Have you ever read the label on your dog’s food and wondered about all the ingredients listed? After all, the front says “chicken and brown rice” -- so what’s the purpose of all that other stuff?
The fact is, making a complete and balanced dog food is an exact science, involving the careful selection of ingredients and supplements to provide the 40+ essential macronutrients and micronutrients that dogs need, in the correct proportions and in bioavailable forms.
The food not only has to meet the standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), ensuring it’s 100% complete and balanced for the correct lifestage, it also has to taste good enough that picky pups will actually eat it!
Moreover, all dogs’ needs change significantly over time - from puppyhood and growth, to adult maintenance, pregnancy and lactation, and the golden senior years. And that’s for an average healthy dog, with no special dietary or health needs.
In this article, we’re diving deep into just what goes into a complete and balanced food - the essential macronutrients and micronutrients dogs need, what they do, and what ingredients provide them.
Water makes up 60% of an adult dog’s body and is the most essential nutrient all life needs to survive. Made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule, it plays a role in every major physiological function including:
- Regulating body temperature
- Lubricating joints
- Keeping the eyes, nose, and mouth moist
- Breaking down (hydrolyzing) other essential nutrients, including protein, fats, and carbohydrates so they can be digested
- Cushioning the organs and nervous system
- Transporting nutrients throughout the body and flushing out waste
How much water do dogs need?
How much water your dog needs will depend on factors like the environmental temperature, your dog’s activity level, health, and the food they eat. Dogs get water from two primary sources:
Dry food usually contains around 10% water, while wet food has about 70- 80%. Due to the lower moisture content, dogs that eat kibble will usually drink more than dogs who are fed wet food.
Clean, preferably filtered water should be freely available to prevent dehydration. Most dogs will self-regulate their water intake when water is provided, however you should keep an eye on your dog’s intake.
Dogs that aren’t drinking enough may become dehydrated, which can have serious, potentially fatal consequences. Signs of dehydration include dry nose and gums and lack of skin elasticity. Excessive water consumption, on the other hand, can indicate the possibility of health problems like kidney disease or diabetes mellitus.
One of the four macronutrients, protein plays a crucial role in life. Dietary proteins are broken down in the digestive system to produce amino acids, often called “the building blocks” of proteins. These amino acids have important roles in the body, including:
- Building and repairing organs, muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and other tissues
- Maintaining strong and healthy hair, skin and nails
- Producing hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes to keep the body functioning
- Producing antibodies to help fight disease
- Can provide energy when sufficient carbohydrates and fats aren’t available
How much protein do dogs need?
Of the 20 amino acids that make up proteins, over half of them are essential, meaning they can’t be produced by the dog’s body, so they must come from diet. Although proteins are stored in the body, to keep the body from breaking down muscle to get them, your dog needs to consume a consistent supply in the diet for optimal health.
On average, a balanced food for an adult dog will typically contain at least 18% protein, however the exact amount of protein dogs need depends on their activity level, health, breed, size, and life stage.
Pregnant or nursing dogs and growing puppies require more protein than an average adult dog. Highly active dogs may also require more protein in their diets.
If sufficient essential amino acids aren’t provided through dietary protein sources, the body will begin to break down body tissues to provide them, which can seriously impact health.
Which ingredients provide protein?
The best sources of protein are animal products, including lean meat, poultry, fish and eggs. These are complete proteins because they provide all the essential amino acids dogs need. Other good sources of protein include non-meat ingredients like peas, lentils, beans and legumes. However, these vegetable sources are not complete, so it’s important to choose ingredients which complement each other to provide all the essential amino acids.
Common protein sources:
- Meat: beef, pork, lamb, venison
- Poultry: chicken, turkey, or duck
- Fish: salmon, herring, or mackerel
- Meat or fish meals
- Peas and pea protein, lentils
- Potato protein
- Hydrolyzed soy protein or soy protein isolate
- Wheat or corn gluten
- Whey (more often found in treats)
Since protein sources like beef and chicken are among the most common allergens, these alternate proteins are often found in veterinary diets prescribed for dogs with allergies or sensitivities.
Fat doesn’t just make food taste good - it’s also an important macronutrient and source of energy. In fact, fats provide twice as much energy as proteins and carbohydrates and is the main form of stored energy in the body.
