positive effects among canines. Proper commercial dog food diets are usually fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Dog Food Labels

Dog food labels can be tricky. Determining what do terms such as “by-products” or “animal digest” seen on pet food labels actually mean can be confusing for some pet owners.

Meat by-products

By-products is the first on the list of suspicious ingredients in dog foods.

What many people don’t realize is that meat by-products are often composed of organs and other highly nutritious animal parts, and in certain cases aren’t harmful at all as previously believed [26]. The term “by-product” doesn’t mean that the protein is necessarily inferior [27].

By-products of meat, as defined by The Association of American Feed Controls Officials (AAFCO) include edible parts and organs such as heart, lungs or liver, meat trimmings, and potentially bone derived from mammalian sources, such as cattle or pigs [27].

When compared to meat derived from muscle, by-products in dog food tend to be higher in essential nutrients such as calcium and vitamin A [27].

Grains for dogs

What Do Dogs Eat - Dog Nutrition on Grains in Dog FoodGrains is another ingredient that gets a bad rap when it comes to dog food.

It is important to remember that dogs are omnivores, not complete carnivores. This means they need a source of carbohydrates in their diets which can often aid with certain health conditions in dogs [28].

Grains, including corn, wheat, barley, rice, rye and oats are not just so called “fillers.” Grains can be a nutritious source of carbohydrates for an optimized diet for dogs.

In addition, wholes grains also contain protein, amino acids, fiber, vitamins and fatty acids necessary for a balanced canine diet [29].

The USDA standards set grade limits and define grain quality, but reputable pet food manufacturers often use even more rigorous commercial specifications regarding grain damage or contamination, as well as nutritional standards [29].

Meat meals

Meat or poultry meals are another ingredient term that can be confusing.

When something is defined as a “meal” on dog food labels, this means it has been created by rendering [26].

Any cooking process that separates components, for example boiling chicken to separate the meat from the fat, is considered rendering.

Meat and poultry meals can be a highly digestible source of protein and essential amino acids [26, 30]. Although some studies have also shown very minor issues with dogs’ intestinal but not total tract associated with very specific poultry meat rendering [31].

What this means is that meat and poultry meals are acceptable sources of nutrition for dogs when done right. It ultimately comes to pet food manufacturers and associations like AAFCO and FDA to become more strict with regulating this part of dog food manufacturing.

Cooked vs Not Cooked Foods

What Do Dogs Eat - Canine Nutrition on Raw Dog Food Diets

There is some misconception about whether or not dogs should eat foods that have been cooked.

The obvious reason to cook dog’s food is for the same reason humans cook their food: to sanitize and kill bacteria and other contaminants.

Advocates of feeding a raw dog food diet suggest that feeding dogs uncooked food is more natural and true to their ancestral diets.

Even though it is true that this is what ancestral dogs ate, these historic canines likely suffered from malnutrition, intestinal parasites and many other health issues stemming from their poor, unoptimized diet. This is clear in humans, and there’s no reason this wouldn’t apply to dogs.

Moreover, the laws of evolution apply to dogs as well, meaning that canines 10,000 years ago were different to domesticated animals we have roaming the planet today [32, 33, 34].

Raw food proponents suggest that the nutrition value of current commercial dog food diets are unhealthy or nutritionally inadequate for dogs. However, there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to support this conspiracy theory.

The evidence that we do have actually points to the contrary: commercial dog food diets are healthy and nutritionally well balanced for dogs [35]. More evidence also demonstrated the unhealthiness and lack of safety in raw dog food diets [36, 37, 38, 39].

Plant based ingredients and grains will actually benefit dogs greatly from the cooking process, as it increases the digestibility of the starch found in these ingredients [21].

Take Home Message

Trying to wade through the massive amounts of information and misinformation to understand what do dogs eat and grasp the basics of canine nutrition can be a daunting task for a new dog owner trying to do the right thing.

Dogs require a well-balanced diet to avoid an abundance of diseases associated with poor nutrition.

High quality commercial dog foods are still the best way to go, and consulting with a vet to structure a perfect diet for your dog would be a good idea.

Higher quality dog food ingredients cost money and higher quality diets will be more expensive.

This doesn’t mean you have to purchase the most expensive dog food out there, but learn to be savvy about reading and interpreting pet food labels.

Be educated about what the terms used on dog food labels actually mean. Try to use reputable sources as you learn and gather information. Always consult with a qualified expert, such as your veterinarian, if you have questions about proper dog nutrition.

We also suggest you to browser through our database of dog food reviews and detailed evidence-based canine nutrition articles to learn more on what dogs eat and how to optimize their lifestyle.

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