Meat, meat and more meat may seem what your dog most loves to eat. But he needs more than just meat for a healthy, balanced diet. While dogs are carnivores, they require a full range of nutrients for proper growth, cell maintenance and optimum health.

More on Carnivores

Dogs are members of the Carnivora family, which is a large group of mammals with similar teeth structures. The group is broken down into several different categories:

  • True carnivores: Absolute requirement for meat, like cats
  • Herbivores: Plant matter can meet nutritional needs, like cows
  • Omnivores: Combination of plant matter and meat to meet nutritional needs, like humans and dogs

Dogs fall into the omnivore category, with both an intestinal tract and tooth structure adapted to a diet that contains a combination of meat and plant matter. The dog’s ideal diet contains high-quality components that:

  • Dogs can easily digest
  • Meet their full range of nutritional requirements

Dog Nutritional Requirements

Dogs require the full range of basic nutrients, and there are a total of six of them at your service. They are:

  • Proteins
  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Water

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) developed national guidelines that serve as the general foundation for commercial pet foods for nutrient contents. Ensuring the food you choose


Made up of amino acids, proteins are the foundation for cell maintenance, growth and repair. Dogs particularly need protein to maintain a shiny, healthy coat. Dogs’ bodies are able to produce 10 of the 20 amino acids needed for adequate nutrition, but the other 10 must come from their diet. The group is known as essential amino acids, and they are:

  • Arginine
  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine


Fats provide highly concentrated energy, and they’re also crucial for cell maintenance and the creation of other bodily substances. They additionally help the dog’s body absorb fat-soluble vitamins while sprucing up the taste of the food. Your dog’s diet should include the three essential fatty acids:

  • Linoleic acid, source of omega-6
  • Linolenic acid, source of omega-3
  • Arachidonic acid


Carbohydrates are actually optional for dogs, as canines can get adequate supplies of energy from fats and protein. Carbs the dog’s body can digest can provide additional energy, while whole grain carbs can supply fiber, minerals, iron and other nutrients.

Two caveats with carbs are their digestibility and high calorie count:

  • Carbs must be cooked for the dog’s body to properly digest them; they can otherwise ferment in the dog’s large intestine.
  • Carbs are often the biggest source of calories in commercial dog foods; overfeeding can lead to excessive weight gain.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are only needed in small amounts for dogs, but both serve essential functions. Vitamins are organic substances that help convert calories into energy and ensure a body’s normal functioning. Minerals are inorganic substances that help with a wide scope of functions, such as the development of strong teeth and bones.

Choosing a Dog Food

The overall suggestion from one vet is to opt for the highest-quality dog food you can afford. The main differences between a low-cost and high-end food aren’t the levels of nutrients, but the source and quality of the ingredients.

High-end foods may list specific types of animal proteins or meat meal, such as chicken meal or lamb meal. Avoid foods that simply list “meat meal” generically. Generic “animal fats” are another ingredient to avoid, instead opting for fat derived from a specifically named source.

Additional ingredients to look for include:

  • Whole grains and fruit rather than flour, bran, gluten or refined grain products
  • Antioxidants, such as rosemary extract
  • Natural preservatives, such as vitamins C and E

Additional ingredients to avoid include:

  • Additional sweeteners, often listed as “grain fragments”
  • Artificial preservatives, colors or flavors
  • Any type of “by-product” from any source

Your dog’s daily diet plays a huge role in achieving and maintaining overall optimum health. Combine a healthy diet with plenty of exercise, training activities, routine medical visits and a pet insurance plan for those who need help covering the rising cost of vet bills.

Parting thoughts: If you find yourself forgetting the ins and outs of canine nutrition, bookmark this page and reread it until it clicks. If that doesn’t do the trick remember that a warm welcoming home with your loving presence is all that really matters to your furry BFF.

And that is the recipe for good doggy health — mind, body and soul.


Dr. Pippa Elliott BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with over two decades of experience treating cats and dogs. She is also a research contributor to When she’s not working, she’s relaxing at home in London with a house full of her own beloved pets.

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