Why is it important?
It's a common misconception that dogs in the wild live off meat - but of course that isn't true! They also eat vegetables and, more importantly, whole animals - meat, bone and internal organs. Putting together a properly balanced diet for a dog isn't actually as easy as you might think, so we've prepared this brief guide to help you!
What is a balanced diet for a dog?
Although, like us, dogs are omnivores (meaning that they can eat both meat and vegetables), there are some important differences in what they require for a healthy diet. All animals need a number of components in their food, and the correct balance is essential for health. The elements you need to think about are Energy, Protein, Fats and Oils, Carbohydrate, Fibre, Vitamins and Minerals.
Energy is measured in calories. Dogs can get energy from fat, protein or carbohydrate. The amount a dog needs will vary depending on their level of activity, their life stage (for example, puppies and pregnant bitches need more than an older dog).
An adult dog needs at least 18% protein in their diet, and a growing puppy or a pregnant bitch needs a minimum of 22% (much higher than we do!). However, not all protein sources are equal - animal protein is termed "higher biological value" than plant protein, because it has a healthier mix of essential amino acids for dogs (yes, really - this is why it's really, really hard to formulate a healthy vegan diet for a dog). In addition, dogs need unusually high amounts of the amino acid taurine (unlike humans, who can manufacture their own) in their diet. Without it, they will develop heart disease (cardiomyopathy).
Fat and Oil Requirements:
Fat provides calories, taste, essential fatty acids and vitamins (A, D, E and K) that are required for healthy skin, coat, hormone production, blood clotting, immunity and many other functions. Insufficient fat in a diet means that firstly, the dog won't want to eat it, and secondly, they will get progressively more ill as their reserves of these vital compounds are depleted.
Carbohydrate is a useful source of energy, but not essential for dogs! The only exception is in a bitch who is producing milk, where she should be getting at least 23% carbohydrate in her diet to produce milk sugar to feed her puppies.
Unlike humans, dogs do not need fibre - about 5% is probably about right, more can (surprisingly) lead to constipation and other gut problems.
Vitamin and Mineral Requirements:
A dog's requirements are generally similar to human requirements, although a bitch needs proportionately more calcium when she is lactating (she's likely to have a lot more than one baby to feed!). There are one or two other differences too - for example, dogs can make their own Vitamin C.
What about health conditions?
It's also important to remember that a dog's nutritional requirements will vary if they are ill or have a chronic health condition - particularly diabetes, urinary crystals, liver disease, kidney disease, heart disease or skin diseases. In many cases, a special diet can help manage disease processes - talk to your vet for advice.
In practice, the best approach is usually to feed a reputable, balanced, commercial diet. For example, taurine-deficiency cardiomyopathy is nowadays only seen in those who follow an inappropriate home-cooked diet; whereas calcium imbalances are most common in those who follow a "raw-meaty bones" type diet. That said, it is perfectly possible to formulate a healthy home-cooked diet; however, before you do, make sure you talk to a properly qualified canine nutritionist - don't try to make it up as you go along, or follow a fad internet diet! Our vets will be able to put you in touch with someone if you wish.