Dog Nutrition


Dogs have nutrient requirements specific to their species, meaning that dog food is not simply interchangeable with cat food (or people food). There are many kinds of commercial dog foods that will meet these needs. Making a custom diet at home is also an option, provided that you work with your vet or pet nutritionist to ensure it is complete and balanced to keep your dog happy and healthy. No matter what food you choose, keep an eye on your dog’s Body Condition Score to make sure it maintains a healthy weight. Changes in weight can indicate serious underlying health problems. Being too far over or under its ideal weight can cause or contribute to health problems, as well.

The three main types of commercial dog food are kibble, canned food, and raw food.


Kibble (or dry food) is what most people think of first when they picture pet food: small pellets of concentrated nutrition. It has many advantages. For instance, kibble is inexpensive compared to other kinds of food. It is also very convenient to serve because it can simply be put in a bowl. Kibble is also very nutrient-dense, meaning that there is a lot of nutrition packed into a small amount of kibble. However, these factors also mean it is very easy to accidentally feed too much kibble. This can cause an upset stomach, or simply result in a fat dog. Kibble also contains very little moisture, so it is important to make sure that your dog is drinking enough water because. Kibble is also generally higher in carbohydrates than other types of food. The carbs help the kibble maintain its shape. However, dogs have no dietary need for carbohydrates because they can produce the energy they need from protein and fat. These ingredients are essentially just fillers.

Canned Food 

Canned food (AKA wet food) is the other major variety of pet food: meat and gravy in a can. It contains more moisture than kibble, which helps to prevent dehydration. Cans are generally in between kibble and raw food, in terms of cost. Feeding canned food may be less convenient than kibble because it takes a little more time to serve and you may have to store a partial can in your refrigerator, but canned food requires less preparation than raw. Canned foods are often lower in carbohydrates than kibble, but this is not always the case. In particular, canned foods with lots of gravy tend to have more carbohydrates. Because of the different water contents, it is important to compare nutrient value on a dry matter basis. This shows the amount of a nutrient contained in a food after all of the water is removed.

Raw Diets 

Raw diets are a newer development in commercial pet food. They are based on the belief that dogs developed to hunt for their food and that the less processed a food is, the more natural it is for the dog. Raw foods retain more natural nutrients and enzymes, so they require fewer synthetic supplements than more heavily processed foods like kibble and cans. They may be frozen, freeze-dried, or dehydrated. Frozen raw foods require preparation because they must be thawed in advance. Heating the food (in a microwave, for example) can destroy the nutrients. The best ways to thaw are overnight in the refrigerator or shortly ahead of feeding time, submerged in a bowl of cool water. Freeze-dried foods are like astronaut food for dogs.

They can be fed “as-is” in pellet or nugget form or they can be re-hydrated by adding a little water and waiting a short amount of time. Dehydrated foods are generally lumped in with raw foods due to their minimal processing, but they are often steam cooked before dehydrating, so they are not truly raw. They come in a powder or flaky form and must be re-hydrated in water before serving. It is important to remember that raw foods are just that: raw. While most raw diets are tested for pathogens and contaminants multiple times before they ever reach a pet store shelf, proper food safety must still be taken into account to prevent contamination. Stainless steel dishes are ideal for feeding raw foods because it is a non-porous material, so bacteria cannot grow in it. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands and all surfaces the food touched in hot, soapy water after feeding.

Traditional versus Grain-free Foods 

One hot topic right now in pet foods is traditional versus grain-free foods. Traditional foods use grains such as corn, wheat, or rice as carbohydrate sources, to help the food hold its shape or to make the gravy in canned food. Grain-free foods use other ingredients such as potatoes, peas, or tapioca. Almost all pet foods (and absolutely all kibbles) will contain some amount of carbohydrates. The issue is the quantity and digestibility of the carbs in the food. Dogs do not digest grains very effectively, but a grain-free dog food is not necessarily lower in carbohydrates. Regardless of whether you choose a traditional or grain-free food for your dog, it is important to read the label to see the ingredients and guaranteed analysis so you understand what your pet is actually eating.

Many dog owners are choosing rotational diets for their dogs. A rotational diet is simply not feeding the same food for every meal forever. This can mean anything from switching flavors or brands of kibble when the previous bag runs out to feeding raw for one meal and cans for the next. The benefits of rotational feeding include a wider variety of nutrients in the diet, as well as having a ready-made backup plan in case one food in your rotation is out of stock or discontinued.

Additional Resources: 

Body Condition Score (BCS)How to figure out your dog’s body condition score; courtesy of OSU Veterinary Medical Center.

Home-made DietsThinking about making a home-made diet for your dog? Here are some things to think about; courtesy of OSU veterinary clinic.

Dry Matter Basis Nutrient CalculatorAutomatically converts the values on a food label to dry-matter values for easy comparison between foods.

Carbohydrate CalculatorPet food labels are not required to list carbohydrate content. This calculator determines the amount of carbs in a food, based on the amount of other nutrients.

Rotational Pet Diets