The building blocks of fats are called fatty acids. Some of these fatty acids are categorized as essential fatty acids (or EFAs), meaning that they must be provided in the diet since the body isn’t able to produce them.
These essential fatty acids are further characterized into two groups. The omega-3s group includes Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The second group is linoleic acid, or the omega-6 fatty acids.
Fatty acids support a number of important functions in the body, including:
- Regulating body temperature
- Supporting proper blood clotting
- Helping to produce prostaglandins which control inflammation, among other functions
- Providing structure to cell membranes
- Maintaining healthy skin and a shiny coat
- Promoting a strong immune system
- Enabling absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K)
- Protecting internal organs
- Helping the nervous system and reproductive systems function
How much fat do dogs need?
Commercial dog food will typically contain anywhere from 5 to 20 percent fat, depending on the individual dog’s needs. Higher fat levels may be appropriate during periods of increased energy expenditure such as strenuous physical activity, growth, and pregnancy or lactation.
When fat levels are inadequate, it can lead to impaired growth, weight loss, and lower energy levels. When essential fatty acids are inadequate, blood clotting and wound healing may be impaired. Skin problems are also common, including skin and ear infections, skin lesions or “hot spots”, dry or scaly skin, and a dull, dry coat.
Problems can also arise when too much fat is consumed. These include gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular problems, and pancreatitis. These issues are often seen in dogs who are fed too many fatty treats or table scraps.
Which ingredients provide fats?
Both animal and vegetable fats are commonly included in dog food to provide essential fatty acids. The omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are most abundantly found in cold water fish, while ALA often comes from flaxseed oil and other nut and seed oils.
Omega-6 sources typically come from vegetable or seed oils and animal fats. Some dog foods may also specifically list the EFAs the food is enriched with. For example, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may be listed among the ingredients.
Common fat sources:
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Canola oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Vegetable oil
- Soybean oil
- Salmon or salmon oil
- Chicken fat
- Pork fat
- Beef tallow
- Fish oil
While both omega-3s and omega-6s have important functions, they must be consumed in the correct proportions. Too much omega-6 may cause inflammation, so it’s important to balance the amounts of EFAs. A complete and balanced diet will include the correct ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s for optimal health.
Unlike protein, water, and fats, carbohydrates are not an essential macronutrient because dogs can synthesize blood glucose from amino acids. While not essential, they do serve several beneficial functions in the body, including being the most readily available source of energy and in promoting a healthy gut.
Carbohydrates mainly come from vegetable sources and can be consumed as either sugars, starches, or fiber. Depending on how the body breaks down and uses them, these carbohydrates can be further categorized as simple, complex or fiber based upon, absorbability, digestibility, fermentability, and non-fermentability.
Absorbable carbohydrates, or simple carbohydrates, can be immediately used by the body as an energy source. Sugars such as glucose and fructose are two absorbable carbohydrates found commonly in fruits, grains, and root vegetables.
Digestible carbohydrates, sometimes called complex carbohydrates, are broken down by enzymes in the digestive system into glucose so they can be absorbed. Starch is the most common form of digestible carbohydrates, and mainly comes from sources like potatoes and grains. Sugars such as lactose and sucrose are also digestible carbohydrates since they must be broken down before they can be used by the body.
Fermentable carbohydrates are one of two types of fiber, and also commonly referred to as soluble fibers. These ingredients are broken down by the gut bacteria to provide direct nutrition for the intestinal cells. Some fermentable carbohydrates are classified as prebiotics which improve the healthy of the digestive system by promoting healthy bacteria in the gut.
Non-fermentable carbohydrates, or insoluble fiber, is not digested by the body. It serves to add bulk to the contents of the bowel. This is important as it helps to time the movement of food through the digestive system, allowing enough time for nutrients to be fully absorbed, but not so much time that the animal becomes constipated.
How many carbohydrates do dogs need?
Since carbohydrates are not essential, there’s no “right” amount of carbohydrates, it all depends on a dog’s individual needs.
As long as their diet provides enough protein and dietary fats to meet their energy needs, dogs fed a diet low in sugars and starches will simply rely on those sources instead. However, a diet lacking in fiber and prebiotics can lead to soft feces and poor gut health. Fiber can also help dogs feel full, which is why diets higher in fiber are often used to help overweight dogs lose weight.
