5 Key Nutrient Categories Every Dog Diet Needs

From antioxidants to proteins, we tell you what to look for in your dog’s food.

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Most pet parents lead extremely busy lives — so when we see words like “natural,” “complete,” “balanced,” or “nutrient-rich” on a product, we may understandably think to ourselves, “hey, this’ll work great.” But it’s actually somewhat mind-boggling to consider the complex array of building blocks our furry friend’s body needs to function and thrive. How often do we really stop and evaluate the crucial utility of each category? The full menu is far too complex to profile here; but below is a brief “It List” of powerhouse, pooch-friendly building blocks that contribute to your canine’s optimal health and wellness.

1. Proteins

Unlike cats, dogs are not obligate carnivores — and their bodies aren’t biologically required to live on a diet that consists of meat exclusively. Meat-based proteins, however, are generally more complete and easier for canines to process than plant-based proteins. And proteins themselves are crucial; they help a dog’s body to synthesize certain key hormones, along with enzymes that metabolize food into energy.

Proteins are essentially made up of amino acids. Our pups can make some of these amino acids independently; while others must be provided via food. As I’ve learned from direct experience, it’s particularly crucial to feed the appropriate balance based upon your particular dog’s weight, age, and activity level. In fact, too much of this “good thing” can actually harm the kidneys.

Related: 2022 Best Dog Foods

When assessing protein content, always examine labels and understand what you’re seeing. The term “meat byproduct,” for example, typically refers to carcass parts such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, bones, intestines — even, in some cases, feathers. The quality of these ingredients can be markedly inconsistent between batches; in various  cases, the meat source has actually been rejected for human consumption. The meat of the matter? Feeding our pups human-grade cuts — even grass-fed or free-range, if available — helps ensure the cleanest, healthiest, most consistent protein quality.

2. Fats

Ah, fats. We humans wage an ongoing battle that attempts to virtually eradicate this terribly misunderstood nutrient from our diets. True, fats are higher in calories than protein or carbohydrates; and high-fat foods can prompt weight gain in sedentary creatures. But in truth, appropriate amounts of fat are essential for good canine health — especially kidney function, energy storage, reproductive efficiency, tissue and organ insulation, supple skin, and glossy coat. Think of fats as a super-concentrated form of energy. According to my vet, they contain more than twice the energy as an equivalent weight of protein or carbohydrates. A minimum daily proportion of fat is, in fact, actually necessary for your dog based upon growth stage, breed size, overall weight, and general activity level. Fat can also makes foods a bunch tastier for your pup. And perhaps most importantly, dietary fat assists with the delivery, digestion, and absorption of ultra-essential Vitamins A, D, E and K.

3. Omega-3 fatty acids

Fish oil by Shutterstock.

Hmmm … okay, so are we double-dipping into the “fats” category? Sorta. Is it because I’m worried that fats feel tragically neglected? No. It’s because Omega-3’s play such a specific, vital role in canine health that they arguably deserve their own admiring shout-out. Omega−3 fatty acids are a special type of fat commonly found in marine and plant oils. Generally, the most fundamental Omega-3 fatty acid is considered to be alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) because your dog’s body can use it as a building block that helps generate other fatty acid types. My vet reminds me that DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) are pretty vital as well. DHA plays an important role during the growth phase of puppies, for example; and it’s critical for proper visual and nervous system development. EPA has formidable anti-inflammatory properties; and it also supports skin health, circulation, and proper immune system function.

Convenient flaxseeds contain abundant Omega-3 in the form of ALA. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that many dogs aren’t terrifically efficient at ALA conversion. That’s why marine-sourced oils like salmon, cod, and krill can be such a potent supplemental addition to the canine diet. They contain a form of EPA and DHA that’s readily absorbed by our furry friends. Just be careful to look for wild-caught varieties, which are much lower in toxins than product derived from farm-raised fish. And steer clear of options that are boosted with Vitamin A or D, to avoid potentially harmful over-supplementation.

Some research suggests that krill oil is superior to fish oil for dogs due to it being easier to absorb.

4. Digestive enzymes

When food isn’t broken down efficiently, it can sometimes trigger an immune response that results in allergies, general inflammation, metabolic disturbances, and a range of other canine health issues. Digestive enzymes help our pups assimilate and absorb their food for maximum benefit. I’ve found that the proper enzyme mix can enhance digestion, reduce tummy upset and gas, control weight gain, and keep systemic inflammation in check. Can a healthy, fully functioning pancreas provide these critical enzymes? Technically, yes. But keep in mind that pancreatic inflammation can interfere … plus, general production often declines as most dogs age.

I’ve noticed that many commercially formulated pet foods promote an “optimal” enzyme balance. Be aware, however, that the cooking/baking process used by many pet food manufacturers can neutralize key enzymes. Raw foods are one alternative; and there are also a range of canine-specific enzyme supplements that can help the body re-balance while easing pancreatic load. According to my vet, beneficial options generally contain lipase, cellulose, amylase and protease. ProZyme and Wholistic Pet Digest-All Plus are two brands we’ve used with ongoing success.

Canines and nutrients by Shutterstock.

5. Antioxidants

Your dog’s cells naturally synthesize measured amounts of free radicals, which act as weapons against bacteria, viruses and abnormal cells. However, an extensive range of factors — poor diet, illness, stress over time — can combine to overbalance these free radicals. This can lead to cell impairment and chronic inflammation. That’s why free radical damage is the core catalyst for so many disorders including diabetes, heart disease, thyroid issues, even cancer.

Beneficial vitamins called antioxidants are like a nutritional SWAT team that helps disarm these free radicals. Some — such as Vitamin C and B-complex vitamins — are considered “water soluble” because overages are excreted from the body. Others — “fat soluble” vitamins like A,D, E and K — are also involved in numerous bodily functions including immunity, reproduction, eyesight and more. However, this latter group can approach toxic levels if they’re over-supplemented.

So what’s the concluding takeaway? We should consider what we feed our canines very carefully. It’s vital to provide a diet that contains a well-balanced blend of bio-available nutrients, while omitting problematic ingredients that can cause degenerative damage. So do your research and check your labels. Grab-and-go convenience is great — though not at the expense of safely optimized nutrition.

Top photo: Dog food bowl by Shutterstock.

Marybeth Bittel

Marybeth lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, and her rescue dogs Grant and Maizy — all of them Heinz 57 mixed-breed types. A freelance writer and marketing consultant, she’s been rehabilitating severely abused rescues for over two decades. She’s currently working toward specialized certifications in animal nutrition counseling. Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her family Instagram feed.


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