What ingredients to look for in dog food and treats
Ensuring their diet has the best ingredients leads to beneficial health effects
Dogs are carnivores, but they can still obtain nutrition from plant-based sources such as grains, fruits, and vegetables. Overall, a well-balanced diet is vital to a dog’s health and well-being.1
“Nutrition is the foundation. Ensuring a diet is complete, balanced, and provides all needed nutrients for optimal health is essential to having the best chance for a long and hopefully disease-free life,” said Laura Gaylord, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition), founder and owner of Whole Pet Provisions, PLLC, and North Carolina veterinary nutritionist, in an email exchange with dvm360®.
Nutritional problems occur most often when dogs are fed imbalanced homemade diets or certain human foods. Dog foods or homemade diets derived from a single food item are inadequate to an overall balanced diet.2 Although dogs can thrive with a balanced diet of vegetarian foods, a diet of only meat does not meet the nutritional needs of a canine.1 For example, feeding predominantly meat, or even an exclusive hamburger and rice diet, to dogs can induce calcium deficiency and secondary hyperparathyroidism.2
“Just as important [as] providing the right kinds and amounts of nutrients is avoiding excess calories,” Gaylord said. “Currently, [over] 60% of our pets are overweight or obese, and obesity creates a state of inflammation in the body, increases risk of disease, and shortens life span.”
The 6 basic nutrients needed for a canine diet include water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins, according to VCA Animal Hospitals. Veterinary professionals can consult nutritional guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to ascertain the nutritional content of commercial foods and to ensure these products meet AAFCO standards.1
Recommending products to clients
Deborah Linder, DVM, MS, DACVN, head of the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals in North Grafton, Massachusetts, provided guidelines for counseling dog owners about choosing the right dog food during a virtual 2020 Fetch dvm360® Conference. “I like to give owners some agency, so they understand how I’m selecting food and thinking through what’s best for pets,” Linder said. “I also give them information so they can be more active in the decisions.”3
How can you know whether a company is responsible? Linder advocates phoning them directly. This is one way to find out whether a company employs critical staff, such as a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, a PhD nutritionist, an animal food formulation specialist, and a toxicologist.
"At the end of the day,” Linder said, “someone with expertise [must] come up with the formulation for a food, think through that recipe, consider all the ingredients that should go into it and how [they] interact with each other, and know the biochemistry and nutritional physiology behind that.”
Gaylord also offered a few tips for guiding clients with product selection, which include the following:
- Always feed, in total, the correct amount of calories to avoid overfeeding and weight gain.
- Avoid exotic protein ingredients.
- Consider feeding some or all the diet as a commercial, balanced, less-processed diet option (cooked fresh foods).
Gaylord noted that treats can potentially be high in calories and are sometimes overfed to pets. “Choosing lower-calorie treats [perhaps less than 5-10 kcal or calories each] is a good idea. I have seen some treats as high as 50 kcal or calories per treat. In general, treats and snacks should be limited to no more than 10% of the diet—[this is 10% of the calories the dog or cat eats every day]—to avoid unbalancing the total daily diet,” she said.
Overall, it is important to consider the pet’s specific dietary needs, in consideration of breed, age, and health conditions. However, in general, pet owners can be advised to choose recognizable, whole-food ingredients and a low-calorie diet for their dogs.1
- Llera R, Yuill C. Nutrition - general feeding guidelines for dogs. VCA Animal Hospitals. Accessed July 20, 2022. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/nutrition-general-feeding-guidelines-for-dogs
- Sanderson, S. Overview of nutrition: small animals. Merck Veterinary Manual. Updated June 2016. Accessed June 22, 2022. www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-small-animals/overview-of-nutrition-small-animals
- Capuzzi J. Crunching the data on pet foods. dvm360®. September 2, 2020. Accessed July 20, 2022. www.dvm360.com/view/crunching-the-data-on-pet-foods