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Dog Nutritional Care: Essential Nutrients Your Dog Needs

Nicole Cosgrove

June 30, 2021

Diet is the foundation of good health, whether it’s for humans, hamsters, or dogs. Often, nutritional requirements reflect what the animal can’t synthesize itself but can get from food. These typically vary by species, with a bit of overlap.

For example, both humans and guinea pigs must get vitamin C from what they eat. Other animals can produce it within their bodies. Other species, such as cats, are obligate carnivores, which means that they must eat meat.

Interestingly, dogs and people share about 84% of DNA. That means that a canine diet will mirror many things in a human diet. However, that doesn’t mean both can eat all the same things. We can eat chocolate while dogs — and many other animals — cannot. It’s helpful to begin at the basic level of learning what types of food that your pup should consume.divider-dog

Carnivore or Omnivore Diet

Whether dogs are carnivores or omnivores is a subject of intense debate. For a long time, scientists believed that they descended from wolves. That’s half true. Wolves are an ancestor of dogs, but a shared one. Both species diverged from an extinct animal, taking different evolutionary paths.

The arguments in favor of an omnivore include the length of a dog’s intestine. Animals that consume vegetation typically have a longer GI tract, since these foodstuffs take longer to digest. The chances are that you’ve seen your pup eat grass occasionally. Living with humans has also undoubtedly influenced their diet.

On the flip side, the evidence for the dog being a carnivore starts with their carnassial teeth. These allow carnivores to tear the flesh of prey. Canines also have forward-facing eyes so they can home in on their prey. They can also go for long stretches without food because meat will keep them satiated longer. Overall, dogs seem to be carnivores that have adapted to living with humans.

dog eating roasted chicken
Image Credit: Tatjana Baibakova, Shutterstock

Macronutrients

Macronutrients are large, complex molecules that form the basis of an organism’s diet. These are the things that you’ll see on pet food labels to help you compare products. Different animals have varying requirements. You can use the nutrient profiles of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as a guide to what your pup needs.

Protein

Proteins are complex molecules composed of amino acids. There are 21, of which nine are essential for humans and 10 for dogs. Unlike other macronutrients, protein is not stored in the body. That means an organism must consume it every day.

Even though the required amounts of amino acids seem small, long-term deficiencies can have profound effects on a dog’s health and longevity. Proteins provide the building blocks for other chemicals in the body, whether it’s your or your pet’s. They form the basis for a broad range of substances, from connective tissue to muscles and nails.

Another thing to consider is your pet’s life stage. Puppies will need more protein to support growth and development than an adult dog. Young animals require 9.7 g-12.5 g of protein per kg of body weight per day. It’s 2.62 g for an adult. That comes out to 22% and 18%, respectively. The difference is that a puppy needs more protein to grow.

Siberian-husky-dog-puppy-eating-a-meat_Hyper-Set_shutterstock
Credit: Hyper-Set, Shutterstock

Fat

Fat provides a vital source of energy at 9 calories per gram. Dogs — and humans — will store excess quantities to ensure that a ready supply is always available. Of course, there are pros and cons to that fact. Nevertheless, fat is the raw material for many body structures and cholesterol, which is critical for brain development and function. It also allows canines to store fat-soluble vitamins.

Again, the amount varies with the life stage. A puppy needs 5.9 g of fat per kg of body weight to supply the necessary energy for growth. An adult requires 1.3 g. The percentages are 8% and 5%, respectively. Dogs must also get sufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. Flaxseed is an excellent source of these nutrients, which is why you often will see them in ingredient lists.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates provide energy in a form that is more easily digested than fat. The output is lower, at 4 calories per gram. Carbs are useful for short bursts of energy, such as your dog chasing a ball or the family cat. Unlike the other macronutrients, there aren’t specific guidelines for carbs or fiber. Nevertheless, they are a vital part of your pup’s diet.

puppy eating blueberries
Image Credit: LightField Studios, Shutterstock

Vitamins

There are two main classes of vitamins: water-soluble and fat-soluble. The former is, as the name implies, dissolvable in fluids. Animals, including humans, cannot store them in their bodies. Therefore, they must get them every day. However, they will excrete what they can’t use, making excess amounts a waste. . The exception is vitamin B12, which animals get from meat. Dogs can store it in their bodies. Dogs and cats don’t need vitamin C since they can synthesize it.

