AutoShip and save up to 10% | Find out more

The (Almost) Complete Guide to Dog Nutritional Requirements

Approx. 11 minutes read

You’ve pawbably heard us say it many times, but the key to your dog’s health and longevity is in their nutrition. A healthy diet is the cornerstone of good physical health and a long and happy life – for humans and our furry friends. But what foods do dogs need to eat? And what are the healthiest foods for dogs? Can dogs be vegetarian? Should dogs only eat meat?

With so many brands and types of dog food on the market – each purpawting to be the best – it’s easy to feel confused about what to feed your furry friend in his best interests. So, let’s go bark to basics so you can find out more about dog dietary needs and the best way to fulfil them.

What should a dog eat every day?

Like humans, dogs have basic dietary needs that must be met every day in order for them to be physically and mentally healthy. Many dog owners innocently assume that because dogs are descended from wolves, they are carnivores. However – while your dog’s love of biltong and chicken may have you believe otherwise – dogs are omnivores and need meat and vegetables/plant matter to survive. They have spent the last +/- 40 000 years evolving to digest meat and vegetables, so it’s generally healthy for them to continue doing so.

All dogs need the following basic macronutrients:

  • High-quality proteins give them amino acids to support their muscle growth and maintenance.
  • A sufficient amount of fats (from animal and fish sources as well as vegetable oils) help to meet their energy needs. Fats and fatty acids also provide health and sheen to dogs’ skin and coats.
  • A good amount of complex carbohydrates gives them energy as well as fibre to support optimal digestion.

Dogs also need a carefully formulated balance of essential vitamins and minerals to keep them healthy – usually these are added to commercial dog food in a ratio that’s right for the specific size, breed and life stage of the dog.

Can all dogs eat the same food?

No. Just like all humans can’t thrive on the same diet, it works the same for dogs. Dogs have basic nutritional needs that must be met (eating enough proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals, as well as needing access to fresh water, 24/7), but different dogs have different nutritional needs in differing ratios, depending on their:

  • breed
  • size
  • age
  • life stage
  • activity level/energy requirements
  • health status

Here’s how it works…

Life stages nutrition

Dogs have different nutritional needs at different stages of their lives. Puppydom means growth, growth and more growth. The many years of adulthood require a maintenance diet that gives adult dogs the energy, vitamins and minerals required for optimal health. The senior or mature years require nutrition to protect ageing dogs from the symptoms of their natural decline – sore joints, sight deterioration, brain fog, and organ ageing – as well as decreased energy requirements.

Let’s break it down:

Nutritional requirements for puppies

Puppies grow fast, so they need the right macronutrient ratios to support their quick development. High levels of proteins, fats, and the right minerals will support their growth by directly contributing to bone and muscle development as well as brain growth and all of the neurological development (learning and co-ordination) that goes along with it. Carbohydrates and the correct amount of dietary fibre will keep their digestion on track.

How often should puppies be fed during the day?

Puppies are always on the move and busy, so they need a constant supply of energy to keep them going. Their tummies are still relatively small, so they need to be fed often throughout the day to ensure they have enough available energy to meet their growth and activity needs.

Do large breed puppies need special food?

Giant breed puppies need extra care in their nutrition. Giant breed puppies like Great Danes, Neapolitan and English mastiffs, Boerboels, Irish wolfhounds and Newfoundlands, for example, grow much faster than medium and small breed dogs. If the mineral ratios in their food (especially calcium and phosphorus) are out of balance; if they are fed too much or too little, they can develop life-long bone and joint disorders, which is why it’s impawtant to feed them a healthy large breed puppy diet that is specially formulated and balanced to support their unique needs. Large-breed puppy food contains the correct mineral ratios, has lower fat content and contains high-quality proteins to support optimal growth for their size and type.

Nutritional requirements for adult dogs

When puppies grow up into adult dogs, their rapid growth rate tapers off, which means they need fewer calories per kilogram of body mass. For healthy dogs, adulthood merely requires a diet for health maintenance – meaning they need to eat to sustain their energy levels, support their lean muscle and vital organs, maintain healthy digestion, and to feed and maintain a healthy skin and coat. Some immune support and dental care will also go a long way to keep them healthy!

This kind of maintenance diet applies to dogs who are a healthy weight, have moderate exercise needs, and who do not have any obvious allergies, disorders or deficiencies. This is also the dog food category that comprises the most variety, so it might be really difficult to choose what’s right for your dog.

What should you look for when buying dog food?

When choosing your dog’s food, it’s crucial to look past the fun logos and professional packaging and to focus on high-quality ingredients listed in the correct order. Your dog’s vet (who knows your pup’s health profile) can recommend the dog food they think is right for your furry friend. But in the end, it’s up to you to find the best dog food that feeds your dog’s unique nutritional needs and helps them to thrive. A good rule of thumb in terms of quality is to buy the highest quality dog food you can afford.

