Dog Food: Why Ingredients Matter

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on June 01, 2014
4 min read

Is your pup's coat a little dull? Or maybe he could lose a few pounds, has icky teeth, or the occasional tummy problems.

You may be able to help. Start by taking a look at his dog food.

"These days you can find a dog food that is specifically engineered for pretty much whatever you're looking for,” says Kwane Stewart, DVM, chief veterinary officer of the American Humane Association.

If your dog has skin problems, the first stop should be your vet, suggests veterinary nutritionist Amy Farcas, DVM. "There are many reasons why a dog could have itchy skin and flaky skin, and most of them have nothing to do with food."

Once your vet rules out problems like fleas, mites, and allergies, you may be able to help your dog get a shinier coat by choosing food with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids or by giving a fish oil or flaxseed oil supplement. Talk with your vet about the best way to do that.

For a dog that has a short bout with vomiting or diarrhea, your vet might suggest feeding him chicken and white rice for a couple of days. That's just a short-term fix, cautions Stewart, and shouldn't be his regular diet.

"A lot of times a home-cooked meal is just a Band-Aid. Chicken and rice is bland and easy for a dog's stomach to digest, but those foods long term aren't nutritionally balanced," he says.

Stewart suggests a diet with prebiotics -- a type of fiber that helps feed the good bacteria in your dog's gut. One of the most common types of prebiotics is FOS (fructooligosaccharides). Look for it on the label.

If that doesn’t help or you’re concerned that it is something in your dog’s food that is causing the problem, it may take some trial and error to figure out what it is, Stewart says. "A lot of time we just don’t know what ingredient your dog is sensitive to."

Your vet may suggest trying a low-fiber diet or a low-fat diet, to see if it helps.

Puppies need foods specially made for growth, while senior dogs need food that can help with aging. The labels will tell you which foods are made for puppies or seniors, but Stewart suggests also looking at the ingredients. Look for antioxidants, specifically vitamin E and beta-carotene.

"Antioxidants help protect the cells and tissues from damage," he says. "In the case of younger dogs, it helps as the immune system is developing. With geriatric dogs, their immune system is starting to decline, so helping to protect it is very important."

Talk to your vet to rule out any underlying medical problems that could be causing weight gain, Farcas says. And be honest about how much you feed every day -- including treats.

Your vet may suggest a prescription weight loss food. Or you may choose an off-the-shelf food with less fat, fewer calories, and more fiber, designed for overweight dogs.

You also might want to look for an ingredient called L-carnitine. This amino acid is sometimes called the "smart nutrient," Stewart says, because it helps your pet's body burn fat.

If your dog competes in agility or other sporting events, you may need to give her special fuel.

Look for food made for performance dogs, or just choose one a little higher in fat (like a puppy food), says Stewart. He cautions, however, to make sure you switch to normal food if your dog takes a break from competing. Or you could end up with a chubby ex-athlete.

And if your dog just competes occasionally, you probably don't need a higher-fat food at all, Farcas says. Ask your vet.

If your dog has arthritis or is a larger breed prone to joint problems, you may want to consider a food with added glucosamine and chondroitin. Your vet may also suggest giving glucosamine and chondroitin supplements, too. Omega-3 fatty acids can also help with joint inflammation, Farcas says. Look for EPA and DHA fatty acids when you're reading the ingredient label.

Feeding your dog dry food instead of wet food may do a better job of keeping your dog's teeth clean. But there are also dog foods that are specially formulated to keep plaque from building up. In some, the kibbles are bigger and don't crumble -- offering more of a scrubbing action when dogs chew. In others, the food is chemically engineered to keep tartar from forming.

If you're not feeding your dog a special diet for shiny fur or a tender stomach, then it can't hurt to choose a dental diet, Farcas says. But special food is no substitute for good doggy dental care. Brush your pet's teeth at least twice a week, and visit your vet for regular cleanings.

Many pet owners think that they cook for their human family members, so they should cook for their dog, too. But that's not always the healthiest move.

"From a strictly research-based perspective, we have no evidence that a strictly homemade balanced diet has any benefit over an over-the-counter diet," says Farcas. "Most homemade diets for pets are unbalanced and lacking in essential nutrients."

A study of 200 homemade dog food recipes found that only nine of them provided pets with all the nutrients they need. If you’d like to make your own dog food, talk with your pet’s vet for advice on making it nutritionally balanced.

Show Sources


ASPCA: "Arthritis."

Amy Farcas, DVM, DACVN, veterinary nutritionist, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Hennet, P. Journal of Veterinary Dentistry, December 2007.

Kwane Stewart, DVM, chief veterinary officer, American Humane Association.

University of California, Davis: "Homemade dog food recipes can be risky business, study finds."

Veterinary Oral Health Council: "Protocols and Submissions."

View privacy policy, copyright and trust info