This guide will teach pet owners everything they need to know about dog food and pet nutrition, including how to read labels and what ingredients to look for.
Dogs are like members of the family, and we want to make sure they are eating the best possible food so they can be happy and healthy.
Persuasive marketing claims about nutrition, diets, and ingredients have made it challenging for even the best-intentioned pet owners to make good decisions. In one study, dog owners reported that choosing the right food for their dog was the most difficult part of pet ownershipLisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Nutrition)
This guide will teach pet owners everything you need to know about dog food, including how to read labels, what ingredients to look for, how much it costs, where to buy it, and how to get discounts. We’ll also cover specialty diets that might be necessary for dogs with health conditions. By the end of this guide, you’ll be an expert on dog food and your furry friend will be thanking you for it!
Introduction – Pet Nutrition
When it comes to pets and our pet’s food, we want to make sure they are well-nourished so they can live long and happy lives. The same goes for our furry friends. Dogs need proper nutrition just like any other living creature. In order to ensure that our dogs are getting the best possible life we need to ensure they get regular exercise and health checkups – but often we don’t focus on nutrition as much – in reality, this is probably the most important part of your dogs health, so we must pay close attention to their diet and what goes into their food.
There are some things humans can eat that you should never feed your dog, such as grapes, onions, chocolate, coffee and nuts.Patrick Wright, ‘How to Choose the right food for your dog’ ABC
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How to read pet food labels
The first step in giving your dog the best possible nutrition is to understand how to read pet food labels. Just like human foods, pet foods are required by law to list all of their ingredients on the label. However, unlike human foods, pet food labels are not always easy to understand and can be misleading, as the Merck Veterinary Manual Explains. The ingredients are listed in order of weight, with the heaviest ingredient listed first. This means that if meat is the first ingredient listed, then the pet food contains more meat than any other ingredient. However, it is important to note that the weight of the ingredients includes both water and fat. So, a food that lists red meat as the first ingredient may not actually be higher in protein than a food that lists another type of protein, like chicken meal, as the first ingredient.
When reading pet food labels, you should also pay attention to the guaranteed analysis. The guaranteed analysis must list minimum percentages for crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages for fiber and moisture. These values give you a general idea of the nutrient content of the food. However, they are not as specific as the actual ingredients list and do not tell you anything about the quality of the ingredients.
Dog food labels are required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tell you eight key pieces of information, and individual states may also have their own labeling requirements. According to the American Kennel Club, these are;
- Product name
- Net weight of the product
- Name and address of the manufacturer
- Guaranteed analysis
- List of ingredients
- Intended animal species (i.e. dog or cat)
- Statement of nutritional adequacy
- Feeding guidelines
Now that we know how to read pet food labels, let’s take a closer look at some of the most important ingredients in dog food.
Pet nutrition – Protein
One of the most essential nutrients for dogs is protein. Protein is essential for muscle development, repair, and maintenance. Dogs need more protein than cats because they are more active and have higher energy needs. The best sources of protein for dogs are meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.
Pet nutrition – Fat
Another important nutrient for dogs is fat. Fat provides energy and helps the body absorb some vitamins and minerals. Fat is also a source of essential fatty acids, which are required for proper skin and coat health. The best sources of fat for dogs are meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and certain oils.
Pet Nutrition – Carbohydrates
While protein and fat are the most important nutrients for dogs, they also need other nutrients like carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Carbohydrates provide energy and help the body absorb some vitamins and minerals.
The best sources of carbohydrates for dogs are vegetables such as peas, tapioca, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and carrots, however commercial pet foods manufacturers often include cheaper filler grains such as rice, wheat, oats and barley because of their lower cost (premium pet food generally wont have as much as cheaper dry food). Excessive wheat products can cause health problems such as diarrhea and bloating, or skin conditions such as flakey, dry and itchy skin in dogs.
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Pet Nutrition – Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are essential for various bodily functions. They can be found in all sorts of foods including meats, poultry, fish, eggs, vegetables, and fruits. Many pet foods also contain added vitamins and minerals to ensure that dogs are getting all the nutrients they need.
Now that we know the most important ingredients in dog food, let’s talk about how much food your dog needs and how often you should feed them.
How much to feed your dog
The amount of food your dog needs depends on their age, activity level (energy requirements), size and weight (and how much table scraps they are given!). Puppies and young dogs generally need more calories than adults on senior diets because they are growing and have high energy needs, so puppy diets will tend to be higher in fats (and possibly too many treats for training!)
