Dog Nutrition 101 – A Guide To Pet Food, Supplements & Treats

A balanced diet is critical for your dog’s growth and overall health. Assuming your furry friend does not have any food sensitivities, illness-related feeding issues, or other special needs, your pup should be able to derive everything he needs from high-quality, commercial dog food.

But do puppies need different canine nutrition than adult dogs? How much food does your dog need each day? And what should you feed an overweight dog?

To learn everything you need to know about feeding your dog, read our Dog Nutrition 101 Guide.

Dog Nutrition Chart

Dog Nutrition Chart

This handy, quick-reference chart shows you everything you need to know about what food your dog needs at a glance.

What Nutrients Does Your Dog Need?

Nutrients are basically substances that food contains. Animals use a variety of nutrients to provide energy, fuel growth, and maintain day-to-day bodily functions.

Six classes of nutrients are essential for your dog’s health.

Water

Did you know that water accounts for 60% to 70% of an adult dog’s body weight?

Water is essential for life. Dog foods contain some water. Canned dog food contains around 78% moisture, and even dry kibble food contains up to 10% moisture. However, your dog must have clean water available to him 24/7/365.

Dehydration is a serious condition that can be fatal for dogs, especially young puppies. In fact, even just a 10% decrease in the body’s water content can make your dog seriously sick, while a loss of 15% can cause death!

Protein

Raw meat source of protein

Proteins are known as the basic building blocks of life. Proteins are used by the body’s cells, organs, tissues, antibodies, hormones, and enzymes for maintenance, healthy growth, repair, and reproduction.

Sources of protein for your dog include:

  • Animal-based meats, including beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, and fish.
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables
  • Soy and cereals (although these are considered incomplete proteins)

Note: Never feed your dog raw eggs. Raw egg whites contain avidin, an anti-vitamin, which can interfere with fat, amino acids, energy, and glucose metabolism.

Fats

Fats provide your dog with over twice the energy of proteins or carbs and are an essential part of your dog’s nutrition.

Fats are essential for healthy cell structure, the production of certain hormones, and the utilization and absorption of particular vitamins. Fats also protect and insulate the internal organs. 

In addition, a deficiency of essential Omega-3 fatty acids, especially linoleic acid, can cause skin problems or poor growth rates

Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are sources of energy. Carbs are also vital for intestinal health and are also used in reproduction.

In dogs, there’s no minimal carbohydrate requirement. However, a minimum glucose requirement is essential to provide energy for certain critical organs, including the dog’s brain.

Fiber

beet pulp

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that can change the bacterial population of the dog’s small intestine, which can help manage chronic diarrhea in some dogs.

The source of fiber must be moderately fermentable for the dog to gain the most benefit from it. Beet pulp is a favorite source of fiber with pet food manufacturers, promoting healthy digestion and avoiding the problems caused by highly fermentable fibers, such as excess mucus and flatulence.

Other sources of fiber that you’ll see in quality foods for dogs include bran and wheat middling. Generally, high-fiber foods are not recommended for young, growing dogs and those with high energy requirements.

Minerals

Minerals are essential nutrients that your dog’s body cannot synthesize, so you must provide your pet with what he needs through his diet.

Minerals provide your pet with what he needs for healthy, strong teeth and bones, maintaining fluid balance, and many metabolic reactions.

Vitamins

Dogs need a small number of vitamins for normal metabolism. However, most vitamins must be obtained from food sources since they cannot be created by the body. 

However, many high-quality dog foods contain added vitamins and minerals, so you don’t need to give your dog a separate vitamin supplement unless you’re advised to do so by your vet.

Note that it is possible to over-supplement your dog, which can cause hypervitaminosis or vitamin poisoning. In fact, overdosing on vitamins is more common than vitamin deficiency or hypovitaminosis.

Too much vitamin A can cause brittle bones, joint pain, and dehydrated skin. Too much vitamin D causes dense bones, kidney failure, and soft tissue calcification.

Nutritional Requirements and Your Dog’s Age

Your dog’s nutritional requirements can vary somewhat, depending on his age and breed.

Puppies

Litter of Adorable White Goldendoodle Puppies in Grass

If you’re caring for a puppy for the first couple of months of his life, you will need to take him through a process called “weaning.”

Weaning

Weaning basically refers to the process of gradually moving your puppy off a diet of his mother’s milk to regular puppy food. Weaning typically starts when the puppy is between three and four weeks old and should be complete by the time the pup reaches seven to eight weeks of age.

