A dog and cat eating out of separate food bowls.Nutrition is a prominent issue in health discussions. We are all aware that in order to promote fitness, longevity, and avoid future health problems, we must adhere to a sensible diet and fitness regimen. Yet many people fail to pay attention to what they feed their pets. You’re having your hearty breakfast of oatmeal and fruit—so why are you giving your dog generic pet food? Like humans, all animals have different nutritional needs, so there is no clear-cut formula for picking the right pet food.

Many factors come into play when making food buying decisions, such as your pet’s age, activity level, and overall health. A more active animal will require more calories to burn; whereas a lazier pet won’t need a calorie-packed brand. Also, certain breeds are vulnerable to developing food allergies, and you’ll need to maintain a record of allergy-triggering ingredients to avoid in the future.

Reading the Label

Choosing the best food for your pet requires understanding how to read the labels and knowing which nutritious ingredients to look for. High-quality pet foods are preferred over the generic brands. Though commercial brands are more expensive, unlike generic versions, they meet strict government ingredient standards and are more digestible for pets. Look for a label that meets the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards, and clearly lists an expiration date.

An animal with a healthy diet is less likely to get sick, more likely to live longer, and generally happier and more energetic. Healthy ingredients are the most important factor in choosing a pet food, regardless of whether it’s dry, canned, dehydrated, or a combination. Choose a food that is designed specifically for the breed and age of your pet. A food designed specifically for puppies will ensure that the food meets all the nutritional requirements of a growing dog. Some animals need more or less calories, fat, or protein. Larger breeds need to consume enough to prevent bone problems, while smaller animals must not overeat. Foods should promote slow and steady growth by including a proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Ingredients

High-quality ingredients are important when choosing a pet food. Foods made out of USDA human grade food products are essential. Foods made from unnatural or poor-quality ingredients can cause harmful side effects and be of poor nutritional quality. Organic food, although more expensive, is healthier for puppies.

Proteins

Protein is very important for animals, and can be found in a variety of sources. Animal-based proteins provide excellent sources of nutrition, and include:

  • chicken
  • lamb
  • beef
  • turkey
  • fish

Choose a food that is high in meat content and low in grain content. The main ingredients should be whole meats—not meat byproducts—whole grains, and vegetables.

Fats

Fats provide more than twice the energy than proteins or carbs, and perform a number of vital functions for your pet, from insulation to protecting the organs. Choose fats from chicken or beef, not general “animal fat.”  This will ensure that the meat is healthy and easily digestible. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids offer critical roles in pet health, and can reduce inflammation of the skin, joints, and intestines. Since it is difficult to determine an accurate ratio from home-prepared foods, it is best to select a store brand option that lists a fixed-formula fatty acid ratio.

Grains and Starches

Soy, corn, and wheat provide no nutritional value, can cause allergies, and are generally not necessary for animals. Natural preservatives should be favored to chemical preservatives, or any food containing artificial flavors, preservatives, or by-products—ingredients used to make rubber, fertilizer, soap, and industrial lubricants. Avoid packages that list wheat or gluten products, and preservatives, such as BHA, BHT, and Ethoxyquine. Processed grains are harmful to the health of your pet and should be avoided in favor of whole grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, and barley. 

Variation

Like humans, variation in diet is essential to a healthy animal. Varied eating ensures that your pet gets a balanced diet, consumes a variety of vitamins, and keeps your animal happy and satisfied. Choosing three or four foods containing different meats, and rotating or mixing these will satisfy a growing animal’s need for variety. Once in a while, you can treat your dog or even your cat to a small amount of fresh meat, vegetables, rice, plain yogurt, and plain pasta, but don’t feed your pet table scraps too often. Avoid feeding your pet sweets or very fatty meats such as venison, duck, pork, or veal. Excessively fatty foods can inflame the pancreas and lead to complications for other organs. Be sure to rotate and experiment with foods gradually, to prevent any risk of your pet becoming sick. Also avoid feeding your pet raw egg, which contains avidin (found in raw egg whites, avidin is an enzyme that disrupts the metabolism of fats, glucose and amino acids).

Schedules

When feeding your pet, make sure you know the proper amount of food to be given and the time and frequency of meals. While cats can regulate their own eating times and quantities, dogs thrive on routine. Try to set specific feeding times and a specific location for your dog.

Puppies

Puppies, which are still growing, need to be fed more often. During 8 to 12 weeks old, puppies need four meals a day. By 3 to 6 months, the schedule can be reduced to three meals a day. From 6 months to one year, two meals a day are sufficient.

Adult Dogs

Most adult dogs can be fed once a day, though some of the larger sized breeds might require two small meals per day. Regular feeding times are essential in managing an animal’s weight. If your pet is overweight, you can take steps through diet to correct the problem. Cut back on the amount of food you give your pet or look for foods containing less animal fat.

Your pet will thrive on a balanced diet of meat and vegetables, which will provide energy and nutrition in the form of proteins, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. While it may seem harmless once in a while to serve your pet a table scrap or a leftover from the fridge, there are certain foods which are extremely toxic to your pet’s health. Some foods from the human menu, like cottage cheese, vegetables, and cooked eggs (never raw) are allowed in moderation, and should include only about 10 percent of your pet’s daily diet. However, there are certain foods which your dog should never eat.

Foods to Avoid

  • chocolate
  • milk
  • bones
  • raisins and grapes
  • salt
  • garlic
  • onions, onion powder
  • moldy, spoiled food 

Making Your Own Pet Food

A healthy, although time-consuming, alternative to feeding your pet commercial food is to cook it yourself. This will ensure that you know exactly what your pet is eating, and assure that your pet won’t consume meat by-products and preservatives. Dogs should eat a simple diet of ground turkey or chicken, brown rice, oatmeal, most nuts, and vegetables such as carrots, corn, peas, and squash. Avoid onions, garlic, sugary foods, and salt.

Final Words

As a responsible pet owner, it is important to choose food wisely. Poor-quality foods made with unhealthy ingredients can lead to digestive and skin problems, dull coats, fatigue, a compromised immune system, and behavioral issues. Although healthy foods may cost more, you are paying for the long-term health and wellness of your pet. This will help your pet maintain a shiny coat, better resistance to disease, and an overall happier attitude.