We all want what’s best for our dogs, and a good, healthy life for your pooch starts with a proper, balanced diet and good dog food. Whether you’re a new dog owner, or an experienced dog owner looking to improve your dog’s diet or deal with a new health issue, this guide will take you through the basics of what it takes to provide a healthy diet for your dog…
Understanding Dog Nutrition
Just like humans, dogs require a well-balanced diet that provides the range of essential nutrients required to keep them fit and healthy. Since the amount and balance of nutrients that dogs require is different to that of humans, knowing what to serve up can be a challenge for pet owners wanting to give their beloved dog the best chance at health. But don’t despair – with some proper research, conversations with your vet, and a bit of trial and error, you’ll be able to land on the right dietary plan for your pooch.
The basic nutrients that dogs require aren’t dissimilar to humans’ needs. Dogs thrive on a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals, and enough overall calories to meet their energy requirements. The amount of each nutrient that a dog requires varies depending on a range of age, size, lifestyle, and genetic factors.
A nutritious diet is the foundation of a happy, healthy life for your pooch, so you want to get it right! Malnutrition – whether from insufficient overall intake or the wrong balance of nutrients – can have serious health consequences for your dog. On the other hand, overfeeding can lead to obesity and related health complications, like pancreatitis, which can be triggered by excess fat consumption. If in doubt about what or how much to feed your dog, always talk to your vet.
Types of Dog Food
When it comes to types of dog foods that are available, there are a number of options on the table! With so much information out there, and so many products on the market, it can be overwhelming deciding whether your dog would do best on dry food or wet food, or whether you should opt for organic, raw, or homemade foods. Below, we’ve listed the pros and cons of each option, to help you decide what’s best for you and your dog.
Dry Dog Food
Dry dog food is perhaps the most popular dog food type in the UK, probably thanks to its convenience and accessibility. It’s widely available and easy to find in most supermarkets, it’s often relatively cheap, and it requires no time spent on preparation. It also has the benefit of being relatively mess-free and easy to portion out, and it won’t spoil if your dog tends to wander off and return to their bowl hours later.
When choosing the best dry dog food for your dog, pay close attention to the claims made on the packaging. Many dry dog foods are formulated as ‘complete’ foods, meaning they are designed to deliver all the nutrients required in a healthy diet, based on strict UK guidelines. Some kibble is also formulated to clean and protect your pooch’s teeth, which can be an added boost to dental hygiene.
Because it has low water content, it’s important to provide your dog with plenty of fresh water if they’re mainly consuming dry food.
Wet Dog Food
Like dry dog food, wet dog food is a popular choice among UK pet owners as an accessible and cheap dog food option. Wet food has the added benefit of coming in a wider variety of formats than dry food, being available in canned, foil tray, plastic pouch, or meatloaf-style formats. These various formats also lend themselves to greater variety in flavours and textures – your pooch can choose from a plethora of casseroles, chunks, gravies, and jellies.
Wet food is a great option for older dogs and dogs with dental conditions, difficulty chewing, or missing teeth. However, keep in mind that wet food tends to be less nutrient dense than dry food, due to its higher water content. This can make it less suitable for puppies and large dogs who need nutrient dense diets, and they may fill up before they are able to meet their caloric requirements. Speak to your vet if you’re concerned this might apply to your pooch.
Just like dry dog foods, wet dog food can be formulated as a ‘complete’ food, meaning it will cover the required nutrients for a healthy dog diet. Others are ‘complementary’ foods, meaning you’ll need to mix and match to cover your dog’s needs. Many dog parents also choose to mix and match complete formulas to suit their dog’s palette and preferences.
Organic Dog Food
Many conscientious pet owners choose organic dog food for the same reasons that humans choose to eat organic. Proponents of choosing organic cite its environmental and health benefits. There are no pet food specific regulations around organic labelling in the UK; instead, packaged pet foods that claim to be organic must contain at least 95% Defra-approved organic ingredients.
Just like organic human food, organic dog food often comes at a premium cost. There’s also a lot of greenwashing when it comes to labelling, and organic claims are sometimes unfounded. As with all choices when it comes to feeding your pets, it’s a good idea to do thorough research before going down the organic route.