During the puppy’s first four weeks of life, he receives all the nutrition he needs from his mother’s milk. So, you don’t need to feed your puppy anything else during that time.

Exceptions to that rule are if the mother dog is sick or if the puppy is an orphan. In that case, you’ll need to feed your puppy a commercially produced milk replacement formula. Your vet will help you choose the correct product.

After four weeks or so, the weaning process happens naturally over the next several weeks. The puppy’s mom’s milk slowly dries up, and the puppy now needs to begin eating puppy food.

Start the process by separating the puppy from the mother for just a couple of hours at a time. Offer the puppy some puppy food from a pan, gradually increasing the quantity of food and the length of separation time. Once the puppy is self-confident and independent, you can keep him away from his mother until he is completely weaned.

What About Mom?

During the weaning process, the mother can overproduce milk, leaving her with painfully engorged mammary glands. 

So, you need to discuss the food intake of both the mom and her pups with your vet to ensure that everyone is receiving the correct balance of nutrition they need.

Feeding The Puppy During Weaning

Puppies being weaned onto solid food 3 weeks old

To prevent stomach upsets, it’s best to feed the puppies the same high-quality commercial puppy food you intend to offer them throughout their formative months.

Moisten dry food with a little warm water to make it palatable and easy to eat. If your puppy struggles with dry kibble, you might want to feed your furbaby canned, soft food until his gums have strengthened sufficiently to cope with biscuits.

How Much To Feed Your Puppy?

Puppies use twice as much energy as adult dogs, so they need to receive food that contains 25 to 30% protein.

Don’t be tempted to overfeed your puppy in an attempt to accelerate his growth rate. Your dog’s adult size is determined genetically, not by how quickly he grows. If a puppy overeats, he can grow too quickly and finish up with health problems. Large-breed puppies are especially susceptible to joint or bone problems if they grow too quickly.

Adult Dogs

Puppies are generally classified as adult dogs once they reach 12 months of age, although large breeds tend to mature more slowly than smaller types.

An adult dog’s nutritional requirements must meet the dog’s energy needs and maintain and repair the body’s tissues. 

How Much to Feed An Adult Dog

Dalmatian Dog Eating

The amount of food the dog receives should be dependent on his size and activity levels.

So, a dog with normal activity levels should be fed a maintenance diet. A lap dog won’t use as much energy as a working animal. In that case, the working dog will need a maintenance diet plus up to 40% extra. If you’re not sure how much to feed your dog, your vet will help you to draw up a suitable feeding schedule and recommend foods for your pet

The weather can influence how much food your dog needs. For example, keeping warm and cooling off need extra energy, so you might need to increase your dog’s food portion during periods of hot or cold weather. Again, your vet will advise you on how to feed your dog when the temperature reaches extremes.

Feeding Working Dogs

Working dogs tend to have higher activity and stress levels than pets, and they need additional nutrition to help them cope with that.

So, service dogs, cattle dogs, and guide dogs might need from 40% to 70% additional food above the maintenance level.

Feeding Senior Dogs

Once your dog reaches seven to 12 years of age, he will begin showing a few obvious physical changes.

Older dogs can develop joint problems or other mobility issues, their eyesight can begin to fail, and their skin might not be as supple. Your dog might not be able to walk so far, might not be quite as energetic as he once was, or might begin sleeping more. Although many of these changes are unavoidable, some can be managed through diet.

Size Matters

Smaller dogs generally live longer than large breeds and tend not to be affected by age-related issues as early. For that reason, a dog’s size is generally used to determine when a senior diet is appropriate.

Most vets recommend following the following guidelines:

  • Small breeds and dogs under 20 pounds – 7 years of age
  • Medium breeds and dogs between 21 and 50 pounds – 7 years of age
  • Large breeds and dogs between 51 and 90 pounds – 6 years of age
  • Giant breeds and dogs of 91 pounds or more – 5 years of age

Some commercially produced senior diets have reduced protein levels. However, scientific research has concluded that the protein requirement for senior dogs doesn’t decrease with age. Instead, a senior dog’s diet should include optimum levels of highly-digestible protein for healthy muscle mass.

Older dogs are more prone to obesity than younger pups, largely due to a lower metabolic rate and reduced activity levels. So, you must be wary of overfeeding your senior canine. Obesity puts additional strain on arthritic joints and can affect mobility.