Additionally, fruits and vegetables which provide carbohydrates also tend to be loaded with beneficial vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making them an important part of a balanced diet.
On the other hand, when dogs eat more carbohydrates than they need, these are converted into fat or stored in the liver or in muscles as glycogen to be used later (or not). Excess sugars may also cause gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea or bacterial overgrowth, while too much fiber can lead to constipation.
Which ingredients provide carbohydrates?
The most common sources of absorbable and digestible carbohydrates in dog food are grains. In grain-free foods, carbohydrates are often provided in the form of tubers, like potatoes, or legumes like chickpeas and lentils, as well as other fruits and vegetables.
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat
- Sweet potatoes
- Squash or pumpkin
While whole grains, fruits and vegetables do provide some fiber, alongside sugars and starches, fiber in commercial dog food mainly comes from the addition of one or more of the following ingredients:
- Beet pulp
- Fruit pectin
- Vegetable gums (such as guar gum)
- Oat bran
- Rice and other grain hulls
A complete diet will typically include multiple beneficial sources of carbohydrates, including whole grains or tubers and legumes, fiber, vegetables and/or fruits, balanced in the appropriate proportions to provide quick energy, support digestive health, and help deliver vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
Vitamins are micronutrients divided into two groups - water-soluble and fat-soluble. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning they require fat in order to be absorbed by the body. The water-soluble group includes vitamins C and B-complex and require water to be absorbed.
Vitamins play a crucial role in many functions in the body, including growth, blood coagulation, disease prevention, and energy production.
Essential vitamins for dogs: What they do and where to get them
Vitamin A, or retinol is essential for healthy vision, especially in darkness. Dogs are able to synthesize vitamin A from beta carotene (found in foods like carrots). Too much or too little vitamin A can cause eye problems, dry skin, reproductive, pulmonary and joint issues, and a weakened immune system.
Sources: Liver, fish and fish oil, carrots, eggs and pumpkin are all good sources of vitamin A.
Vitamin D is used by the body to optimize the metabolism and absorption of calcium and phosphorus, and ossify it into bone. Just like in humans, Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets (although this is rare in dogs), as well as joint and muscle pain or fractures. However, unlike humans, dogs can’t synthesize Vitamin D from sunlight, so it must be provided by their diet.
Excessive vitamin D can cause bone abnormalities and soft tissue calcification, especially in young dogs and puppies.
Sources: The best sources are cod liver oil, oily fish like tuna or sardines, egg yolks, dairy products, and beef liver.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant which helps to protect cells from free radical damage. It helps to strengthen the immune system and promotes healthy eyes and skin.
Vitamin E deficiency can cause muscle weakness, and eye and reproductive issues. Excess vitamin E can inhibit blood clotting, but it’s generally the least toxic of the fat-soluble vitamins.
Sources: Vitamin E is most abundantly found in plant oils and plants such as vegetable oil, spinach and other leafy greens, whole grains, bran, and seeds (such as chia seeds). It can also be found in animal products like liver and eggs.
Vitamin K is essential for blood coagulation (clotting). It also plays a role in metabolizing protein, and assists in incorporating calcium into bone. Dogs are able to synthesize their own vitamin K thanks to intestinal bacteria, though this may not always provide sufficient amounts, so a dietary source is important too.
Side effects of vitamin K deficiency include inadequate blood clotting, hemorrhaging, and anemia.
Sources: Liver, meat, leafy green vegetables including cabbage and spinach, kelp, alfalfa, fish, and milk.
Vitamin C acts in the body as an antioxidant and supports a healthy immune system. Healthy dogs synthesize sufficient vitamin C in the liver, so it’s generally not necessary to supplement.
While unlikely, vitamin C deficiency can lead to slower healing and increased susceptibility to illness.
Sources: Citrus fruits, many other fruits and vegetables, including kale, green beans, zucchini, strawberries and more.
Vitamin B1 (thiamin) is essential for a healthy nervous system where it plays a role in synthesizing important neurotransmitters. Symptoms of deficiency and excess thiamin include fatigue, slower reflexes, loss of nerve control, muscle weakness, vision problems, seizures, and even death.
