Introduction: Good nutrition is the foundation for a long and healthy life for any pet. Failure to provide proper and adequate nutrition, particularly in the early growing stages, can result in permanent and even life threatening problems and diseases as the animal matures. There are five major components that make up a nutritious and balanced diet:

  1. Water
  2. Protein
  3. Carbohydrates (Insoluble carbohydrates = Fiber)
  4. Fat
  5. Vitamins and minerals

Each of these must be found in the diet in the proper proportions and in sufficient quantities to meet all the nutritional needs of any animal during the various stages of life (puppy, adult, pregnancy, lactation, and geriatric). Because each of the above nutrients is essential, a small discussion about each one follows:

Water: Every animal, regardless of age, requires a constant supply of fresh, clean water. It is true that an animal fed a canned or moist diet may actually require less water than a dog fed a completely dry diet. However, no matter the diet, animals should always have a readily available supply of water.

Protein: Protein is necessary for basic body functions. Protein is also essential to provide the animal with the required energy to perform daily activities. Amino acids are the building blocks for proteins. Some amino acids (arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, taurine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine) are considered essential because they must be supplied in the diet. Many diets contain too much protein for the average dog, while others do not contain the essential amino acids. These are just a few of the many reasons why it is necessary for all pet owners to examine the labels on all types of dog food they are feeding to their pet(s).

Carbohydrates and Fiber: Carbohydrates are the major energy providers in the diet. Insoluble or indigestible carbohydrates are termed dietary fiber. Diets too high in fiber do not contain enough available calories for providing needed energy.

Fat: Fat is actually the most effective packaging method for storing calories and is an important source of dietary energy. Recent research suggests that some chronic illnesses, such as some types of cancer, can actually be helped with a diet high in fats. However, high levels of fat in the diet of some dogs can lead to problems with the pancreas and other organs.

Vitamins: Vitamins are utilized by the body to regulate many different metabolic and physiologic processes. In general, an animal that receives a good quality, balanced diet should not require additional supplemental vitamins. Excessive vitamins can be harmful to the animal. However, pregnant or lactating females may benefit from vitamin supplementation (owners should contact a veterinarian in seeking advice for a particular situation).

Minerals: Essential minerals include calcium, sodium, magnesium, iron, selenium, phosphorus, zinc, and potassium. Like vitamins, if minerals are given in excess, they can be toxic.

Selecting a Diet

Choosing a type of dog food can be extremely difficult at times. Many manufacturers make claims in advertising and on the product label that may be difficult to back with scientific data. Even with a basic understanding of product labels and nutrient calculations, the task of merging the two is difficult. The following will clarify and highlight some of the most essential points, but will not attempt to take every diet, every dog, and every situation into consideration. These are general guidelines. For specific questions, a local veterinarian familiar with the dog, environment, and diet should be consulted.

Points to remember:

  1. All dog foods are NOT created equal. There is a great deal of difference between generic (popular brands) and premium brands found at pet stores, some feed stores, and veterinary clinics. In general, popular brands vary greatly in quality of ingredients and focus more on palatability (taste and texture) instead of on nutritional content. The premium brands use a "fixed formula" which means that the ingredients used remain the same despite changes in cost of the ingredients.

    In general, the expression "you get what you pay for" holds true. (This manual is not backed by any dog food manufacturer. In fact, this manual will not list any specific brand names as "good" or "bad." The authors have left this decision up to the individual owner and veterinarian).

  2. It is important to learn how to read pet food labels. Most labels contain a guaranteed analysis and a list of ingredients which can be misleading if not properly understood. The ingredients in the guaranteed analysis are usually expressed as minimum or maximum amounts. This means that the crude protein expressed as 27% minimum could actually be much higher and not be in violation of the label.

    The list of ingredients should also be carefully examined. Nutrients that are contained in the highest weight amounts are found higher on the list. Many manufacturers use different "techniques" to make it seem as though animal protein sources are the first on the list.
  3. Some of these "techniques" include the following:
  1. A product that has been proven through standardized feeding trials is generally a better and more balanced diet.
  2. Table scraps and most human foods are NOT beneficial to pets.

