Dog Food Ingredients: The 4 Essential Groups

Increasingly, some commercial natural dog foods are including more ingredients from the same food groups that people serve on the family dinner table. These groups include not only meats and other proteins, but also grains for carbohydrates, healthy fats for omega fatty acids, and vegetables and fruits for fiber.

“It may not be exactly how humans look at nutrition in terms of the food pyramid, but the four essential food groups that I think can apply to dogs and cats are proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fibers,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, a Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian who has worked with teams of nutritionists and researchers.

Key Ingredient Groups in Dog Food
As far as the family pets go, dogs and cats have very different nutritional requirements. “Dogs are much more along the lines of people in that they’re actually omnivores. They do well with a balanced diet with carbohydrates, fiber sources and protein all mixed together,” says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who has worked on dog nutrition. Here are the main ingredient groups to look for in quality natural dog foods:

1. Proteins

At least one protein source always should be in a top spot on the ingredient label of a dog food in order for it to meet regulatory standards from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) for a “complete and balanced” food for your pup. High-quality protein sources can include chicken, beef, lamb and other meats, poultry or fish. In addition, by-products or meal from protein sources -- such as chicken by-products or chicken meal -- are also good sources of protein, says Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine. “Just because you don’t like eating liver or think hearts are yucky doesn’t mean that by-products aren’t good-quality sources of protein,” he says. Organ meats are something that dogs would eat in the wild.

2. Carbohydrates

For active dogs, carbohydrates can provide long and short bursts of energy. Good sources of carbohydrates include whole-grain sorghum, whole-grain barley, cornmeal and rice, says Nelson. “Rice is good if you have an active dog that needs a short, quick burst of energy, but you need to have a backup carb source for your dog as well, or else once that wears off, your dog will be hungry again,” she adds. Whole grains, such as sorghum and barley, provide that extended energy to keep your pup satiated all day.

3. Fats
Ingredients, such as chicken fat and/or fish oil, help your dog get important fatty acids, like omega-3s and omega-6s, according to Dicke. Fats can help a pup maintain skin and coat health, but fatty acids are key elements in the function of the brain and spinal cord. “There has been documented evidence, especially among puppies, that having a diet higher in omega-3 DHA increases their ability to be trained,” says Dicke.

4. Fiber

Fruits and vegetables as well as other natural fiber sources can help dogs maintain proper digestion. Ingredients such as apple and beet pulp combined with some grains and prebiotics like fructooligossaccharides (FOS) in premium foods can help your dog remain regular, says Dicke.

In addition, scientific studies are starting to support the benefits of adding some vegetables to your dog’s food. Researchers at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine found in a 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that when Scottish terriers were fed vegetables at least three times per week, they had a lower incidence of developing transitional cell carcinoma of the bladder, which is a deadly type of cancer.

Before making any dietary changes for your dog, always talk to your veterinarian. “There are a lot of great foods out on the market, but some may not be great for your particular dog,” says Nelson. “Before you change the protein source or carbohydrate source, call your veterinarian and say, ‘I’m thinking of doing this. Is it a good food? Is it OK for my particular pet?'”

Weight Control Dog Foods Evaluated

Since 25 to 40 percent of dogs are considered overweight or obese, according to numerous university reports, there’s a good chance you’re living with a rotund Rover. If so, you’ve probably mulled over dog foods labeled with terms like “low calorie,” “lite” and “weight control.” New research, however, has determined that such diets vary widely beyond the packaging and labeling differences.

Tufts University Pet Food Study
Scientists from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University recently investigated nearly 100 commercially available pet food diets with weight management claims. “There is so much information -- and misinformation -- about pet foods, it’s understandable that people are confused about what to feed their dogs and cats,” says Dr. Lisa Freeman, a professor of nutrition at Cummings who holds a doctorate in nutrition and veterinary medicine.