Sources: The best sources of thiamin include yeast and wheat germ. Other good sources include seeds and nuts, beans, bran, meat, and milk.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) supports skin and coat health and energy production. Deficiencies may lead to skin changes, and eye abnormalities. (is the heart affected?)
Sources: B2 is abundant in organ meats, including liver, yeast, dairy products, and eggs.
Vitamin B3 (niacin) helps to keep skin healthy and prevent dryness and dermatitis. Dogs are able to synthesize some B2 from the amino acid tryptophan but a dietary source is needed too.
Sources: Niacin is abundant in meat and fish.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid) is prevalent in many types of food, so deficiencies are rare. It’s involved in most metabolic processes and also helps to protect the skin by aiding in synthesizing skin fats.
Sources: Meat, dairy products, eggs, vegetables.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) supports multiple functions in the body and promotes healthy metabolic functions. Signs of deficiency can include skin abnormalities, anemia, nerve issues and poor growth.
Sources: Found in many foods including meat, wheat germ, and yeast.
Vitamin B7 (biotin) supports a healthy nervous system and is involved in breaking down of glucose as well as synthesizing fatty acids. It’s also essential vitamins for healthy skin and a shiny coat. Dogs’ intestinal bacteria produce biotin, so dietary sources aren’t usually needed.
Sources: Biotin is found in organ meats like liver and kidneys, cooked eggs and yeasts.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) is only found in animal products and is important for synthesizing proteins and producing red blood cells. Absorption of B12 can be reduced by aging, certain digestive diseases, vegetarian diets, and cancers which can cause anemia.
Sources: Meat, organ meats (liver, kidney, heart, lung) and fish.
The right amount of vitamins for dogs
Just like macronutrients, there’s no “right” amount of vitamins, it depends on your dog’s individual needs. For fat-soluble vitamins, the minimum and maximum amount dogs should consume is generally measured in terms of IU/lb of food consumed, or for water-soluble vitamins in mg/lb of body weight.
If you feed your dog a complete and balanced commercial diet, there’s generally no need to supplement vitamins, and it can in fact be dangerous to do so. While excess water-soluble vitamins will be excreted in urine, excess fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate to the point that they become toxic and cause a wide range of problems.
On the other hand, all homemade diets require supplementation, since providing every essential vitamin in the correct amount through food alone is an extremely exact science. Vitamins can also be degraded by the cooking process and by heat, light, and oxidation, so proper cooking and storage is important.
Like vitamins, macro and microminerals are found naturally in ingredients used in dog food, and may also be added in through supplementation with mineral salts. Minerals work with vitamins in a number of important functions, including building bones, ensuring a normal immune system and healing process, and supporting the nervous system.
Which minerals do dogs need?
Calcium plays an important role in healthy bone growth. Dietary calcium must be balanced with another mineral, phosphorus - together these minerals are responsible for making teeth and bones rigid. It also supports the nervous system by assisting in the transmission of information and nerve impulses.
Too much calcium can cause bone weakness and deformities, while too little can impede growth. Adequate calcium, carefully balanced with the correct ratio of phosphorus, is especially important for puppies and lactating mothers who may require up to twice calcium as much as adult dogs.
Sources: Calcium is often added to dog food as bone meal. Dairy products, as well as vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage are good sources of calcium. It may also be added to dog foods as the mineral salts calcium carbonate, calcium sulphate and calcium phosphate.
Phosphorus, in addition to working with calcium in bone growth and maintenance, is also an important for cells and energy production. It’s a component in the structure of cell membranes, as well as in DNA and RNA, the molecules responsible for carrying the genetic code of a cell.
Inadequate dietary phosphorus may cause bone abnormalities, slow growth and decreased appetite.
Sources: Like calcium, phosphorus is often found in dog food as bone meal. It’s also prevalent in meat, eggs, and fish.
Potassium is fundamental in keeping cells functioning correctly and works together with sodium to control the body’s acid base balance. It’s also important for the transmission of nerve impulses and energy metabolism.
Potassium deficiency is uncommon. However, dehydration from diarrhea depletes potassium levels, and if left untreated over time can result in deficiency, causing paralysis and muscle weakness.
Sources: Potassium is plentiful in meat, fruits, vegetables, fish, and eggs. It may also be added to dog food as potassium bicarbonate, potassium chloride, or potassium sulphate.
