Whether you feed your dog a premium commercial food or prepare homemade meals, it is important to understand the fundamentals of canine nutrition. Here is a review of the basics to help you get started in making the right and informed choices for your dog.
There are six major classes of nutrients: protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water.
It all begins with energy, the basic requirement of life. The energy content(measured in calories) of a food is determined by how much of the first three elements the food contains. Vitamins and minerals are also essential for many functions of the body and, because about 70 percent of a dog’s body is made up of water, that too is critical.
Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids. While dogs, cats and even humans produce about half of these amino acids internally, the other half, termed “essential amino acids,” need to be provided by the diet. The 10 essential amino acids are arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. If even one of these “essentials” is deficient, as Lowell Ackerman, DVM, explains, the body cannot make specific proteins effectively. Amino acids work in a step-by-step fashion to manufacture protein.
If one of the steps is missing, the process stops. The biological value of proteins indicates how efficiently an animal utilizes them. Animal nutrition expert Donald Strombeck, DVM, notes that this value is high for proteins from meat, most meat by-products, eggs and dairy products. “Dogs digest these proteins efficiently and they provide amino acids in proportions suitable for tissue protein synthesis. In contrast, the biological value of most plant proteins is low, due to insufficiencies of specific amino acids and lower digestibility.”
Like protein’s essential amino acids, fat has its own essential fatty acids (EFAs): linoleic acid, linolenic acid and arachidonic acid. Because they make up an important part of every cell, they are also required by animals. Linoleic acid is the source of omega-6 fatty acids, and linolenic acid is the source of omega-3 fatty acids. According to Strombeck, animals need more omega-6 (linoleic acid) than omega-3 fatty acids for health.
Carbohydrates in the form of whole grains can furnish iron, minerals and fiber as well as other beneficial nutrients. Since cooking determines starch digestibility, and therefore its availability, starches need to be well cooked; otherwise, they tend to ferment in the large intestine. Carbohydrates can be found in vegetables and fruit, which also supply minerals, fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals and some protein.
High-quality named animal proteins should be the first ingredient, and, ideally appear more than once as top items on the ingredient list. Note that whole meat is made up of a lot of water (up to 75 percent), so if a whole meat is listed as the first item, the food might not contain an equal amount of meat by weight unless there is another whole meat, or a specifically named meat meal (chicken meal, for instance, which is about 10 percent water). Avoid foods that use generic “meat” meal; the actual type of meat needs to be named: lamb meal or chicken meal, for example. Fat should also come from named source, avoid generic “animal” fat.
Whole fruit, vegetables and whole grains which contain the entire grain kernel. For example, rice rather than rice flour or bran. Refined grain products, gluten and mill runs should be avoided.
Natural preservatives like tocopherols (Vitamin E) and Vitamin C, or antioxidants like rosemary extract.
Avoid: All by-products (from meat, grain or any other source); added sweeteners (which are usually listed as grain fragments); artificial preservatives such as BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, propylene glycol; and artificial flavors or colors.
First, establish the amount of dry matter by subtracting the percentage given for moisture from 100 percent. If the moisture is given as 10 percent, the food’s dry-matter content is 90 percent.
Next, convert the protein found in the Guaranteed Analysis statement to a drymatter basis by dividing its percentage by the amount of dry matter (calculated in the previous step). For example, if the protein is given as 26 percent, it converts to 28 percent on a dry-matter basis (26 divided by 90). If the moisture level had been, say, 30 percent, the dry matter content would have been 70 percent and protein would have been 37 percent (26 divided by 70).
You can do similar calculations for fat and fiber after converting their percentages to a dry-matter basis.
Treats are often high in calories, so factor them in when thinking about your dog’s overall food intake. It is recommended that “treat substitutes” make up no more than 5 to 10 percent of a dog’s diet. If the calorie count isn’t listed on the label, find out what it is before giving them to your dog. Contact the manufacturer for calorie information if need be.
To keep bagged treats fresh — and make it a little more difficult for the diligent treat-hound to score — keep the bags sealed. If the seal doesn’t work (often they don’t), use heavy-duty zip lock–type bags or store them in glass or ceramic containers with tightfitting lids.
Dogs love variety, and with the wide array of treats on the market, it’s easy to find a selection that will satisfy most co-pilots.