Adult dogs generally need fewer calories than puppies as they have finished growing, but their calorie needs can vary depending on their activity level and size – my pet Rottweiler for example still chomps his way through 6 cups of kibble and 2 cups of raw meat a day! The best way to determine how many calories your dog needs is to talk to your veterinarian or a pets nutritionist.
When to feed your dog
As a general rule of thumb, adult dogs should be fed once or twice a day. Puppies under four months old should be fed three to four times a day, and as they grow up it can be reduced down to two or even one feed a day.
Be careful not to feed your dog too close to vigorous activity such as running around at the dog park, especially in larger breeds. Feeding too close to exercise can cause tummy upsets, bloating and can even be fatal even in healthy pets. Always wait at least half an hour, and for giant dogs, break the meal up into a morning and evening feeding to avoid health problems.
Many experts recommend rotating diets every 2-6 months if you are feeding commercial dog food. This typically means changing to a new food company. Offering a variety of formulas within that company can benefit many dogs. When feeding homemade diets, a variety of foods should be offered. However, it is always important to use recipes for complete and balanced dog food. Feeding the same food all the time can become boring for your dog.Susan G. Wynn, DVM, CVA, CVCH, DACVN. Veterinary Nutrition and Integrative Medicine Service at Georgia Veterinary Specialists
How to choose the best dog food
Now that we know how to read pet food labels and what the most important ingredients are, let’s talk about how to choose the best dog food for your pet for their overall health and good nutrition. The best way to do this is to consult with your veterinarian and your pets breeder. They can help you select a diet that is appropriate for your dog’s age, activity level, and as well as cater any health conditions they may have.
When selecting a food for your dog, after you have considered your dog’s energy and nutritional needs, it is also important to consider your budget. Pet foods can range in price a lot – and you need to be careful as cheaper dog foods sometimes provide little to no nutritional value and even dangerous amounts of wheat or other fillers and even contaminations which can interfere with healthy skin and cause weight gain (or even vitamin deficiency, serious illness and dangerous weight loss).
The more expensive foods are not necessarily better, but they may contain higher quality ingredients and be easier to digest.
There are also many specialty pet foods on the market that can help dogs with certain health conditions. For example, there are food specifically formulated for senior dogs, dogs with allergies, and dogs with sensitive stomachs (which will avoid things like wheat fillers).
You should spend time researching dog food brands and formulations, as sometimes brands produce kibble specifically tailored to your breed of dog. PetMD also suggests to do homework on your chosen brand;
Information on sourcing and quality control in manufacturing is not required on pet food labels. You may be able to find the information on the company’s website but if not, call their consumer relations department and ask where its ingredients are sourced. Any reputable company with a quality product will be happy to engage with its consumers. Next, see if the company manufactures in its own facility rather than outsourcing. This provides better control and safer food for your pup!Lorie Huston, DVM, PetMD
Personally, I opt for a mix of dry kibble and fresh meat, and supplement with additional treats such as dried pigs and rabbit ears.
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Best dog food brands in Australia
Rated by independent online consumer magazine Canstar Blue, the most popular dog foods in Australia are;
- Black Hawk & Coles
- Supercoat (Purina)
- Royal Canin
- ALDI Julius / Natural Elements
- My Dog
- Hill’s Science Diet
The Cost of Dog Food
Regular dog food costs include things like
- Rawhide chews
- Treats for training
- Bones (non weight bearing, i.e. avoid giving femurs etc as these are hard and can crack your dogs teeth)
- Chicken wings and necks
- Dry kibble
- Wet food
For an average medium-sized dog, these costs average out to approximately $500 per year for most people, however, the costs can rise massively for giant dog breeds such as Great Danes, Bernese Mount Dogs, St Bernards, English Mastiff and Rottweilers which are much larger and require a much higher daily calorific intake than smaller breeds such as a cockerspaniel.
Best cheap dog food
If you are on a budget, there are ways to get discounts on dog food. Many pet stores offer loyalty programs that give you points for every purchase you make. These points can then be redeemed for discounts on future purchases. You can also find coupons for pet food in newspapers and magazines. Finally, some pet food manufacturers offer coupons directly on their websites.