Sodium is a positively charged ion which, along with potassium, maintains the body’s acid base balance. It’s also important in energy metabolism, nerve impulse transmission, and regulation of water in the body.
Sodium deficiency is uncommon, but may cause vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, dullness and seizures. Excess sodium can cause salt poisoning, which causes vomiting, dehydration and can even be life-threatening.
Sources: Table salt, or sodium chloride, is one of the most common sources of sodium. It’s also found naturally in unprocessed meats and may be added to food as the mineral salts sodium phosphate and sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP).
Magnesium is important for energy production, and DNA and RNA stability. It also supports protein synthesis, healthy muscle and nerve function, and is a component of bones and teeth.
Inadequate magnesium can cause joint problems and issues with the nervous system, including ataxia and irregular heart beat.
Sources: Magnesium is naturally found in bones and may be added to food as bone meal.
Chloride is a negatively charged ion, which works in conjunction with sodium to maintain the acid base balance inside and outside of cells. It also helps in producing stomach acid.
Chloride deficiency can cause weakness, slow growth, and weakness or muscle paralysis. Excess chloride can affect blood levels of calcium and potassium, leading to metabolic acidosis.
Sources: Chloride isn’t found in large amounts in most foods, so it’s nearly always added to food as sodium chloride (table salt).
Iron is a crucial component of the molecules responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body in red blood cells (hemoglobin) and in muscle (myoglobin). It also supports the immune system and the production of energy in the body.
Iron deficiency can cause anemia, diarrhea, and abnormal growth and development. Excess iron can cause vomiting and diarrhea as well as an imbalance with other minerals, including manganese, copper and zinc.
Sources: Liver, red meat, fish, eggs, legumes and vegetables like broccoli and spinach are rich sources of iron.
Zinc plays an important role in transporting vitamin A throughout the body, reproduction, and a strong immune system. It’s also essential for healthy coat, skin and wound healing because of its crucial role in synthesizing collagen and keratin.
Poor growth and skin lesions on the foot pads are common symptoms of zinc deficiency. Excess zinc can cause imbalances or deficiencies in the body’s copper and iron levels.
Sources: Whole grains, brewer’s yeast, and meats like pork, liver, and lamb are good sources of naturally occurring zinc. It may also be supplemented in food with the addition of the mineral salts zinc sulphate or zinc oxide.
Copper is involved in many of the body’s functions, playing a role in the process of absorbing iron and incorporating it into hemoglobin, in synthesizing collagen and the hair pigment melanin, and in reducing free radical damage.
Inadequate copper can cause anemia, loss of hair pigmentation, limb hyperextension. Excess copper has been known to rarely cause toxicity in certain breeds.
Sources: Meat, including pork, lamb and duck, peas, lentils and soy are rich sources of copper. The mineral salt copper oxide is sometimes also added to pet food.
Manganese is involved in the formation of cartilage and bone, reproduction and in the function of mitochondria, which produce energy in the cell.
In puppies, manganese deficiency can cause skeletal abnormalities, and lameness and joint issues in adult dogs. It can also affect the reproductive system. Excess manganese may result in loss of respiratory, cardiac, muscle and nervous system function.
Sources: Grains and mineral salts are good sources of manganese.
Iodine is essential for healthy functioning of the thyroid, which impacts growth and development and the metabolism.
Iodine deficiency can cause goiters (swelling in the neck), hair loss and weight gain.
Sources: Iodine is found in sea salt, fish, and seaweed.
Selenium is an antioxidant, helping to reduce free radical damage to cells and working with vitamin E to support the immune system.
Deficiency can result in poor appetite, depression, breathing problems and even coma. Excess selenium can also cause nervous system disorders and stomach disorders.
Sources: Common sources of selenium include fish and mineral salts, as well as meat, organ meats, and brown rice.
As you can see, nutrition is extremely complex. There’s much more to it than tossing your pup some steak and veggies!
The benefit of a complete and balanced diet like Puppo is that all the guesswork is done for you. We learn your dog’s individual needs and recommend an individualized formula based on their weight, breed, life stage, activity level, sensitivities and preferences.
We select the highest quality ingredients and balance your formula with the perfect ratios of vitamins and minerals for optimum absorption and function, so you can be confident your pup is getting the nutrition they need.