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Dog Nutritional Requirements


Photo of dog eating dog food with information about AAFCO nutrient profiles 

The positive impact of proper nutrition on health and disease, including bone and joint health, is well established in all animals, including dogs. Consumers these days have daunting choices when it comes to nutritional choices for their dogs; whether it’s finding the right food, making the decision to supplement their dog’s diet, or managing their dog’s individual dietary needs. Though consumers are becoming more informed about canine health and nutrition through internet resources and online social communities, marketing and branding still plays a large role in their purchasing decisions. 

Bone health problems in dogs arise from numerous causes. If your dog is showing signs or symptoms related to their skeletal health, your veterinarian will first try to determine their origin before beginning treatment. For instance, if the cause of the bone issue is poor nutrition or a genetic predisposition to fragile bones, you might be advised to seek a high quality dog food rich in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. It  may also be recommended to look into dog health supplements that contain vital nutrients (such as lactoferrin, ribonucleases, coenzyme Q10, etc.).

What to Feed Your Dog

In the United States, a manufacturer may label a dog food as "complete and balanced” only if its nutrient profile meets or exceeds the minimum levels set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO is a voluntary membership association, consisting of local, state, and federal agencies, that provides a mechanism for developing model regulations for standards and enforcement policies applied to animal feed and establishes nutrient profiles for cat and dog foods. These standards are 
subsequently enforced at the state level.

In the case of dog foods, AAFCO provides general nutrient profiles for growth, reproduction and adult maintenance stages. These nutrient profiles list minimum (and, in the case of potential toxicity, maximum) levels for 36 nutrients that it considers “essential to a dog’s health”. These nutrients are further classified into five distinct categories: crude proteins, crude fats, minerals, vitamins, and other [nutrients].  

Pet parents should not assume that simply providing their dog with a “complete and balanced” commercial food is enough. On the contrary, in 2010, the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) released a report stating that the “[a]ssurance of proper nutritional health…entails more than meeting nutrient profiles; additional factors must be considered.  The report goes on to recommend that veterinarians work alongside pet parents to take a comprehensive approach in designing a dog’s nutritional program; this approach requires consideration of animal-specific (age, physiological status, activity level), diet-specific (appropriateness and safety of diet), and environmental-specific factors (frequency, timing, and quality).

Diet for Senior Dogs |Senior Dog Nutrition

One area that is not covered by AAFCO Nutrient Profiles is dietary needs for senior dogs. A senior dog diet requires special nutritional needs, and some of those needs can be supplied in the form of supplements. Supplements for senior dogs containing lactoferrin, ribonucleases, coenzyme Q10, and beta-glucan can help support bones and joints. If your dog is not eating a complete balanced diet,  then dog health supplements (such as a vitamin or mineral supplement for dogs) are often recommended to prevent or address any nutrient deficiencies. Most senior dogs also need extra antioxidants such as quercetin and selenium in the diet, as oxidative stress and free radicals may have caused damage to their joints over the years.

To learn more about nutrition considerations for your senior dog (dogs over seven years old), read about Nutrition for Senior Dogs. To figure out whether your dog is a senior dog, check out our Dog Years Chart

Obesity in Dogs

If you have an obese dog, weight loss can also be very difficult. Obesity is an especially common problem in the older or senior dog, and because these dogs often do not exercise as much. It is much better to not let your dog get overweight than to try to make him or her lose weight when she gets older. But if your dog is overweight, then work very hard to get the extra weight off. It is one of the single most important things you can do to increase the quality and length of life for your canine.

An obese dog can often have bone and joint issues, so it's best not to let your dog get to that point. You should practice dog weight management, by implementing strict nutritional control from early on and to take measures if your dog has gained weight that is unusual for its breed type or frame. For a large breed puppy, use a diet for large breed puppies (lower caloric content) as these dogs' bones and joints are very sensitive to weight fluctuations.

Avoid People Foods

It's important to note that dogs have sensitive stomachs and don't do well with constant table scraps or new "people" foods. The best option is always to follow your veterinarian's recommendations and provide him or her with a balanced dog-specific diet (there are non-commercial homemade dog diets as well but these should always be administered under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian).

If you are interested in giving your dog some home-made foods or treats, check out our informative blog posts on the topic.

Dog Supplements: Are They Needed?

While AAFCO nutrient profiles are a good starting point in deciding a dog food, it is important for dog owners to realize that these profiles do not address special considerations, such as medical conditions or diseases, dietary restrictions due to food allergies or gastrointestinal conditions, age (i.e. senior/geriatric dogs), level of exercise and energy levels (working or athletic dogs may have caloric requirements than dogs that are obese because of a sedentary lifestyle), or even something as simple a picky eater. 

A dog supplement is just that - it is intended to SUPPLEMENT a dog's diet. Natural supplements are especially useful if you have a dog on a homemade diet, but can also be a good addition to any dog depending on what aspect of their health you want to promote. It is important to do your research and make sure that the supplement is safe, the manufacturer is reputable and knowledgable, and that your veterinarian is in the loop to ensure that there are no nutrient excesses or deficiences (balance is very important). 

Further Reading:

Check out our infographic on Nutrients for Dogs with Cancer

Learn about the Best Protein Sources for Dogs

Recipes for Healthy Homemade Dog Treats

Tips for Dog Food Safety

This content is written by our Clinical Advisory Board for informational purposes only. It should not be viewed as an endorsement for any product or as a substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.