Raw Dog Food
Raw diets are becoming increasingly popular among pet owners. A quick internet search will bring up many vocal proponents of the approach. While some people hold a rather extreme view that dogs should only eat raw meats, a more sensible raw food approach includes a variety of raw foods from across the spectrum of food groups, including some dog-friendly fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, and legumes. Dogs are omnivores, after all; like humans, they can’t meet all their nutritional needs from meat alone.
The raw dog food diet remains controversial, with opponents highlighting the increased risks it carries. The most serious concerns include the high risk of bacterial contamination in raw meats, and the risk of nutrient imbalances that come from DIY approaches to preparing your dogs’ meals. These risks can have serious health consequences for your pooch, so it’s important to do your own thorough research and seek the advice of a trusted vet before you dive into the raw food approach.
As raw dog food diets gain popularity, there are an increasing number of commercially available dog foods that are available in frozen or freeze-dried formats. Some of these are formulated as ‘complete’ foods, meaning they include a proportion of non-meat components in order to meet your dog’s nutritional needs. These commercial formulas are a good option for owners who are new to the raw food approach, as they take some of the guesswork out of balancing your dog’s plate.
Homemade Dog Food
Some pet owners choose to go fully DIY and make all their dog’s meals from scratch. The benefit of this approach is that you get full control over what goes into your dog’s bowl, which can be particularly beneficial if your dog has allergies or a specific health condition that requires an adjusted diet.
However, there are inherent risks in making your own dog food. You need to be willing to do your research to ensure that you’re providing the right amount and balance of nutrients for your pooch, and that you’re not including any foods that are toxic or dangerous for dogs. (Not all healthy human foods are safe for pooches!) On top of that, it’s very time-consuming. A more balanced approach might involve making a few DIY treats to supplement a complete commercially prepared food.
Life Stage Dog Food
You wouldn’t feed a toddler the same meal that you’re plating up for yourself, and you’d probably need to adapt it to suit an elderly grandparent too! Just like our own dietary requirements change over time with age, health, and lifestyle changes, dogs’ needs change too. While dogs’ dietary needs generally remain fairly stable over the course of their adult lives, it’s important to cater to specific requirements while they’re in the puppy stage and as they reach old age.
We all know how vital nutrition is for growing babies and children, and the same is true for your puppy! Once they have been weaned from their mother’s milk, a properly balanced, healthy diet is so important to give your pup the best start in life.
Since they’re using so much energy to grow and develop, puppies have high caloric requirements relative to their size, compared to adult dogs. Since their tummies are still small, you’ll need to meet their needs with small meals often throughout the day.
If you’re new to dog ownership, you might consider opting for a commercially available complete food that’s been specifically formulated for puppies. This will ensure that you’re meeting your puppy’s nutritional requirements during this crucial stage of early development.
The age at which you can start transitioning to regular adult dog food varies from pup to pup. A good rule of thumb is that they should reach about 90% of their expected fully-grown body weight, which could occur from anywhere between six months and 2 years old, depending on your pup’s breed and size. From there, you can start to gradually play around with intake until your dog is maintaining a healthy weight. It’s a good idea to seek professional guidance from a vet at this stage.
Senior Dog Food
Provided they have no underlying health conditions, most dogs can thrive on a fairly routine, stable diet for much of their adult life. Once they hit their senior years, however, you may need to make some adjustments. For most dogs, this is around the age of seven.
There are many commercially available senior dog foods that will ensure you’re adjusting your dog’s diet appropriately as they age. Many senior dogs require fewer calories due to reduced activity levels, and should also avoid excess sodium.
However, senior pets often experience reduced appetite, so you should monitor your dog’s weight and energy levels, and consider feeding them smaller, more nutrient-dense meals if you notice their body weight dropping. Again, seeking professional advice from your vet as your dog ages is the best way to ensure they remain happy, healthy, well, and active for as long as possible.
Dietary Requirement Dog Food
If your dog has been diagnosed with a health condition, such as pancreatitis or obesity, you may need to opt for dog food that is tailored to meet their specific dietary requirements. Your vet can give you personalised guidance on this front, but there are some general rules of thumb you can keep in mind.
Low Fat Dog Food
Low fat dog food is specifically formulated to be – you guessed it – lower in fat than typical dog foods. Low fat diets are often prescribed for dogs who are overweight or have a health condition such as pancreatitis or irritable bowel syndrome.