One of the best cheap dog foods in Australia is the ALDI Natural elements brand. This food is designed to meet all the nutritional needs of your pet, and is made with high quality ingredients, and doesn’t feature any wheat fillers.
Poultry Meal (Source of Chicken), Peas, Poultry Tallow (Contains Rosemary Extract, Antioxidants), Tapioca, Potato, Sweet Potato, Gravy, Vitamins & Minerals, Beet Pulp, Salmon Oil, Vegetable Oil, Chicory Root, Yucca Schidigera Extract, Coconut Oil, Alfalfa, Blueberries, Cranberries, Pumpkin, Parsley Flakes, Chondroitin Sulphate, Glucosamine, Rosemary, Taurine, Kelp Meal, Beta Carotene.
I recommend additional feeding with fresh meat such as chicken wings, necks or similar, as well as eggs and olive oil, as part of a balanced diet for complete nutrition
Best premium dog food
If you are looking for a premium food that doesn’t break the bank, then I recommend Black Hawk. This food is made with all-natural ingredients and provides everything your dog needs to stay healthy and active. Black Hawk also offers a loyalty program where you can earn points for every purchase you make, which can be redeemed for discounts on future purchases.
Lamb Meal, Chicken Meal, Fish Meal, Ground Rice, Oats, Chicken Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols [source of Vitamin E], Citric Acid, Rosemary Extract), Field Peas, Beet Pulp, Kelp Meal, Canola Oil, Brewers Yeast, Egg Powder, Essential Vitamins & Minerals, Chicory, Salt, Di-calcium Phosphate, Natural Antioxidants, Fish Oil, Emu Oil, Yucca Schidigera Extract, Glucosamine, Chondroitin Sulphate, Tomato Powder, Carrots, Dried Blueberries, Dandelion, Peppermint, Rosemary, Cranberries.
And again, I recommend additional feeding with fresh meat such as chicken wings, necks or similar, as well as eggs and olive oil, as part of a balanced diet for complete nutrition
Requirements for puppy food are different to those of adult dogs, as puppies have different nutritional needs. Puppy food is specially formulated and is typically higher in fat and protein to support growth and development, and may also contain DHA (an omega-three fatty acid) to support brain development Puppy food should also contain enriched levels of vitamins and minerals for example calcium to support healthy bones and teeth.
I recommend Black Hawk Puppy Formula as it is made with high quality ingredients and contains everything a growing pup needs, supplemented with good quality homemade puppy food. A homemade puppy diet should contain the proper balance of:
- Protein, such as chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef
- Carbohydrates, like rice, pasta, potatoes
- Vegetables, such as peas, green beans, carrots
- Fat, often in the form of vegetable oil
- Vitamin/mineral supplements (purchased from a reputable company)
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Specialty dog food
As I mentioned before, there are many specialty pet foods on the market that can help dogs with certain health conditions. For example, there are foods specifically formulated for senior dogs, dogs with allergies, and dogs with sensitive stomachs (which will avoid things like wheat fillers). These will contain easily digestible proteins, and be low in lard/tallow to make it easier for an older dog to digest, as well as containing omega 3 fatty acids to help reduce joint pain and arthritis which older dogs are at increased risk of.
If your dog has a health condition, it is best to talk to your veterinarian, breeder or local dog club about which diet would be best for them. They may recommend a specific brand or type of food that will help to improve your dog’s health.
Conclusion – Pet nutrition
In conclusion, choosing the best dog food for your pet’s nutrition can be a daunting task, but it is important to do your research into your pet’s diet and select a food that is tailored to your dog’s individual needs. Look past slick marketing, and try to read all of the available information. The best way to find out what type of food is best for your dog is to talk to your veterinarian. They will be able to recommend a specific brand or type of food that will help to improve your dog’s health.
I hope this article has been helpful in guiding you through the process of choosing the best dog food for your pet. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below and I will be happy to answer them.
References and further reading
American Pet Products Association. Pet industry market size and ownership statistics. Available at: https://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp. Accessed December 16, 2019.
PetFood News. Dog owners have difficulty choosing pet food (October 8, 2015). Available at: http://www.petfoodindustry.com/articles/5407-survey-dog-owners-have-difficulty-choosing-pet-food. Accessed December 16, 2019.
Schleicher M, Cash SB, Freeman LM. Determinants of pet food purchasing decisions. Canadian Veterinary Journal 2019;60:644-650.
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