Pet Food Ingredients & Nutrients: Dogs are What They Eat

PetMD Editorial
April 29, 2013
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By Lorie Huston, DVM

Feeding a high quality diet is one of the most important things you, as a dog owner, can do to keep your dog healthy and active. But what constitutes a high quality dog food and how can you tell if your dog is receiving the nutrition he needs to thrive?

A high quality diet is one that is complete and balanced, containing all of the nutrients necessary to support your dog’s body functions. There are six nutrient groups that are important for all dogs: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water.


Proteins perform many functions and are important for growth, maintenance, reproduction, and repair of damaged tissues. Amino acids are the building blocks on which proteins are formed. Essential amino acids are those that are required in the diet because your dog’s body is incapable of synthesizing them in sufficient quantities. Non-essential amino acids are those that your dog’s body can synthesize so they are not required in the diet.


Fats are an important energy source but are also required for various body functions. Fatty acids, a specific type of fat, play an important role in regulating the body’s inflammatory response and are particularly important for your dog’s health – particularly for the skin and a coat.


Carbohydrates are another important source of energy for your dog. Carbohydrates include simple sugars such as glucose as well as more complex sugars such as fiber, which helps keep the intestinal tract healthy. Though there is not a minimum required carbohydrate requirement for dogs, carbohydrates present in food can provide a valuable source of fiber and energy, sparing the protein in the diet for more important body functions.


Vitamins are necessary in small amounts as catalysts for necessary chemical reactions that occur within your dog’s body tissues and cells.


Minerals are inorganic compounds that are important as components of bones and teeth as well as many other metabolic functions.


Many diets provide some water content for your dog, but access to a clean, fresh water supply is important. Water should not be overlooked as an important nutrient.

How Ingredients Keep Your Dog Food's Nutrients Balanced

Dogs require adequate levels of nutrients in their diet to maintain health. If the nutrient balance is not correct, your dog may become ill as a result of nutrient excesses or deficiencies.

Nutrients in the diet are supplied by the ingredients that make up your pet’s diet. No one specific ingredient can provide complete and balanced nutrition for your dog. But each ingredient in your dog’s diet brings a unique set of nutrients to the diet and, added together, all of the ingredients provide a complete and balanced nutrient profile. Because each ingredient is necessary to balance the diet, no one ingredient is any more important than any other.

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From Puppy to Senior: Devising the Right Nutrient Profile for Your Dog

Reputable pet food companies rely on advice and assistance from veterinarians and other experts in pet nutrition who are valued members of their company’s team. These individuals have a full understanding of the nutritional needs of dogs at all life stages, from puppies to seniors. They also understand how ingredients can be combined to result in the necessary nutrient profiles.

The nutrient profile required for your individual dog will vary depending on many factors. Age, reproductive status, lifestyle, and overall health all play a role in determining what levels of nutrients are required by your individual dog.

In general, puppies require higher protein levels than adult dogs. Higher levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a specific type of fatty acid, are required for growing puppies, as well as higher levels of calcium and phosphorus. It is also important to keep puppies lean. Obesity can lead to a variety of problems as your puppy matures. As a result, excess energy in the diet should be avoided.

For large and giant breed puppies, excesses of calcium must be avoided as well. Excess calcium levels can lead to orthopedic problems. Feeding a food that is formulated for growth is preferable for puppies as these foods are balanced to take the specific needs of growing puppies into account. Feed your puppy the amount of “puppy food” required to keep his body condition at an ideal point.

Senior dogs often have specialized nutritional needs, too. For instance, joint disease is common in older dogs and nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids (specifically eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA) may be helpful in relieving the associated pain. Additionally, older dogs may suffer from other illnesses, such as kidney disease, in which the levels of phosphorus and other electrolytes must be controlled.

Consult Your Veterinarian

Your veterinarian is your best source of information about your pet’s health and that includes your pet’s nutritional needs as well. Speak with your veterinarian about your pet’s diet. Your veterinarian will be able to help you choose the most appropriate diet for your dog based on your dog’s health, age, lifestyle, and breed.

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