With its multitude of options, the pet food aisle can be a daunting place. One can of wet dog food might promise a “gourmet beef entrĂ©e” while another package of dry food might advertise “all natural ingredients” in big, bright lettering. You want the best for your dog, but where do you start?

The truth is that every dog is unique. Your dog’s breed, age, and personality can all affect his or her nutritional needs. There are some things all good dog foods have in common. However, to make the best dietary choices for your dog, you’ll have to consider your dog’s individual nutritional needs.

General Guidelines

The first thing to keep in mind is that your dog is an omnivore. It doesn’t take a veterinary degree to know that dogs love meat, but they also crave a well-rounded diet with nutrition from grains, fruits, and veggies. A balanced diet is the key to a dog’s health.

To ensure that balance, you’ll want to carefully examine the packaging and the label of your dog’s food. The ingredients list is an obvious place to start, but even the marketing and advertising on the package are worth reading. For example, a package advertised as a “beef dinner” or “beef platter” is only legally required to contain 10% beef, whereas a package advertised as “beef” alone must contain at least 70% beef. The same regulatory standards are applied to other ingredients, too.

Certain kinds of advertising, on the other hand, are basically meaningless. Many popular marketing terms like “gourmet” and “all natural” are unregulated by either The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means you can print those labels on just about anything. The next time you pick up after your dog, feel free to slap a sticker reading “all natural gourmet” on the bag!

The last, and best, general guideline is to consult with your veterinarian about your dog’s diet. Your vet is an expert on your dog’s nutritional needs. No matter what you’re considering or questioning, you’ll never go wrong asking a veterinarian for advice.

Excess Oil and Fat

A great rule of thumb is to check the first four ingredients listed on your dog food packaging. If you see oil or fat listed as one of those initial four, put the package back on the shelf. Not only are dog foods high in fat generally unhealthy, but they also put your dog at increased risk of bloat, a condition in which your dog’s digestive system fills with gas that has no means of escape. Within a couple of hours, bloat can be lethal for your dog.

Large or Small, Old or Young

Your dog’s size and age are two of the most crucial factors to consider when picking out dog food.

Large breed dogs are at higher risk for orthopedic diseases like arthritis. That means joint health supplements like glucosamine will be especially beneficial for larger dogs. As puppies, larger breeds are also in danger of certain developmental orthopedic diseases (DOD) which are caused by rapid, excessive growth. In these puppies, excess supplements can lead to growth at a rate their bodies can’t handle. The best dog foods for large breed puppies are lower in fat, phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin D to compensate for these risks.

In contrast, the greatest risk for small breed puppies is hypoglycemia. Their tiny bodies have high metabolic rates and fewer reserves of sugar and body fat. A small breed puppy’s meal should be packed with calories and, just like with small breed adults, should not contain chunks large enough to present a choking hazard.

Although the AAFCO and FDA don’t recognize a specific category of dog food for senior dogs, growing consensus suggests that senior dogs have unique dietary needs. Many of these needs will be dictated by health conditions your dog develops over time. Again, the best source of advice is your veterinarian, who already knows which conditions your senior dog is up against and will have the most up-to-date information regarding specialized senior diets.

Wet Versus Dry

Whether or not to feed your dog canned, wet meals or dry kibble is entirely up to you. The need to refrigerate opened cans of dog food and the affordability of kibble make dry meals a common choice for dogs. On the other hand, many dogs find wet meals more palatable. If your dog is a particularly picky eater, or if he or she struggles with a diminished appetite, the flavor boost of wet dog food might be the perfect solution. If you’re still on the fence, there’s no rule against feeding your dog a combination of wet and dry dog food.

Myths, Trends, and Reality Checks

Misinformation about dog food is all too common. It’s important to be thorough in your research to make sure you’re making sound, healthy choices for your dog.

Many dog families are wary of animal byproducts in their dog food, but dog food packed with hooves, hair, and manure is the stuff of urban legends. Today’s regulated animal byproducts include materials like organs and entrails, which are perfectly safe for your dog. If you’re still concerned about just what qualifies as an animal byproduct, call the brand of dog food you’re considering. Any dog food company worth their salt will volunteer that kind of information without any hesitation.

Some human dietary trends are hastily forced onto dogs. Gluten-free diets, for example, are almost always unnecessary for dogs, who very rarely have allergic reactions to wheat gluten. Other trends, like raw diets or home-cooked dog food, pose considerable risks to your dog’s health. Yet again, the best advice on any of these diets will come not from your neighbors or your Facebook friends, but from a trained veterinarian. If you’re absolutely sure about a special diet for your dog, the only responsible way to implement that diet is to consult with your vet first. If you don’t, you could do real harm to your dog, no matter how good your intentions may be.

Ultimately, the best way to know whether your dog’s diet is working as intended is to pay attention to your dog. A dog with healthy body weight will have a visible waist and ribs you can feel with your hand. If your dog is active, happy, and free from the any signs of digestive distress, you’ve probably made the right choice for your family’s best friend.

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