Under federal guidelines, pet foods labeled with terms like “light” or “low calorie” must provide caloric content on their labels. The foods must also adhere to a maximum kilocalorie per kilogram restriction. But Freeman and her team found that more than half of the evaluated foods exceed this maximum. The researchers also discovered that if owners follow the feeding recommendations for many of the foods, their pets actually gain weight.

Dog Weight Problem
Overweight dogs live shorter lives, according to many studies, with a reduction in life span by two or more years.

Dr. Gail K. Smith, professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, worked on a 14-year study of canine diet. Smith and her colleagues found that “lean body conformation forestalls some chronic illnesses (in dogs), most notably osteoarthritis, and that diet can either mitigate or exacerbate the expression of genetic diseases.” It’s very important, therefore, for dog owners to keep their dogs lean, with palpable ribs and an obvious waistline.

Selecting an Appropriate Weight Control Dog Food
You should first “determine the number of calories your pet is currently consuming, including main meals, snacks, treats and toppers,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian. Establish a goal weight with your veterinarian and then move on to selecting foods.

The foods should offer complete nutrition and contain special ingredients for weight loss, such as L-carnitine, an ingredient that helps burn fat while keeping your dog energized and feeling full.

In case you ever have a question about the food, quality manufacturers provide a toll-free number on the package. Feel free to call up and discuss your concerns with their pet specialists.

Overweight Versus Obese Dogs
Beyond these basics, you also have a choice now between “off the shelf” weight control dog foods and special veterinary formulas available through many veterinarians. Also called “therapeutic diets,” these veterinary formula diets are generally designed for the obese pet. Obese dogs and cats are 20 percent over their ideal weight. Therapeutic diets are often the most restricted in fat and calorie content.

5 Steps to Follow
As you work with your dog on its new weight management plan, Dicke advises that you do the following:

  • Step 1: Approach weight loss in a holistic manner. Often, this means starting with a change in habits.
  • Step 2: Accurately measure the food, and if you are giving any treats or biscuits, consider the calories added to your pet’s daily intake.
  • Step 3: If possible, feed the daily food allotment in multiple small meals throughout the day.
  • Step 4: Increase daily exercise.
  • Step 5: Any human interaction or attention tends to increase activity. If you show interest in your dog and what it’s doing, chances are, your dog will be more energetic and engaged.

While it’s essential to select the right weight loss diet, your companionship cannot be packaged or replaced. As Dicke points out, your dog’s “activity level, the home environment and (your) vigilance” are essential to helping your dog lose the excess pounds and keep them off for good.

Whet Your Dog’s Appetite With Wet Food

Canned or bagged, wet or dry: These are basic choices you must face when perusing the pet food aisle of your favorite store. “Wet” products have undergone some major improvements this year and may be the best choice for your dog. Here’s what you need to know.

Which Is Better: Dry or Wet?
From a nutritional standpoint, you can’t go wrong selecting either wet or dry foods for your dog, as long as the products come from a reputable manufacturer. “Premium foods provide a complete and balanced diet, and deliver higher-quality ingredients for easy digestion and absorption of essential nutrients,” explains Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian who has been a member of teams consisting of nutritionists, researchers and fellow veterinarians.

Prebiotics, New Ingredients and Recipes
This year, expect to see flavor combinations and ingredients normally associated with your own foods -- such as simmered beef, marinated chicken, garden vegetables and juicy turkey. Just remember that these foods are specially formulated to meet your dog’s nutritional needs, which are different from human requirements.

Look for prebiotics, a recent addition to canned/wet dog foods. These fibers help fuel good bacteria in your cat’s digestive tract. “A prebiotic fiber selectively feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut … and starves the bad bacteria,” explains Dicke, adding that 70 percent of your dog’s immune system is located in its digestive system. As a result, the new prebiotics may promote good immunity defenses and better digestion.

