Dog nutrition can be a contentious topic, as many people have varying views on how to keep our canines as healthy as possible. You’ve already made the first step by looking into the matter, so you’re obviously a caring and responsible pet owner. At GeniusVets, we firmly believe that petcare information should come from veterinarians and not from “Dr. Google.” That’s why we’ve taken the most common questions on dog nutrition, sent these questions to renowned veterinarians, and compiled their replies to get you information that you can trust when it comes to your dog’s nutrition.
While all of the dog nutrition information and recommendations below have been sourced directly from leading veterinarians across the country, please make sure to seek your veterinarian’s advice or find a trusted veterinarian near you using the GeniusVets Directory.
What are the life stages of feeding my dog?
We break the dog life stages down into three critical categories:
First, we have the puppy lifestyle when they’re rapidly growing. Their energy needs are high, so those puppy foods will be higher in protein and higher in carbohydrates. Then, we have our middle-aged dogs that are not growing anymore. They generally don't have any disease states going on. And that's the regular age group that's simply referred to as the adult dog stage. Lastly, we have senior foods, which are generally lower in protein, phosphorus, and calcium, and may also contain joint supplements. Animals reach senior “status” at different ages based on breed and size. For instance, a Great Dane may be considered elderly at six or seven, while a tiny poodle may be regarded as elderly when they're 12 and older.
We would not recommend food called “all life stages” because it would be over the amount of protein and calcium for an older dog. And if you were to feed a puppy the more senior food, it would not have enough calories and proteins for their needs, so there are three different and distinct life stages.
Should I feed my dog on a schedule, and how do I know if my dog's nutrition is suffering?
We recommend feeding puppies, in particular, on a schedule. You can monitor how much they eat. You can make sure that they don't play hard and fall asleep and then forget to have lunch. We recommend that puppies have breakfast, lunch, and dinner to keep their blood sugar at optimal levels, especially the smaller or toy breeds. The other thing about scheduled eating for puppies is it’s also generally easier to get them housebroken if they are on a schedule.
When dogs are older, and we're not trying to get them housebroken, it is typically okay to leave food down for them all day as long as they're the type of dog that likes to nibble here and there. However, dogs that gorge themselves whenever they have access to food need specific meals and mealtimes. If not, we will run into situations like bloat or obesity. If that were to happen, it’s necessary to feed overweight dogs specifically designed meals, so they do not get too many calories in a day.
As for a dog whose nutrition is suffering, you would see things like weight loss, weight gain, and perhaps lethargy. A dry coat can also mean they’re not getting the right minerals and oils in their diet. It’s vital that if you notice any of these signs that you take your dog to your veterinarian. At that point, we can determine whether or not it is a nutritional deficiency or if there’s a different type of problem going on.
How do I know if I'm feeding my dog too much?
It’s an excellent idea to have your veterinarian assess your dog based on what's called body condition score, so we'll feel their hips and their ribs, and we’ll ask you how they're doing at home. Are they lethargic? Do they get winded quickly? Those things may tell us if they're a little overweight. On the other hand, if we can feel the ribs prominently and their hips stick out, they might not be getting enough food.
A dog should be rounded if you look straight down on them from the top. They shouldn't be squared off. And if you look at a dog from the side, their tummy should be tucked up instead of sagging down.
The essential nutrients for dogs are very similar to those needed by humans, so your pup's going to need the following
You may have heard that you should choose a grain-free diet, as it’s been a myth circulating in the past few years. The truth is that those grains, or carbohydrates, are an essential part of a dog’s diet.
How will a veterinarian be able to assess if my dog is getting proper nutrition?
One of the reasons we recommend that all dogs have an annual wellness exam is to assess their nutrition. It's also an ideal time to talk about their weight, look at their teeth, listen to their heart and lungs, check their hair coat, and assess their mucous membrane color and the shininess of their eyes. In addition, we will ask you many questions about their behavior and lifestyle at home. We may make some recommendations on things that need to change at home, particularly as your dog gets older. For example, your dog may be on a wet food diet, but we may ask that you transition them to dry food or kibble to break up dental tartar. Lastly, we do annual blood work to make sure organ function is optimal.
We make sure to keep an accurate weight history on your animal, which is another thing we’ll look at during this yearly exam. We’ll do that body condition scale as well to make sure that your dog’s nutrition is adequate.
There are so many different brands of dog food. How will I know which one is best for my dog?
When choosing dog food, you first need a reliable source for your information. Veterinarians are your best option. We follow nutrition, and we have specialists that we can always consult with about dog food. The second thing is to find a company that you believe in.
Most dog food brands have at least some beneficial components. Some companies do more research than others to make sure their diets are formulated appropriately, giving them the advantage of being evidence-based. In fact, some dog food companies have nutritionists and toxicologists on staff, ensuring that they know how to formulate food for older dogs with kidney and other issues. At any given time, we can call these specialists and ask them questions about our patients’ needs. Some companies also offer prescription diets that are formulated for specific medical conditions.
Two companies that most if not all veterinarians will tell you are excellent dog food sources are Royal Canin and Hill’s Science Diet Pet Food. If you’re getting your food from your veterinarian, Purina can also be a good option.
When would my dog need a prescription diet?
There are many times in a dog's life that they may need a prescription diet. For instance, a diabetic dog might need a diet higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates. Other prescription formulas, also known as therapeutic diets, are for dogs with gastrointestinal problems, vomiting, and diarrhea, as they are easy to digest. When they're older, and their kidneys are not working as well as they should, some dogs may need a special diet. We may also recommend a diet with glucosamine and chondroitin to lubricate your dog’s joints. Lastly, there are some prescription diets for overweight or diabetic patients.
Going to the veterinarian regularly and trusting your instincts based on your dog’s behavioral changes will help you assess the need for a prescription diet.
What is the right food to feed my dog?
As veterinarians, we understand that dog nutrition can be very confusing right now with so many different companies in the market and such a wide variety of marketing strategies. When you're making a dog food selection, you must stick with the bigger companies that have veterinary nutritionists on staff. This ensures that the food is safe and will not harm your dog or have any nutritional deficiencies.
As we mentioned, you also want to feed according to life stage, from puppy to adult to geriatric dog. Dogs are ideally still nursing from their mom when they’re puppies. We may have to transition to a liquid, if not a wet food diet. And this food should be calorie-rich, which is vital for puppies who are no longer nursing.
How do I wean my puppy and get them on regular food?
By the time puppies are four or five weeks old, they can start weaning off their mother's milk. At this point, it’s not ideal to transition puppies to a liquid diet. Instead, puppies should slowly transition to a wet food diet, as it has a lot of moisture in it, and it’s easy for them to eat. If you go with hard food, wet it down with some water. And we want to gradually get them on an entirely commercial diet. These transitions will be critical throughout the dog’s life, and any time you do so, you want to do so gradually so that you don’t shock their systems.
The American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF) is another wonderful resource for pet nutrition. iIf you have any other dog nutrition questions, we are happy to help you find a local veterinarian!