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What Are the Essential Nutrients Your Dog Needs in Their Food?

Written by Mazhar

Want the healthiest possible food for your dog? Answer the question, “What are the essential nutrients a dog needs every day?” in this guide.

This past July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released an alarming report on links between dog nutrition and a fatal illness. Ever since, dog owners have been asking ourselves and each other, what are the essential nutrients for dogs?

While we might laugh and say something like, “we feed our dogs better than we feed ourselves and our kids,” it’s important to realize that canine metabolisms are different from those of humans.

Thus, we need to give some attention to their diets so they will live long, healthy lives and remain our faithful companions as long as possible.

Can’t We Just Buy Better Dog Food?

There are a lot of different kinds of dog food these days. Some of it is pretty expensive too. There must be some that will keep our dogs healthy, right?

We can try–and we do try to find the best food. We know it’s out there. But finding it is easier said than done. It takes a little research, and probably a conversation with a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist to find the best food for our individual dogs.

Surprisingly, we don’t get much nutritional information from most dog food labels in the U.S., largely because regulation of the pet food industry has been so lenient.

The FDA and Pet Food Labeling

Dog food labels are required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tell you eight key pieces of information, and individual states may also have their own labeling requirements:

  • Product name
  • Net weight of the product
  • Name and address of the manufacturer
  • Guaranteed analysis*
  • List of ingredients
  • Intended animal species (i.e. dog or cat)
  • Statement of nutritional adequacy
  • Feeding guidelines

*Many state regulations require a pet food manufacturer to guarantee the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture.

So, you might wonder how safe and nutritious pet foods are mandated. In fact, the FDA has limited jurisdiction over the safety of pet food.

Essentially, it has the authority to force a recall of pet food once it’s reached store shelves, but it does not have “premarket approval authority.” In other words, the agency has no say about pet food ingredients or how they are used until after the fact.

Unfortunately, most pet owners aren’t aware of this lack of oversight in pet food manufacturing. Recently, some dog owners learned this in the hardest way possible: through the loss of their dogs to canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

What Are the Essential Nutrients for Dogs?

What we learned this summer is that what’s good for humans isn’t necessarily good for dogs. In fact, some human fads aren’t necessarily good for us either. The problem targeted by the FDA report was grain-free diets for dogs.

This followed on some human diet trends, but that’s for a different article. Let’s focus on what grains offer dogs and why they’re such important nutrients. And, by the way, this is being debated even now.

Essential nutrients are best described as nutrients that provide your dog with needed energy, support essential bodily functions, and maintain and repair tissue.

Dogs and Carbs

Dogs need carbohydrates, though not in large amounts. And they need healthy carbohydrates, which include whole grains since they provide not only the carbs dogs need but also the fiber. These are what are called “complex carbohydrates.”

Just as humans need complex carbohydrates to keep waste products moving thought our digestive tracts, so do dogs. And dogs, like humans, benefit from grains like the following–some of which are human staples and others are new names:

  • whole wheat
  • bulgur
  • oatmeal
  • corn/cornmeal
  • brown rice
  • buckwheat
  • barley
  • rye
  • amaranth
  • millet
  • quinoa
  • triticale

The other type of fiber-rich carbohydrates is fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly, several “grain-free” dog foods actually contain foods like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, peas, and spinach–even blueberries!

In case you didn’t know, dogs love peanut butter. And most of it’s good for them!

The type of carbohydrates dogs  should never eat are simple carbohydrates. These are sugars, syrups, starches, milk, candy, and fruits (especially highly-processed fruits).

Even though today’s dogs are descended from carnivores, both their tooth structure and intestinal tract have become adapted to an omnivorous diet. Ordinarily, dogs’ nutritional needs can be met through a combination of plant and animal foods.

“The source of the proteins and fats is less important than the quality and digestibility of these essential components of the dog’s diet.”

So, to summarize: (1) different dogs need different types and amounts of carbohydrate and (2) the best way to determine your dog’s carbohydrate needs is a conversation with your veterinarian.

Other Essential Nutrients for Dogs

Of course, dogs still need a fair amount of protein in their diets. Along with the carbohydrates just discussed, other important nutrients are water, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Wow, just like humans!