Supplements

Elderly dogs often suffer from dry skin and dull coats. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is an Omega-6 fatty acid that your dog’s liver usually produces. However, GLA levels can fall in older dogs. 

In addition, senior dogs can suffer from gastrointestinal problems. So, fructooligosaccharides or FOS are a good addition to your dog’s diet since these promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

Senior diets should also contain vitamin E and Beta-carotene, which can help to eliminate free radicals and protect your dog from the effects of aging. Antioxidants can also boost your dog’s immune system.

Feeding Following Illness or Surgery

hungry chihuahua dog eating with tablecloth utensils at the table.

A dog that’s recovering from an illness or surgery might have an increased level of nutrition to help him heal, fight infection, and repair damaged tissues.

Your vet will guide you on how much and what to feed your dog.

What About Treats?

Although treats can be an important training tool, they should not exceed 5% of your dog’s daily food intake.

Ideally, you should choose organic treats that contain lots of whole food, such as named meats, whole grains, veggies, fruit, and natural sweeteners, such as honey or molasses.

Avoid treats that contain artificial preservatives, colors, and flavorings. To keep the treats fresh, keep them in sealed containers once opened, such as Ziplock bags or ceramic containers with well-fitting lids.

When using treats for training your dog, try to break the treats into very small pieces so that you don’t accidentally overfeed your dog.

How To Set A Feeding Schedule

All dogs should be fed twice a day.

All you do is divide the total amount of food your dog needs into two portions, fed eight to 12 hours apart. You can use several different feeding methods, including timed feeding, portion-control feeding, or free choice.

Timed Feeding

Cropped view of young woman with pet food in bowl

Timed feeding entails providing a portion of food for your dog to eat for a specific time period. So, you could offer your dog his bowl of food for 30 minutes. If your pup doesn’t finish the food within that time, remove the bowl.

Portion-control Feeding

As it sounds, portion-control feeding means that you feed your dog a measured amount of food in each.

That approach is often used to correct obesity in overweight dogs.

Free Choice Feeding

Free choice feeding means that your dog has food made available to him at all times. That method is best used when feeding dry food since it won’t attract flies or spoil when left out.

Bear in mind that this method can cause some dogs to overeat, potentially leading to obesity.

Preventing Obesity In Dogs

fat dog lying on floor with obesity

Obesity is a very common issue in pet dogs, causing several health complications, including diabetes, joint problems, and liver disease.

Dogs become overweight when their calorific intake exceeds their energy needs. Those calories are stored as fat. Just as with people, obesity is usually associated with a lack of exercise and eating too much. 

Some dog breeds are more prone to obesity than others, with Labrador retrievers and Pugs being especially susceptible.

Is My Dog Overweight?

So, how do you tell if your dog is overweight?

  • You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs and backbone. If you can’t feel either of those features because they are covered with fat, then your dog is overweight.
  • When viewed from above, your dog should have a visible waist.
  • When seen from the side, your dog’s abdomen should appear tucked up from the bottom of his rib cage to the inside of his thighs.

The following graphic illustrates body scoring in dogs.

Feeding chart for dog accdg to age

Managing Your Dog’s Weight

Here are a few proven ways of reducing your dog’s excess weight:

  • Feed your dog less food and make sure that he’s on a diet that contains moderately-fermentable fiber and fat to keep his skin and coat in good condition while your pet is losing weight.
  • Increase your dog’s physical activity by providing regular exercise. Physical activity burns calories, helps to reduce appetite, increases your pet’s resting metabolic rate, and can alter his body composition.
  • Reduce your pet’s intake of treats, substituting food rewards with affection and fuss.

You can also divide your dog’s meals into smaller portions and feed them throughout the day. 

Feeding Schedule

Here’s a handy feeding schedule to help you create the ideal feeding routine for your dog.

Puppy Feeding Chart by Weight

Types of Dog Food

There are several different forms of commercially prepared dog food to choose from.

Dry Food

Dog Food in Plastic Bowls on Wooden Background

Ideally, you should feed dry food. 

Dry food, or kibble, is easy for dogs to digest, contains plenty of fiber for a healthy digestive system, and can help to clean your dog’s teeth by scraping away plaque-forming bacteria as the dog eats. Dry food often works out more economical than canned food, too.

Kibble contains limited moisture, so you must be sure to provide fresh, clean water for your dog at all times. Dogs with poor dentition and teething puppies might struggle to cope with crunchy dry food.

Canned Food

Canned dog food is also referred to as wet food.

