Dog nutrition explained


Expert nutritionist Jacqueline Boyd kicks off a new series about dog nutrition

Feeding your dog is about so much more than just popping some tasty food in their bowl. What, when, and how we feed our dogs can have a significant impact on their overall health and well-being. It can also impact on their ability to be physically active and even their lifespan, too.

But what is nutrition and why is it important in how we care for our dogs?

In this series, we will explore some key topics in canine nutrition, with the aim of equipping you with some really good nutrition know-how.

What is nutrition?

Nutrition is the scientific study of food and the components contained within. Nutrition also covers how an animal obtains, breaks down and then uses food to support day to day life, growth, reproduction, and activity.

Canine nutrition covers what we feed our dogs, how they digest and use it, and how we can alter their diet for particular reasons, for example, if they are recovering from illness or at different life stages.

Nutritional knowledge can be really useful for any canine caregiver because it can help you make great diet choices for your dog, as well as knowing when you might need to make any necessary changes to what they are eating.

What does my dog’s food contain?

Food consists of a number of different components. All food has a dry matter (DM) fraction and a moisture fraction. Dry dog foods are low in their moisture content (typically about 8 to10%), while tinned or raw dog food can be 70%-plus moisture.

When any food undergoes laboratory analysis, the dry matter fraction contains a number of different groups of compounds. These are classified as inorganic or organic. These terms relate to the chemical form of the compounds – organic means the compounds contain the element carbon, while inorganic simply means that they don’t contain carbon.

What are nutrients?

The compounds that food consists of include nutrients – substances that are required by the body to support life processes and need to be acquired from the diet.

Nutrients are either essential or non-essential. Essential nutrients must be provided in the diet to support survival and a deficiency in these can lead to serious problems.

Non-essential nutrients are those that can be made in the body, but might be present in the diet also. They are also important for health and well-being. Vitamin C is an example of a non-essential nutrient  for dogs. This is because while vitamin C is present in some foods, dogs can also make their own, unlike humans or guinea pigs.

What nutrients are important for your dog?

Water is a key nutrient and comes from food and drinking. It is often called ‘the first limiting nutrient’ to highlight its importance for your dog’s health – indeed, a basic rule of good nutrition is that fresh, clean water should always be available for your dog.

The inorganic fraction of food contains the minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, and many others. Minerals are critical for the body to function and need to be provided in the diet in small amounts, so are often called micronutrients.

Interestingly, the inorganic fraction of food is identified on dog food labels as ‘ash’ (or inorganic matter or incinerated residue). This is not ash being added to your dog’s food; rather it is an indication of the laboratory analysis undertaken and identifies the mineral levels present.

Other nutrients are found in the organic fraction of food. These include the lipids (which includes the fats and oils), proteins, carbohydrates, and vitamins. Vitamins are also micronutrients because they are needed by the body in only very small amounts. The other nutrients are called macronutrients because they are provided in much larger amounts in the diet.

What do nutrients do in your dog’s body?

Nutrients are important to support the normal functioning of your dog’s cells, tissues, and organs. Water is critical to support the many chemical reactions taking place throughout the body, and is also critical for removing waste products from the body and helping your dog maintain a normal body temperature.

Vitamins and minerals have many roles. Some minerals such as calcium and phosphorous are essential for the formation of strong, healthy bones, while other micronutrients are needed to help cells function well and for normal biochemical reactions.

Protein, lipids and carbohydrates all provide energy to your dog, and this energy is what allows your dog to be active and to ‘fuel’ the functioning of the body. Highly active dogs particularly benefit from diets high in lipids because they are very energy dense. However, for less active dogs, diets lower in lipids might be preferable to avoid the development of obesity.

Protein also provides building blocks to support growth and repair in your dog’s body, and is especially important for young, growing dogs, although all dogs do need a daily intake of dietary protein.

Finally, carbohydrates are important for supplying energy, but fibrous carbohydrates are also important for digestive health.

What is the difference between ingredients and nutrients?

Your dog’s food will be formulated by mixing a number of different ingredients together. These ingredients might include fresh meat, meat meal, grains, fruits, and vegetables. These ingredients will each contain a number of different nutrients. For example, fresh meat will contain protein, lipids, and a small amount of carbohydrate, whereas grains will contain much more carbohydrate, but also some protein and lipids, too. There will also be different micronutrient profiles in different ingredients.

An important point, however, is that our dogs need nutrients and ingredients supply those nutrients in different forms and amounts.

This means that in thinking about your dog’s food, you need to assess how dietary ingredients will provide the essential nutrients, in what forms and amounts. In choosing a food for your dog, try not to solely focus on the ingredients contained, but also think about the nutrient levels too.