Have we mentioned, by the way, that dogs get fed way too much human food?

So let’s look at these other nutrients one-by-one:


Here’s another fun fact: a dog’s body is composed of 80% water. (It’s around 60% for adult humans.) This means that your dog needs to drink regularly from a bowl of clean water (i.e., not from outside puddles or other unknown sources).

Since blood is mostly water, water helps other nutrients enter the body. It also flushes toxins and regulates body temperature. And, by keeping a dog’s nose moist, water supports that dog’s keen sense of smell.

Be sure to keep plenty of water on hand for your dog–both inside and outside the house. And toss in some ice cubes when the weather is warm.


Fats do more for a dog’s health than most of us ever realized. First of all, they are a “concentrated form of energy that gives your dog more than twice the amount of energy as carbohydrates and proteins.”

Dogs’ bodies don’t produce two essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. However, these,  also known as polyunsaturated fats, must be part of a dog’s regular diet. Here are some food sources of both:

Omega-3 Fatty Acid Sources Include:

Oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines; fish oil and flaxseed oil; flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds

Omega-6 Fatty Acid Sources Include:

Safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, pork fat, and any poultry fat

Dogs can also get these important nutrients from supplements, but be sure to ask your vet to recommend the right amount for your dog. And be sure that any meat or meat products you feed your dog are thoroughly cooked.


Vitamins (and minerals) are considered essential nutrients; they perform hundreds of roles in the body, including maintaining skin and coat (note that you can check Innovate for grooming products to accompany this).

Dogs need pretty much the same vitamins as humans:

  • Vitamin A
  • B Vitamins
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K
  • Choline

It is worth calling attention to the fact that “dogs fed an appropriate commercial diet should not require vitamin supplements unless recommended otherwise by a veterinarian.


The minerals dogs (and humans) need are called “trace minerals” because our bodies need them only in very small amounts.

Here are the most important trace minerals needed for a dog’s diet:

  • Iron
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Manganese.

Trace mineral deficiencies can lead to certain physical and mental health concerns.

What Dog Foods Are Recommended?

The Merck Manual, which is used by veterinarians, offers specific dog food guidelines and “decodes” some of the wording from the FDA’s labeling requirement list that was discussed at the beginning of this article.

You should read through this before buying (or making) any food for your dog. We can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be surprised by the nuances as well as how thorough the information is.

A few articles have appeared since the “grain-free” scare that offer very helpful advice on choosing dog foods.

What if I Make My Own Dog Food?

Lots of people do this; in fact, some enterprising individuals have branded their homemade dog food and are now selling it to others. There are a few things to know about making your own dog food, though.

First of all, dogs fed a homemade diet may require supplements to ensure that they are getting enough vitamins with their meals. Your vet can make recommendations on the best dog vitamins.

But making your own dog food is a kind and generous act your dog is sure to appreciate, especially if she or he is appointed “head taster.”

The article cited immediately above discusses a concept called “balance over time,” which means it’s all right to change the ingredients and recipe of your dog’s diet, just as most of us humans do when feeding ourselves and our human families.

As long as you include everything  a dog needs over the span of any week’s worth (or so) of meals, the dog will be fine. In other words, every meal doesn’t have to be “complete and balanced”; it can be accomplished over several meals.

Licking the Bowl

We’ve attempted to answer the question of what are the essential nutrients for dogs. What you’ve probably noticed, though, is that there is no definitive list of these–just guidelines. This can really frustrate some dog owners!

Perhaps we should ask instead what are the essential ingredients for dog care generally, not just diet. Just like humans, dogs have their own favorite foods, along with other personality (or dog-ality?) traits.

Some dog owners  give their dogs food in place of love and attention. Those dogs don’t thrive very well. But most dogs we know would trade a second bowl of food for a “W-A-L-K” or some time on the couch with the family any day.

So, use your good judgment and love for your dog to guide you in nutrition and diet as well. And if you have questions, go to your regular vet.

Be sure to let us know if you ever want to produce some flyers on these topics–say, for vets or groomers to distribute–just reach out to us. We’re sure these materials would be valuable!

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