Fat-soluble vitamins include A, D, and E. Dogs don’t need dietary vitamin K because they can produce it internally. Animals can store these nutrients in their fat tissue. That means that excess amounts can be problematic because they can reach toxic levels. That’s particularly true with vitamin A. It’s another reason that megadoses aren’t wise options when choosing a pet food.

Interestingly, the minimal vitamin requirements are similar for both puppies and adult dogs. To ensure that your pup is getting sufficient amounts, look for the term, “complete and balanced,” on the label. That means the food has everything that your pet needs in adequate amounts.

The vitamins that your pet needs include:
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
  • Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
  • Vitamin B9 (Folic acid)
  • Vitamin B12
  • Choline

Minerals

There are three categories of minerals based on the amount required and their nutritional value. Macrominerals include nutrients, such as magnesium and calcium. Pets — and people — require relatively large amounts in their diet. Essential trace minerals, such as iodine and iron, have much smaller minimum values.

You may see other nutrients on the label that don’t fit in either of these two groups, such as molybdenum. Nonetheless, they are still present in commercial dog foods.

The other notable factor with minerals is the ratio between calcium and phosphorus. The reason is because of absorption rates. If your dog gets too much phosphorus, it can interfere with their body’s ability to absorb calcium and vice versa. The ideal ratio for calcium and phosphorus is 1:1 for puppies and 1:1–2:1 for adults.

Balance is also essential. Excess amounts of minerals can cause serious health issues, especially in puppies. That’s why commercial diets are preferable over homemade ones or table scraps. You can rest assured that your pet is getting the correct amounts of everything that they need.

The minerals that your dog needs include:
  • Calcium
  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Iron
  • Chloride
  • Zinc
  • Manganese
  • Copper
  • Selenium
  • Iodine

Useful and Not-So-Useful Supplements

The pet food industry markets toward owners who want the best for their dogs. Often, that means advertising that a food is of equal quality as people food. Things that we enjoy and need are not necessarily beneficial for pets, and it’s worth noting that the AAFCO doesn’t define human-grade food. The USDA does, but a pet food manufacturer would have to comply with USDA regulations to produce foods that meet those standards. It’s essential to understand that equating human-grade products with safety isn’t a given.

For dog food, you’ll find ingredients listed on the label in the order of the portions that it contains. Items such as blueberries, cranberries, and sweet potatoes offer little nutritional value for your dog, especially in the minute quantities that these foods contain. They serve more as marketing tools than useful supplements to your pup’s diet.

A Word About Calories

Obesity is a serious problem for dogs and people. It can put your pup at a greater risk of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. We suggest monitoring your dog’s body condition and adjusting their diet to keep them from becoming overweight.

Remember that treats should account for no more than 10% of your pup’s daily caloric intake. They won’t have the same nutritional value as a commercial diet. They are an effective training aid that you can better leverage in your favor if you limit how much your pet gets.

The recommended daily caloric intake for your dog varies with their ideal weight, not unlike people. For example, a 10-pound dog needs between 200-275 calories per day, whereas it’s 700-900 calories for a 50-pound pup. Compare that to humans, who need 2,000-2,500 calories.

The best way to manage pet obesity is prevention. It’s infinitely easier to control your dog’s intake than to get them to lose weight. Monitoring their diet will yield quicker results than increased activity. However, a combination of the two is even better.divider-paw

Final Thoughts

Feeding your dog a high-quality diet that provides nutrients in the quantities that they need is the single best thing that you can do as a pet owner. A good diet will offer an excellent foundation for growth and development while giving your pup the nutrition that they need to stay healthy and prevent disease. The essential takeaway is that the needs of canines are both similar and different from those of people.

We recommend that you only feed foods formulated for your pup’s breed size and life stage. Feeding them people foods is a slippery slope of poor nutrition, deficiencies, and potential allergic reactions.


Featured image credit: dneobr, Pixabay

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.

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