Soft dog food is highly palatable and often smells more enticing than biscuits. Canned food has a high moisture content, but you still need to provide your dog with access to water 24/7/365.

Some owners like to offer their dogs wet food in combination with kibble to vary their pet’s diet. That approach often works well with fussy feeders. In addition, senior dogs with missing teeth and young puppies that are teething will appreciate a softer diet since it’s more comfortable to eat.

Raw Food

food

Many dog owners like to feed their dogs a diet that consists of raw meat, bones, and vegetables. Although many supporters of that diet insist that the food replicates what a dog would eat in the wild, the jury is out on whether feeding raw is a good thing.

In fact, some industry experts and vets are concerned that the food lacks nutritional balance, as well as vitamins and minerals.

Fresh Foods

Recently, fresh, complete dog foods have appeared on the market. 

The idea behind these diets is that they provide dog owners with a home-cooked option for their pets. The foods contain a balanced selection of high-quality fresh ingredients that are prepared using minimal processing methods. The idea is that the food retains much of its natural nutrients compared to processed commercially produced dog foods.

Fresh foods contain no preservatives, so they are usually supplied frozen and must be kept refrigerated until they are needed.

How To Choose The Best Dog Food

Most dog owners elect to feed their pets commercially prepared dog food. So, how do you pick the best diet for your pet?

When choosing food for your pet, look closely at the ingredients list on the packaging. That list gives you an indication of what the food contains so that you can make the best choice for your dog.

High-Quality Meat

dog eating raw food diet

The first ingredient on the list should be high-quality, named animal protein. That means that chicken, beef, lamb, etc., is the primary ingredient in the food.

Bear in mind that whole meat contains around 75% water. So, if whole meat is listed as the first item on the ingredient list, the food might not contain equal quantities of meat by weight unless a meat meal is included. For example, a chicken meal contains only 10% water. 

Avoid Unspecified Meat Meal

Foods that contain generic meat meals are best avoided. The type of meat should be named specifically, e.g., chicken meal or lamb meal.

Fat sources should also be named, so avoid generic animal fat.

Whole Foods

 Instead of food that contains bran or rice flour, choose foods that are made using veggies and fruit.

You should also steer clear of foods that contain gluten, refined grain products, and mill runs.

Preservatives

Rather than choosing food that contains artificial preservatives, go for foods that include tocopherols, such as vitamin E and vitamin C, or rosemary extract, a natural antioxidant.

Avoid Foods Containing By-Products

Avoid foods that contain by-products, including:

  • added sweeteners (generally listed as “grain fragments”)
  • artificial preservatives, such as BHT, BHA, propylene glycol, and ethoxyquin
  • artificial colors and flavorings

Ideally, you want a food that is relatively high in protein, fats, and fiber, low in carbohydrates, and free-from artificial additives.

What About Grain-Free Diets?

It’s not certain whether a grain-free diet is the best choice for dogs. Some dog foods contain many grains, including soy, rice, barley, wheat, rye, oats, and corn.

As mentioned above, most grain provides carbohydrate and fiber, while some can provide linoleic fatty acids and protein, both of which are essential for your dog’s health.

Contrary to popular belief, grains are not known to be responsible for causing food allergies in dogs. In fact, canine food intolerances are more usually caused by common dog food ingredients in a meat-based diet such as beef or chicken.

However, grain is often used in cheaper dog foods to bulk them out. So, we recommend avoiding dog foods containing large amounts of grains.

Can I Feed Human Food To My Dog?

Jealous dog wants to eat pizza

Looking down into your dog’s pleading eyes while you’re sitting at the dinner table, it can be possible to resist passing your pooch the occasional scrap.

But if you reward your begging dog with tidbits, you might be doing him more harm than good.

  • Human food is often too rich for dogs and can cause stomach upsets and even serious conditions, such as pancreatitis.
  • Human food can contain too much sodium (salt) for a dog’s needs.
  • Too many scraps can make your dog obese, leading to health problems, including joint problems, diabetes, heart disease, etc.
  • Feeding your dog from the table encourages undesirable behaviors, such as scrounging and begging.

In addition, did you know that some types of foods are toxic to dogs? That’s another good reason not to feed your dog scraps from the table.

Human Foods That Are Toxic To Dogs

The following foods should never be fed to dogs. 

All these food items are highly poisonous to canines and can make your furry friend seriously sick.

