What’s in a Balanced Dog Food?

PetMD Editorial
August 04, 2011
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Most of the dog foods sitting on the shelves today are meant to be the only source of nutrition for our pets. These foods are marked as "complete and balanced" on the label. By law, to be able to use this statement, the food must meet certain minimums or maximums established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO sets these rules to make sure that pet foods really do meet the nutritional needs of animals.

Dog foods must contain specific levels of protein, fat, minerals, and vitamins, depending on the lifestage of the dog. To prove they are healthy, foods must either be made from a recipe that meets certain nutrition requirements, or they must be put through a special feeding trial.

So, just what makes up a complete and balanced dog food?

VIEW SLIDESHOW: What’s in a Balanced Dog Food?



Dog foods meant for maintenance have anywhere between 30 to 70 percent carbohydrates. Dogs are omnivores, meaning they can use carbohydrates as a source of energy. The ability to use both proteins and carbohydrates as energy allows healthy dogs to function well on the majority of commercial diets. Common cereal grains like wheat, corn, rice, barley and oats give the kibbles structure and texture. Once processed, these ingredients are easy for dogs to digest.

An ingredient such as beet pulp, which contains carbohydrates that are less digestible (known as fiber), helps to keep an animal "regular." Fiber also helps keep the dog feeling full longer, decreasing the amount of food needed and preventing obesity. Fiber is not a necessary component to dog food, but it does have many benefits for the animal.


One of the most important nutrients for dogs is protein. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for creating strong muscles and repairing body tissues. Because the dog can only create half of the amino acids he needs, the other amino acids (called essential amino acids) must come from the diet.

Common ingredients such as chicken, egg, beef, turkey, lamb, soybeans and fish meal are used in dog foods to provide necessary protein levels. Adult dogs in good health generally require about 18-25 percent protein in their diet, which can come from a variety of sources.


While some may reflexively think fat is unhealthy, this is not always the case. Dogs require a balance of certain fatty acids that must be provided by the diet. Fats provide energy, as well as taste and flavor, to foods, and encourage the absorption of certain vitamins. Fat provided by the diet also helps dogs maintain healthy skin and a shiny, healthy coat.

Common fats used in dog foods include chicken or pork fat, cottonseed oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, fish oil, safflower oil, and many more. A balanced diet that provides about 10-15 percent fat is essential for health in the majority of adult dogs. The problem comes in when animals are allowed to eat excessive amounts of calories (including table scraps and treats) without proportionate exercise.

Vitamins and Minerals

Last, but not least, essential vitamins and minerals must be included in a dog food to maintain good health. Vitamin E helps support your dog’s immune system, while Vitamin A is important for maintaining healthy skin and hair. Vitamins are found in many common foods, including fruits and vegetables, which is why these ingredients are found in many dog foods.

Minerals are necessary for helping the body perform certain functions and prevent deficiencies. Minerals needed in larger amounts include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, chloride, sulfur, and potassium. Minerals that are needed in much smaller quantities are called trace minerals. Important trace minerals include iron, zinc, copper, chromium, iodine, selenium, manganese and fluorine. Minerals in dog foods are provided by supplements, as well as ingredients like legumes, grains, meats, fruits and vegetables.


A healthy diet is not complete without the addition of water. Water is essential for eliminating waste from the body, regulating body temperature, transporting nutrients, and preventing dehydration. Also, while some water can be found even in dry dog food, your pet should always have a source of water to go along with a healthy, balanced diet.

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