Certain Dogs Might Go Wet
Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., says that while all dogs can enjoy either a wet or dry diet from a premium brand, at least five types of dogs particularly benefit from canned foods:

1. Puppies Canned food is easy for them to digest and offers a concentrated source of protein.

2. Small breeds They too can have delicate digestive systems and high metabolism.

3. Dogs with food allergies Nelson often advises owners with food-allergic dogs to feed them a blend of wet and dry. This makes the food more palatable to the dog and minimizes problems from possible allergens.

4. Dogs with kidney and urinary tract conditions These dogs need good hydration, which they can get from the moisture of wet food.

5. Certain older dogs Senior dogs often suffer from health issues that are eased by wet foods. Dogs that have had teeth extracted, for example, might have difficulty chewing their kibble.

Making the Transition
If you have fed your cat dry food only but would like to incorporate some of the new wet foods into your pet’s diet, do so slowly and gradually to minimize intestinal upsets. Be sure to decrease the amount of dry food you serve accordingly.

How to Feed
Both Dicke and Nelson say dry and wet foods can be fed in any combination: separately, at the same or different times, mixed together, and in the morning and evening. Nelson, however, notes that it might be best to serve the wet food in the morning so it can be consumed in a timely manner to avoid spoilage.

Some dog kibbles are coated with ingredients that help clean your dog’s teeth while it chews, and should be served separately. “These ingredients should be activated by saliva, but wet food can minimize the effect,” she says.

Finally, wet food offers a safe and nutritious substitute for finicky dogs that might otherwise receive table scraps, says Dicke. Human foods, such as chocolate, onions, meat bones, raw meat and raw poultry can be harmful. It’s a better choice to feed wet dog food to satisfy your pet’s cravings.

Vitamins and Minerals Your Dog Needs

Is improving your health on your list of new year’s resolutions? This year, don’t forget to include your dog on that list as well. But first, find out which vitamins and minerals your canine needs and where to find them.

A well-balanced, high-quality dog food will help your dog meet all its nutritional needs. Check the nutritional label of your dog’s food for necessary vitamins and minerals, advises Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian. While these can be posted as separate ingredients, you also might simply find sources listed. For instance, animal by-products are a good source of many vitamins and minerals, says veterinarian Dr. Bernadine Cruz.

Essential Vitamins and Minerals for Dogs

  • Vitamins A and E Vitamin A can play a role in weight loss, helping your dog burn fat more efficiently, says Nelson. Vitamins A and E serve as important antioxidants, staving off the aging process and fighting disease. These vitamins also contribute to your dog’s eye and skin health. Liver is a good source of vitamin A, and eggs are a source of both vitamins A and E.
  • Vitamin B-12 This vitamin aids in cell growth and development.
  • Calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D These ingredients help strengthen your dog’s bones and teeth. Animal by-products are good sources, says Nelson. Bone meal includes these building blocks.
  • Iron This mineral is essential for healthy blood, helping transport oxygen throughout your pup’s body. High-quality meat and meat by-products are a source, recommends Nelson.
  • Potassium This mineral supports heart health. Carbohydrates are good sources of potassium, say the experts.
  • Vitamin C Dogs and humans benefit from vitamin C in the same way: It can boost the immune system, promote healing and fight illness.

To ensure you’re providing your pet with these necessary vitamins and minerals, experts suggest following these do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t look for deals “The cheapest food off the shelf may contain some of the vitamins and minerals your dog needs but not enough for it to live well,” says Nelson. On the other hand, reputable companies invest in nutritional research, so you’ll be reassured that your dog’s vitamin and mineral requirements are being met.
  • Do consult your veterinarian If you have questions about your pal’s dietary needs or the nutritional makeup of a food, ask your veterinarian or veterinary technician; the pet store salesperson may have no training.
  • Do your research Stand before a shelf of dog food, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the selection, says Nelson. “Research your dog’s food before you go to the store and get swamped by all the packaging,” she says.
  • Don’t feed your dog a home-cooked or raw diet It’s a mistake to think your dog should eat raw foods because that’s what your pet’s ancestors ate in the wild. Dog foods are designed to meet your dog’s specific dietary needs for its life stage and lifestyle. Raw and home-cooked diets are unlikely to meet your dog’s needs, and you run the risk of making your family ill, warns Cruz. Salmonella can lurk in raw or undercooked foods. Dogs have hardier intestinal tracts and can often digest and pass the bacteria unharmed, but that puts humans at risk when we scoop their poop, says Cruz.
  • Don’t give your dog vitamin supplements If your dog is eating a well-balanced dog food, a supplement isn’t necessary. “Oftentimes, you can overdo it,” says Cruz. For example, adding additional calcium could cause irreversible kidney damage.

