Look for these outward signs to feel confident that your dog is benefiting from her nutritional regimen:
There are three main types of commercial dog food: moist, dry and semimoist. They all offer the same level of nutrition. Of the three, moist food is tastiest, is easily digestible, stays fresh longer, and is the most expensive.
Dry dog food is the most affordable and it reduces tartar buildup, but it can get stale. Semimoist food stores well, has good flavor, and costs a bit more than dry.
You can feed your dog one type of dog food or any combination of types, depending on his tastes and nutritional needs. If you're on a tight budget and your dog is not partial to dry food alone, a small amount of moist food mixed into a bowl of dry adds texture and flavor.
A small group of pet owners like to cook for their dogs. Maintaining consistency and achieving an ideal nutrient balance are the trickiest parts; quite a bit of time and money are also required.
Dog food companies invest time and money into research to develop products that are nutritionally complete. These products also are designed so dogs can digest them and absorb nutrients more effectively, helping dogs eat less and stay trim.
The term "natural" is subject to interpretation in dog food. Foods without chemical additives or preservatives are labeled natural, as well as those from organically-grown grains and organically-raised meat sources (meat from cows or chickens fed pesticide-free grain and raised without hormones or antibiotics). As long as the dog food is nutritionally balanced, it is up to you and your vet to decide whether a "natural" dog food is good for your dog.
Provide fresh, clean water at all times -- your dog's water dish should never be empty. A healthy dog will drink as much as she needs.
Dogs require about 2-1/2 times as much water as dry food, so they will drink more when fed dry food. Limit water intake just before and after meals to reduce the expansion of dry dog food in the stomach.
As much as we love to treat our pets, dogs do not need snacks, treats, bones, or table scraps. Eating snacks, treats, and table scraps may lead to obesity. Snacks often have a high fat content.
If you do choose to give your pet treats, limit the amount of snacks to less than 10 percent of your dog's daily diet. If you use treats to help teach your dog a new command or trick, gradually replace the food reward with the verbal positive reinforcement of praise.
You can destroy the nutritional balance of commercial dog food by regularly adding human food to it. Do not feed your dog scraps from the table -- it encourages a host of behavior problems like begging and stealing food.
A balanced diet for a dog contains proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water. Here's a look at some common ingredients dog owners wonder about:
Meat does not need to be the first ingredient in a dog food. Plant proteins, like corn, can deliver as much protein as meat, if not more. The quality of the protein -- how efficiently it is absorbed -- is the most important issue. You do not need to add meat, either raw or cooked, to your dog's diet.
In fact, animals fed raw-meat diets run the risk of contracting salmonellosis (a disease caused by the salmonella bacteria) and possibly acquiring tapeworms.
St. Louis veterinarian Richard Albrecht says emphatically, "When people ask me about [feeding a dog raw meat], I ask them, 'You would never eat raw meat, would you? So don't feed it to your dog.'"
Cow's milk (or any other kind of milk, for that matter) should not be used as a substitute for water or in place of a balanced dog or puppy food. Some dogs enjoy milk (or ice cream) as an occasional treat, but dairy products do not contain all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients your dog needs, and overconsumption may cause diarrhea.
Unless your dog has special health needs, he should not require any dietary supplements such as vitamins or minerals. In fact, supplementation can be dangerous:
The correct amount of food for each dog is based on her weight and activity level. Your dog's expenditures of energy increase in cold weather, during lactation, and when exercising heavily. Dogs who spend most of their time outdoors generally need a bit more food as opposed to dogs who stay indoors more often.
As dogs mature, their nutritional needs change. Here are some suggestions for each stage of a dog's life:
Puppies expend two to three times the energy that an adult animal does. Puppy foods are enriched with calcium, phosphorus, protein, fat, and extra calories to keep up with peppy pups.
Feeding adult dogs is relatively straightforward. Consider your dog's weight and activity level, read the dog food label, and determine how much to feed your dog. Adjust the portion to fit your dog's individual metabolism and lifestyle.
Dogs used for hunting, herding, sledding; as guides; and for police work are considered hardworking dogs, as are dogs who run more than 20 miles a week.
For the first six or seven weeks of pregnancy, a dog's diet does not need to change. During the final two to three weeks, you will have to increase her food intake. Do not feed your pregnant dog supplements; just give her more of the well-balanced food she usually eats.
Refresh your pregnant dog's water bowl frequently to encourage her to drink. Water carries nutrients to developing puppies, removes wastes, regulates body temperature, and helps milk production.
Females may lose their appetite when whelping is imminent. Sometimes, refusing food is a sign that whelping will occur in 24 to 48 hours. After whelping, it customarily takes around 24 hours for her appetite to return. Let her have all the food she wants.
During the puppies' first 4 weeks, their need for milk will increase and the mother will need more nourishment. She may eat two to four times as much as she usually does.
When the puppies start eating solid food, they will need less milk. By the time the puppies are weaned, at about 6 to 8 weeks old, the mother should be eating less than twice her normal portion. She will soon return to her regular appetite level as her puppies grow more independent.
When a dog reaches the last 25 percent of her expected lifespan, she is considered to be an "older" dog. This varies according to size and breed. Smaller dogs are labeled "geriatric" when they are over 12 years old, while large breeds become senior citizens when they are over 9 years old.
There are no specific requirements for feeding older dogs; you and your vet will have to consider your dog's overall health, body condition, and activity.
Obesity in older dogs does bring with it a host of problems like heart disease, liver dysfunction, and painful joint conditions. The better nutrition a dog receives throughout his life, the longer and happier his old age will be.
As long as you feed your dog on a relaxed but regular feeding schedule, you can feed him at any time of day. Do set a time frame for feeding and stay within that hour or so. A dog who is rigidly fed at an exact time each day can become anxious if you are late or distracted.
If you are gone all day, you may want to fill the bowl in the morning and let the dog eat when she's hungry. Others prefer to feed their dogs when the family eats, at breakfast and/or dinner. Two daily feedings can prevent a dog from overeating and reduce the chance of bloat or stomachache.
Any changes in your dog's diet should be made gradually, over a seven to 10 day period, to avoid any digestive distress. Every day, mix in a small amount of the new food to the previous diet while decreasing the amount of "old" food. By day 10, your dog should be adjusted to her new diet.
Do not change foods without consulting your vet. Dogs do not need variety in their foods -- on the contrary, the more consistent the consumption, the better her eating habits will be.
It may seem hard to imagine, but sometimes dogs will refuse food. If your dog is not a fussy eater, refusal may be a sign of illness; visit your vet as soon as possible.
Often, pets refuse food because they have acquired bad feeding habits. Offering a variety of foods and feeding scraps from the table can create a "problem" eater. Make sure your garbage cans, inside and outside the house, have tight-fitting lids; frequent consumption of garbage can also lead to a lack of interest in regular feeding.
Dogs generally eat less in hot weather, so don't be concerned if your dog's appetite diminishes somewhat during the summer months.
Food allergies in dogs are unusual, although certain breeds, such as the Chinese shar-pei, are more prone to them. They can cause symptoms like severe itching and hair loss, rashes, and skin infections from self-chewing, licking, and scratching.
Lamb and rice diets are considered preferable to beef or wheat products for dogs with food allergies.
Because food allergies are so uncommon in dogs, they do not need to be a major consideration when choosing a pet food. As always, ask your vet before adjusting a dog's diet to accommodate food allergies.