Alcohol

Alcohol contains ethanol. Dogs are thought to be much more sensitive to ethanol than humans, so drinking even a small quantity of booze can cause side effects.

In severe cases, your canine companion could suffer from more than just a hangover, including serious issues such as low blood sugar, seizures, and even coma.

Blue Cheese

Blue cheese with sprigs of rosemary and nuts e1666715851268

Blue cheeses, such as Roquefort, contain roquefortine C. That’s a substance produced by the fungus that is used in the manufacture of many blue cheeses. 

Dogs are sensitive to roquefortine C and can rapidly succumb to seizures and muscle tremors after eating blue cheese.

Bones

Although many pet parents give their dogs bones as a treat, eating poultry bones or whole carcasses can pose a choking hazard. In addition, larger fragments of bone can cause bowel obstructions. Smaller pieces of bone can irritate the dog’s digestive system or even pierce the intestines, necessitating surgery.

Instead of bones, buy your dog a healthy chew toy to munch on.

Bread Dough

Raw bread dough contains live yeast. When the dough enters the warm, moist environment of the dog’s stomach, the yeast is activated, and the dough swells. That can cause a serious condition called bloat, which can prove fatal if not treated promptly.

Yeast also produces alcohol. If alcohol is absorbed into the dog’s blood, the dog can become drowsy, unsteady on its feet, develop low blood sugar, seizures, and even coma.

Chocolate

chocolate food

Chocolate is highly poisonous to dogs and other pets. That’s because chocolate contains a toxic chemical called theobromine.

In general, dark chocolate contains more theobromine than lighter varieties of chocolate. Therefore, dark chocolate is much more toxic to your furry friend.

Initially, theobromine poisoning symptoms are relatively benign. Your dog might become agitated and excited or could vomit and have diarrhea. However, in more severe cases, the dog’s heart can be damaged.

Macadamia Nuts

It’s not fully understood why macadamia nuts are toxic to dogs. However, after eating them, your dog might appear weak, sleepy, and unsteady on its feet. Tremors, vomiting, and increased body temperature are also symptoms.

The effects generally appear within 12 hours and can last for up to 48 hours. 

Moldy Food

Moldy sandwich with salami e1666717031161

Moldy foods contain many toxins and can make your dog sick if ingested.

Affected pups can develop seizures and muscle tremors lasting up to 48 hours. Take care to dispose of all uneaten foods carefully so that your dog can’t get access to them.

Onions (Allium Species)

Onions, garlic, leeks, shallots, and chives all contain a substance that can cause life-threatening anemia if your dog ingests it. It’s thought that garlic supplements can affect dogs similarly to raw and cooked Alliums.

Affected dogs might develop stomach problems within a few days of eating onions, and their urine can appear discolored.

Raisins, Grapes, Currants, Sultanas, etc.

Vine fruits are extremely toxic to dogs, even when eaten in small amounts as part of fruit cakes and the like.

Some dogs suffer from stomach upsets, whereas others might suffer kidney failure.

Sugar

Too much sugar e1666717453680

Excessive amounts of sugar can cause pancreatitis in dogs. That causes vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and even organ failure.

Xylitol

Xylitol is an artificial sweetener that’s used in nicotine replacement gums, sugar-free sweets, and even some medicines.

This chemical causes a dog’s blood sugar level to plummet and can also cause liver failure. Affected animals might become lethargic and weak, or they might develop seizures and collapse.

Take Action!

If you think that your dog has eaten anything toxic, contact your vet straight away. Alternatively, contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435.

Never try to make your dog vomit. That can cause complications and might make the problem worse.

I hope you enjoyed our dog nutrition 101 guide. If you did, please share it!

Dogs need protein, fats, fiber, and a small amount of carbohydrates in their daily diet to remain healthy and provide their body with what it needs to thrive. You should feed your dog a diet that’s appropriate for his age, health, and activity levels. 

Use healthy dog treats as a food training reward rather than tidbits of human foods. Know what human foods are toxic to dogs, and be sure to keep them well out of reach of your furry friend.

Our Articles on Dog Nutrition

donut on the plate with dog's paws

4-Ingredient Dog Donut Recipe

How do you make delicious 4-ingredient donuts, especially for your dog? Read this guide to find out!
Dog food on shovel and on can in white wooden background

Best Dog Food For Puppies, Adult And Senior Goldendoodles

What’s the best food for Goldendoodles? Read this guide to learn what to feed your Goldendoodle puppy, adult, or senior pup to keep him healthy and happy.