“We know that dogs are living much longer than in the past because of the nutritional research done by pet food companies,” says Cruz. “Now, if we could only eat as well as our pets are eating.”

Improve Your Dog’s Appearance With Good Nutrition

When Dr. Katy Nelson, DVM, was in veterinary school in Louisiana, she saw her share of dogs with bad eating habits. “Some of the little farm dogs down there are scavengers without real homes. Their coats are dry and prickly to the touch,” she recalls.

Her experience in treating these roaming dogs taught Dr. Nelson that a balanced diet and proper nutrition can lead to a much prettier, healthier dog. Below, Dr. Nelson, now an emergency veterinarian in Virginia, weighs in on the specific components of her Beautiful Dog diet.  

Fatty Acids
The fatty acids in fish oil -- aka omega-3s -- have gotten a lot of attention lately for the important role they play in brain health. Together, omega-6s and omega-3s can help make the coat shiny and control inflammatory skin conditions that lead a dog to scratch and lick itself excessively.

“You can tell a lot about a person’s health by looking at hair and skin, and dogs are no different,” says Dr. Nelson. “Skin and coat health are windows into what’s going on inside a dog. If they’re losing hair or have clogged pores, it may be a clue that something is lacking in their diet.”

High-quality Proteins
Protein helps to maintain muscle mass, which shows up in a dog’s posture. Dogs require the animal protein found in meats and meat byproducts -- including blood, internal organs and bones, which is what dogs in the wild consumed. To evaluate whether a food has a high-quality protein source, consult your veterinarian or breeder.

“The first thing listed on the ingredient label of a dog’s food should be an animal protein,” says Dr. Nelson. The label should specify which animal the protein comes from, such as chicken or beef; the protein descriptor can be followed by the words “meal” or “byproduct.”

Moderately Fermentable Fiber
A protein is only as good as its digestibility. A dog requires a fiber that helps it to digest, and thereby absorb, the nutrients in its food. The fiber source also needs to help the dog remove waste from its intestines. Dr. Nelson recommends a food containing beet pulp -- the substance that remains after sugar beets are pressed -- because it doesn’t produce much gas and is moderately digestible, thus encouraging nutrient absorption.

Carbohydrates and the Glycemic Index
Carbohydrates provide energy to your furry friend, aid in digestion and promote the absorption of nutrients. With its high glycemic index, rice provides a quick glucose and insulin spike that may be beneficial to working dogs, but a secondary carb source, which extends the energy curve, is useful for the run-of-the-mill house dog.

“As we all know from eating Chinese food and being hungry again two hours later, white rice causes a quick energy boost followed by a crash,” says Dr. Nelson. She recommends a food containing not only rice but also corn, barley or sorghum. These ingredients contain more moderate glycemic values.

Vitamins and Minerals
Of course, mammals do not live on protein, fiber and carbohydrates alone; they also require vitamins and minerals to look and feel their best. Vitamin A is an antioxidant that squashes free radicals and gives your dog a healthy glow. Vitamin E works similarly while also promoting strength of the nail and hair cuticle. Copper further aids in the absorption of nutrients that are crucial to your pet’s appearance and overall health.

Dr. Nelson suggests checking the ingredients label on dog food bags to ensure they contain all of the above. You can even visually detect if your dog is getting adequate nutrition. “When you see a dog on high-quality food, you recognize it immediately,” she says. “Balanced nutrition definitely shows up outwardly.”