Nutritional requirements for senior dogs

As your furry friend turns into a golden oldie, the changes may be subtle, but you’ll notice when their fur goes a little dull and grey around the edges, their hearing deteriorates and their eyes may go milky-blue. In wintertime (and then all year ‘round), they may be slower in getting to their feet or plonking down on their bed – showing their resilience against stiffness and pain that may have crept into their joints.

Long before all of these ageing markers appear, your dog’s diet will need to accommodate their changing needs. Senior dog food is specially formulated to meet the needs of ageing dogs. Since senior dogs’ energy requirements are lower, their food will be lower in fat (and calories) and higher in antioxidants and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Senior dog foods may also be lower in proteins to protect senior kidneys, but those proteins do need to be high-quality so that your dog is still getting the best… even if in lower quantities.

Being less mobile, senior dogs tend to become a little pudgy as they age, so senior dog food is lower in fat and thus lower in calories than puppy- and adult dog food. Feeding your older dog with regular adult dog food puts them at risk of obesity, which can exacerbate other age-related issues like joint pain and stiffness.

As dogs age, the cushioning around their joints deteriorates, so it’s important to slow down the deterioration as much as possible (unfortunately it cannot be reversed). This is why, if you check the ingredients list on senior dog food varieties, you may just see supplements such as MSM, glucosamine, chondroitin and green-lipped mussel extract. These ingredients help to reduce inflammation associated with arthritis, reduce stiffness and improve joint functionality.

When is a dog considered ‘senior’?

Different size dogs mature at different rates – with large and giant breed dogs ageing faster than their mini-mutt compatriots. A small dog’s senior years may only start at 8 or 9 years old, while a giant breed becomes a senior at 5 or 6 years old. Verify this with your veterinarian – they will be able to recommend when you should start feeding your dog a specially-formulated senior dog food.

Nutrition for different size dogs

Picture a Bernese mountain dog and a Chihuahua in front of their food bowls. These two dog breeds would need vastly different foods based on their size. For one thing, the Bernese would need larger kibble to chew adequately, while the Chi would need much smaller kibble to accommodate their (usually) overcrowded teeth and tiny mouths. But wait, there’s more…

Nutritional requirements for large breed dogs

Large breed dogs have a slower metabolism than small dogs do, so they require less energy per kg of bodyweight. Specialised large dog diets contain a lower fat percentage than that of small dogs to prevent obesity putting strain on their joints. Large dogs also need the right blend of minerals to support their bone and joint health, since their skeleton carries a lot more weight compared to small breeds.

Nutritional requirements for small and toy sized dogs

Small breed dogs have a very different physical make-up to large dogs. Their metabolism is higher and they need more energy throughout the day to keep them going. Their tummies are also tiny, so small and toy dog breeds need regular feeding of dog food that is nutrient-dense so they have a consistent source of calories to meet their energy demands.

Many small breeds experience dental crowding in their tiny mouths. This means many little teeth packed tightly together, but also offering lots of miniscule spaces in which food can get stuck and tartar can start to form. Dog food for small dogs is therefore made with this problem in mind, and the kibble is of the correct size and shape to keep their teeth clean.

Nutrition for different breed types

Dog breeds all differ from each other in various ways – from size and shape, to form and function. Some breeds are known for their digestive issues (we’re looking at you, Yorkies and shih tzus), while others can easily gain weight (Labbies and beagles), suffer from kidney stones (miniature schnauzers), or need a specially shaped kibble for ease of pick-up, to accommodate their flat faces (French bulldogs). It’s vital to understand your dog’s breed nutrition requirements and to make sure you are feeding your fluff only the best dog food for her unique needs.

Nutrition for physical health needs

Different dogs all have different physical health needs, regardless of size or breed. These needs can be addressed with specialised food, or food varieties that suit their needs.

Nutritional requirements for active/working breeds

If you’ve ever watched a working border collie or Belgian Malinois, you’ll know that these dogs can go on and on and on (… and on some more…). They have high energy bred into them and their need to work is hardwired on an instinctual level. Working breeds need a nutritional solution that not only gives them enough energy to keep working throughout the day, but that also supports their intelligent brains, keen eyesight, lean muscle and their joints. Their diet must have high enough protein and fat percentages, but must also be packed with vitality-boosting antioxidants and must be rich in omega-3 and -6 fatty acids.

Nutritional requirements for overweight dogs

Some dogs are predisposed to easily gain weight. These include:

  • Labrador and golden retrievers – they are very food-motivated, but they also don’t know when they are full and tend to use their big, dark eyes to encourage you to give them more food!
  • beagles – their keen sense of smell always leads them towards food. This is a highly active breed, but his cute face often leads him to the homes of underactive people, which means he overeats and under-exercises.
  • dachshunds – the sausage dog can be prone to back injuries, which means less exercise and more snacks because, well, naturally his humans would feel sorry for his pleading eyes and need for emotional attention. What many dachshund owners don’t understand is that even just a little extra weight can make their doxie’s back hurt even more!
  • cocker spaniels – the cocker has a long history as a hunting dog, but since his gorgeous face and big eyes have turned him into a favoured companion dog, he’s become less active and more prone to begging at the table. More snack time and less activity have put the spaniel at risk of obesity.
  • pugs – well, I mean. Just look at him.