A healthy diet for dogs that don’t have any health conditions includes some fat, so you shouldn’t cut fat from your dog’s diet without professional advice. You should also be aware that foods that are formulated to be low fat need to compensate for this reduction by increasing the protein and carbohydrate content of the formula, so it’s important to make sure that the specific balance of the food you choose is in line with your dog’s individual requirements.
Grain-Free Dog Food
Grain-free dog foods exclude all grains, including gluten-containing grains like wheat and barley, as well as gluten-free grains like corn and rice, and even some legumes like soy. Note that grain-free dog food doesn’t mean carb-free – often foods will include other carb sources, like starchy vegetables or lentils, to meet your dog’s nutritional requirements.
Grain-free dog food is a good choice for dogs with grain allergies, though this represents a tiny proportion of the population, with less than 1% of dogs estimated to be allergic to grains. In the absence of any allergies, grain-free diets are not necessarily harmful for dogs, but they may make it more difficult to meet your dog’s nutritional requirements. It’s worth speaking to your vet before making the switch to find out if it’s right for you and your pet.
If you want to provide your dog with the best possible nutrition, you may be wondering whether your dog would benefit from a vitamin supplement. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question – just like humans, every dog has different needs. Most healthy dogs should be able to get all their required nutrients from a nutritious, well-balanced diet. This is why opting for a certified ‘complete’ food is often a good idea, as UK regulations mean that they must be formulated to provide all the essential nutrients your pooch needs.
Since we tend to think of vitamins as healthy, you might think that adding supplements to your dog’s diet is a safe way to supercharge their wellbeing, but this is not always the case. Overloading your dog with too much of any one vitamin can be detrimental to their health, so it’s a good idea to speak to your vet before you introduce a supplement into their diet.
In some cases, dogs do require an extra boost that a supplement can provide. For example, senior dogs might need a multivitamin if they’re not able to digest enough food to meet their needs. Dogs with joint disease might be prescribed omega-3 supplements or MSM. In all cases, you should speak to your vet and go with their advice. And never give your dog vitamins intended for humans! There’s a reason there are special pet formulas.
Who doesn’t love a tasty treat? Many dog owners use treats as motivators while training their dogs, or to sooth anxiety and boredom. But treats aren’t always the healthiest, and should therefore be kept to occasional foods for your four-legged friend. A good rule of thumb is to keep treats to less than 10% of your dog’s total dietary intake.
While there are many commercially available dog treats on the market, if your dog is a treat fiend you might like to consider making your own DIY treats. That way, you can control what goes into them, and you might save some cash in the long run too!
You can also find a range of healthy premade treats on the market, or even opt for treats with added benefits like dental care. Ensuring that the majority of your dog’s treats are healthy is a sustainable way to add variety and fun to the menu.
Key Considerations for Choosing the Best Dog Food
As a pet owner, providing a healthy, balanced, sustainable diet for your beloved pooch can feel like a big responsibility. And in many ways, it is – our dogs trust and rely on us to keep them safe and healthy, and so it’s important that we’re providing them with the best possible diet.
Fortunately, there is a wide range of healthy, well-balanced dog food options available on the UK market. If you want to ensure that your dog’s food is meeting their needs, look for packages marked as ‘complete’ foods. ‘Complete’ foods are formulated to meet all your dog’s nutritional needs (as opposed to ‘complementary’ foods, which are intended to be incorporated into a varied diet). UK legislation dictates that manufacturers must meet stringent nutritional standards to label their food as ‘complete’, so you can buy these products with peace of mind.
Also keep in mind that dogs thrive on routine. You may be concerned that your pooch will grow bored of eating the same meals every day, but as long as those meals are nutritionally well-balanced, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to what your dog knows and loves! In fact, too much variety is likely to cause digestive upsets, and should be avoided.
There are many different factors that affect a dog’s nutritional requirements, including age, size, breed, activity levels, and health conditions. You can find great resources online that will help you to calculate your dog’s caloric requirements, or offer insights into choosing the right food type. But at the end of the day, the best way to ensure that you’re meeting your dog’s individual needs is by talking to your vet. After all, we are what we eat, and a nutritious diet is the foundation to a happy and healthy life for us all – pets included!