Are Dogs REALLY What They Eat?

Lorie Huston, DVM
Updated: February 11, 2021
Published: July 30, 2013
Share this:

Do You Have the Best Dog Food for Your Pet?

You've probably heard the phrase "you are what you eat." But does that apply to our dogs, too? Here are a few things you must understand before you can adequately answer the question.


Adapted from Pet Food Ingredients & Nutrients written by Lorie Huston, DVM

Nutrient vs. Ingredient

While some may say the terms "nutrient" and "ingredient" are interchangeable, there are some key differences. Nutrients are, in fact, supplied mainly by the ingredients that make up your pet’s diet. However, no one specific ingredient can provide complete and balanced nutrition necessary to keep your dog healthy. Each ingredient brings a unique set of nutrients to the dog food, and no one ingredient is any more important than any other.

Image: picturepartners / Shutterstock

Essential Nutrients for Dogs

There are six nutrient groups that are important for all dogs: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water.

Image: Ermolaev Alexander / Shutterstock


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.


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.


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 coat.


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.

Image: kudrashka-a / Shutterstock


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

From Puppy to Senior: Are their Nutritional Needs Different?

Age, reproductive status, lifestyle, and overall health all play a role in determining what levels of nutrients are required by your individual dog. For instance, puppies generally require higher protein levels than adult dogs. Growing puppies also often require higher levels of calcium, phosphorus and DHA, a fatty acid, are required for growing puppies, as well as higher levels of calcium and phosphorus.


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, for which the levels of phosphorus and sodium in the diet must be controlled.

Image: Eric Isselee / Shutterstock

Consult Your Veterinarian

There is no better person to discuss your dog's nutrition and health than your veterinarian. He or she will take into account your dog's life stage as well as any possible health concerns and make suggestions on an appropriate diet. Your veterinarian may also have knowledge on which pet food companies have diets that best suit your dog. Reputable pet food companies rely on advice and assistance from veterinarians and other experts in the field of pet nutrition in order to choose and balance out the ingredients necessary to develop proper nutrient profiles for our pets.