In general, all dog foods should have some sort of animal based protein listed as one of the first three ingredients. A canned diet should have at least one cereal grain in the list and contain a source of calciumAny dog food that uses the terms ground, kibbled or flaked for the same ingredient should be avoided.

This is a sample ingredient list taken directly from a dog food label. Notice that an animal based protein is listed in the top three ingredients.

Table #1: Basic nutrient requirements on a dry matter basis

Stage of Life

% Crude Protein

% Crude Fiber

% Crude Fat

% Moisture











Normal Activity





Increased Activity





Old Age





The numbers in the guaranteed analysis section of a dog food label CANNOT be directly compared to the ones found in Table #1. The numbers in a guaranteed analysis are formulated using the moisture content of the diet. In contrast, the numbers in Table #1 are calculated on a dry matter basis. Use Hints #1 and 2 below and the information from Example A to take the guaranteed analysis numbers from a diet label (such as the one below) and convert them to the percentages that can be compared to the numbers in Table #1.

The above information was taken directly from a bag of dog food. This information will be used in Example A.

After a particular product is chosen, the following steps can be taken:

Hint #1: Every dog food contains very different amounts of water or moisture. This is expressed as % moisture or water and can vary from 5-80%.

Hint #2: The remaining food that is not water is considered dry matter. Dry matter is the actual amount of the food that will provide nutrition for the animal. In Table #1, the numbers are calculated on a dry matter basis.

Example A: With the previous information in mind, a diet that is 10% water is also 90% dry matter. Therefore, a diet that contains 10% moisture, yet has a guaranteed analysis for protein of 21%, may actually have a protein of 23.3% on a dry matter basis (see the equation below).

Step #1: Calculate protein amount. Take the percent protein (21%) and divide it by the percent of the diet that is dry matter (90%).

.21/.90 = 0.233 or 23.3 % on a dry matter basis. This 23.3 % can be com-pared to the numbers in Table # 1 to see if they meet the needs of the animal.

Step #2: Calculate fat and fiber amounts. The above example can also be used for calculating fat and fiber amounts by using the same 90% dry matter and substituting the appropriate fat and fiber numbers from the package label.

Step #3: Introduce the new diet. Once a product has been determined to fill all the necessary nutritional requirements for a particular animal, the diet can be introduced to a pet. When changing from one diet to another, the transition should be a gradual one. Begin on day one of the transition by feeding one-fifth new diet and four-fifths old diet. This ratio can be increased one-fifth per day until a complete transition is achieved. Failure to slowly transition an animal to a new diet can cause diarrhea and other intestinal problems.

Step #4: Decide how much to feed. The amount to feed and the ideal body weight for any animal is based on the age, breed, level of activity, and environment. Because each dog is so different, it is recommended that the product label be the first place to start in identifying how much to feed. It is important to choose a product that is labeled for the particular stage of life for a pet (growth, pregnancy, adult, senior etc.). To begin with, feed exactly what the label recommends.

Step #5: Monitor weight and appearance. This is probably the most critical step in selecting any diet! Because it is so extremely difficult to evaluate each and every diet, individual pet adaptation is highly recommended. With the help of a veterinarian, monitor the animalís weight, appearance, and hair coat over a period of a few weeks to months. If drastic changes appear in any of the above areas, the diet must be re-evaluated and some adjustments made. The ideal body weight and condition for any animal can be evaluated by a careful physical examination. The ribs should not be visible to the eye, but should easily be felt. Excess areas of fat between the ribs or around the abdomen should not be present. Some breeds may actually have a slight indentation behind the ribs when observed from above. Any differences to the above statements should prompt an adjustment to the amount or type of diet being fed.

* Table #2: General guidelines for daily food and water consumption

Animal's weight in lbs.

Canned (oz.)

Dry (cups)

Soft (cups)

























































1 cup = approximately 250 mL

* The normal food and water intake for any given animal varies greatly, and pet food quality varies from brand to brand. Therefore, this table should only be used as a guide. Some pets may actually need a great deal more or less than is recommended to remain healthy. Forcing a pet to eat and drink exactly what the table recommends can be very detrimental to its health! Use the guidelines in Step #5 when questions arise. However, if at any time it is felt that a pet is eating or drinking more than it needs, a veterinarian should be consulted.