However, it’s important that owners understand their role in their pets’ obesity. This may be tough to read, but your dog’s obesity is kind of your responsibility. The first thing to do is speak (honestly) to the vet about putting your dog on a diet, limiting his doggy snacks, and forbidding him human snacks altogether! There are plenty of weight management dog diets available that are low in fat to support our furry friends’ need to lose the excess kilograms while still helping them to feel satiated and energised.

Nutritional requirements for dogs with allergies

This is a tricky one. A large percentage of dogs have food allergies – some with mild symptoms, while others’ quality of life is affected by their food allergies. The tricky part is figuring out exactly which ingredient in their dog food they are allergic to. This can really only be done accurately by a process of elimination – eliminating one ingredient at a time to see if the symptoms go away – and then finding a dog food that does not contain that allergen. Dogs can be allergic to beef, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, chicken or wheat, or a combination of ingredients. Once the allergen has been isolated, it will be in the dog’s best interest to eat a hypoallergenic diet that does not contain the ingredient/s they are allergic to. It may take up to three months for the dog’s immune system to calm down, so it’s important to be very patient when introducing your dog to a new food.

We will be delving into dog food allergies in great detail in this series, but in the meantime, read more about dog allergies here and here.

Nutritional requirements for dogs with joint problems

There are many large breed dogs that are genetically predisposed to hip and joint problems (the German shepherd and Rottweiler are notorious for this); working breeds and high activity dogs are also known for stressing their joints and developing degenerative joint disorder (DJD). Any dog that is susceptible to joint issues should have their diet supplemented with ingredients like MSM, glucosamine and chondroitin, and green-lipped mussel extract. So prevalent are these issues that some premium dog food manufacturers have developed food varieties especially for these dogs.

If your dog is thriving on their current food, but you are concerned about their joints, there are also many types of supplements available that can be added to your dog’s food: from toppers and sauces, to gels and drops, capsules and powders. Also be sure to keep your dog in good condition and do not let them get overweight, as this can add to the pressure on their joints.

Nutritional requirements for dogs with dental issues

As mentioned, many small and toy sized dogs have dental problems because of crowded teeth in their little mouths. The kind of nutrition they require is specially formulated kibble that is the right size for their bite, which is also designed to ‘brush’ their teeth while they chew.

For dogs with few teeth, damaged teeth or diseased gums, your vet may recommend a soft food to reduce any pain associated with their dental problems. A daily dental regimen is also important to help keep your dog’s teeth clean and plaque-free.

Gone are the days of grabbing a bag of dog kibble off the shelf in the supermarket and hoping for the best. Your dog’s best health and a good life come from providing a foundation of excellent nutrition for his needs. Once his nutritional needs are met, you can focus on the important stuff… like walkies, playtime, obedience training and being each other’s heroes!

Be the best pet hero you can be to your hero pet! Sign up for Pet Hero’s newsletter and don’t miss one article, competition, promotion or sale. We deliver the good stuff straight to your inbox!

Subscribe to our newsletter
Share this article
Table of Contents
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents
    More like this...
    Your dog is allergic to their food. Now what?

    Dog food allergies can be up there with some of the most frustrating challenges for dog owners to figure out and treat. Read our guide on dog food allergies, which explains the signs and symptoms of allergic reactions to dog food, and what you can do to help your dog. We’ll also look at the best dog food for allergies so you know what your options are.

    The Ultimutt Q&A on Designer Diets for Dogs

    Since nutrition is the best medicine, your dog’s medical condition – be it epilepsy, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, heart problems, kidney disease or cancer – needs to be taken into account when you feed them. Designer diets are those meals designed with your dog’s unique nutritional needs in mind. Learn more about why your dog’s health problems matter when it comes to dinner time!

    What’s really in dog food?

    It’s great to have choices, but when it comes to dog food, the sheer variety of options can be overwhelming! How do you know what’s really in your dog’s food? In this article, we bring a magnifying glass up close to the ingredients in dog food and offer some advice about what to look for and what to avoid!

    How do you know what to feed your dog?

    Your dog’s health depends on the food they eat. Learn more about their nutritional needs, food allergies, homemade and designer diets, and what’s really in dog food

    Save with AutoShip

    Sit back and we will place your next order

    100% Secure Checkout

    MasterCard / Visa / America Express

    Pet Hero

    Leaving already?

    Sign up for our newsletter and get R50 off your first purchase.