The Basics of Pet Nutrition by Stacey Waspe
Atkins. The Zone. High Protein. Low Fat. No Carb. Seems no matter where you turn, someone somewhere is telling you what you can or cannot eat. But what about your dog? Are you wondering if Rover is getting too much fat and not enough protein? Should you be worried that Fifi is losing her girlish figure?
Whether you're worried about the quality of commercially prepared dog food, curious about making your own puppy truffles or just plain wondering if you could be feeding your pampered pooch better, our four part series on feeding your dog will get you pointed in the right direction.
Part 1: The Basics
There are a lot of choices out there in the world when if comes to feeding your dog: wet, dry or semi-moist food; food for puppies and seniors, for small dogs and large dogs, kibble that is all-natural or vegetarian, even low-calorie choices for those with plumper pooches. It can be a little overwhelming. Feel like you need some sort of post-secondary degree just to sort it all out? Fear not. While we might not be able to give you all the answers in our short guide, here are the building blocks of dog nutrition, so that you can feed Fifi good, nutritious food that will allow her to entertain and delight you with her charm for years to come.
The one thing that's important to remember when it comes to feeding your pooch is balance. You want to provide nutritious, complete and balanced meals. While this can be done in a variety of ways, it's really fairly basic when you break it down.
Dogs require the right amount of macronutrients, micronutrients and moisture not only to grow from puppies to healthy adults, but to stay healthy and active throughout their lives. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates make up the macronutrients; vitamins, minerals and enzymes are considered micronutrients.
And while Fifi will get some moisture from her food, she loses water all day long: by simply breathing, by drooling over that new Pucci bag and of course, every time she, dare we say it, goes to the bathroom. It's important that she stay properly hydrated, so she should have access to fresh, clean water at all times (whether from her crystal water dish or her ceramic Burberry bowl).
Macronutrients: The Big Picture
Macronutrients are nutrients that Fifi's body requires in large amounts, generally grouped as protein, fat or carbohydrate.
Protein: As a general rule, Fifi requires more protein in her food than you do in yours; not only that, but since our canine companions are descended from wolves, their bodies are designed to break down protein easily and efficiently. Most experts agree that Fifi's food should contain no less than 18% protein if she's an adult or 22% if she's a puppy or lactating mother.
Protein is made up of a variety of amino acids, some essential (because Fifi can't make them on her own) and others non-essential (because Fifi's body can make them by converting those she has into the ones she's missing). The protein in Fifi's food helps her grow and develop lean muscle, keeps her immune system healthy and helps her body repair injuries as well as many other tasks.
Fats: The main energy in Fifi's diet is provided by fat, whether she uses that energy to get a pawdicure or chase that cute boxer around the block. Without adequate sources of fat in her diet, she won't get be able to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins she needs from her food. Ever heard about the importance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids? They are important for Fifi too.
Omega-6s keep her skin and foot pads soft and supple, her coat shiny and healthy and keep her pads and nose from cracking. Omega-3s control the inflammatory responses in the skin, soothe dry skin and alleviate the stiffness caused by arthritis. Higher quality foods list the amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, so if Fifi has allergies or frequent skin problems, opt for a higher quality of food with roughly a 5 to 1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Just because less fat is better for humans, the same is not necessarily true for Fifi. In fact, the right kind and amount of fat does her body good. An adult dog needs a minimum of 5% percent of fat (not more than 16% unless they're a working pooch, like a police or sled dog).
Carbohydrates: In order to function properly, every single cell in Fifi's body needs carbohydrates, usually in the form of glucose. Carbohydrates are really important for the workings of Fifi's brain and muscles, and assist her in the digestion of other nutrients, like fats. The amount of carbohydrates she needs will depend on her health and her workout schedule. Basically, carbohydrates can be broken down into three categories: sugars, starches (simple carbohydrates, readily available for conversion into glucose) and cellulose (complex carbohydrates, which Fifi doesn't really digest, so this makes up the fiber in her food).
Simple carbohydrates, like cooked grains such as rice, oatmeal, corn and wheat, are easy for Fifi to digest, and add texture to her food. Fiber, on the other hand, helps to regulate the amount of water in Fifi's large intestine and aids in the formation and elimination of feces. While Fifi may think this topic is less than lady-like, if she gets enough fiber in her food, you'll never have to mention it again. And let's remember that there's no need to add extra carbohydrates in the form of sugar to Fifi's food, though some manufacturers may do so to make it taste better.
Micronutrients: The Fine Print
Micronutrients are any substance Fifi requires in really small amounts for proper growth and optimal health; usually, these are vitamins, minerals and enzymes.
Vitamins: Fifi needs vitamins just as you do, though in different amounts. While Fifi requires 14 different vitamins, she needs water-soluble ones (like certain B vitamins and Vitamin C) every day, since they aren't stored in her body. Fat-soluble vitamins (like Vitamin A, D, E and K), on the other hand, are stored in her body, and therefore it's not as necessary that she get these each and every day in her food.
Minerals: The most important major minerals in Fifi's diet are calcium (for muscle contraction), phosphorus (works with calcium to ensure that Fifi's bones and teeth are strong), magnesium (helps Fifi's body use many other vitamins and minerals and is important for bone growth and development) and sulfur (needed for good joint health). Adequate amounts of calcium and phosphorus are especially important for Fifi if she's still a puppy. That being said, supplementing any dog's diet with calcium can be really risky, if they're already eating a complete, premium dog food. Trace minerals, like iron, iodine, selenium and zinc are required in very small amounts and can be found not only in meat and grains, but added as supplements to higher quality dog foods.
The majority of premium dog food on the market is packed with nutrients; generally it's not necessary to supplement Fifi's diet with any extra vitamins and minerals. It can, in fact, be dangerous to do so, since so many micronutrients are needed in really small quantities and too much can be toxic or cause problems far down the road. If you're interested in providing additional nutrition, especially due to a specific problem, it's best to get a referral from your vet to find Fifi a qualified nutritionist.
A Word About Weight
Now we all agree that Fifi needs fat in her diet. But she shouldn't be overweight. Too much fat in the diet can contribute to a pudgy pooch, the number one nutritional problem for dogs. Stick with a high-quality dog food and remember that dog treats are something special, for extra pampering. Heaps of praise for your pampered pooch can go just as far as a cookie.
While a low-calorie dry food may seem like a good idea if you're concerned about Fifi's burgeoning bottom, try sticking with the food you have and simply reducing the amount she gets at each serving. You can top off her dry food diet with washed, low-calorie veggies (reduce her regular food by 25% and add twice that amount in veggies) and ensure she gets a good workout, and she'll be whistling a slimmer tune in no time.