Part One of a monthly series on pet nutrition.

If you live in the West, feeding your dog is simple―there are diets for every possible owner-lifestyle: vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, organic. There are diets designed for optimal health: prey model, raw, BARF, disease-specific, breed-specific, life-stage-specific…to name just a few. That’s dog nutrition in the West taken care of.

But what about the remaining 87% of the world? What should people who don’t have access to all these tailor-made diets feed their pets? Or if people are kind enough to feed street dogs, what should we be feeding them and what should we avoid?

In India, I can’t just pop to my local shop (or even the veterinary clinic, for that matter) for a bag of food specially formulated for my dog with juvenile diabetes. I have to prepare each meal from the ingredients available in a rural Himalayan town. And what about the hundreds of thousands of stray dogs? Most street dogs in countries like India survive on left overs and waste people are kind enough to throw out on the street for them. But it is only surviving, not thriving, and their general health and appearance are testament to this.

How much food does a dog need?


The first thing to consider is how much we should be feeding dogs. You can calculate the calorie needs of your dog very easily. A simple guide is for the maintenance of an adult, we should feed 2-3% of its body weight.  So if a dog weighs 10kg, you should feed it 200-300g of food per day, on a dry-weight basis (excluding any added water). Puppies need 10% of their body weight up to the age of about four months, and then 5% up to the age of 12 months.

What nutrients do dogs need?


Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are the three macro-nutrients that provide energy. Then there are the micro-nutrients―vitamins and minerals―that aid in metabolism and keep the body’s cells functioning and healthy. Carbs are a great source of calories, but dogs don’t really need them as they get all of their energy from protein and fat when possible. We like to give dogs carbs because we eat them, and they’re cheaper than protein, but they are not what’s best for the dog.

As with humans, some fat is essential in a dog’s diet. In fact, they require more than us. Protein is the most important food group for a dog. Every single one of a dog’s trillions of cells is made up of protein that needs to be replaced many times throughout its life. The body uses protein to make new proteins by recycling the 20 different amino acids that make up protein. However, in dogs, 10 of the amino acids aren’t made by the body. They are therefore classed as ‘essential’ and must be present in the diet. They are: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

The following table shows the quantity of each essential amino acid that is required for the maintenance of an adult dog, based on 100g of dry food, and per gram of protein.

The following table shows the completeness of the amino acid profile of common dog foods, based on the recommended quantities of each amino acid provided in the previous table.

When it comes to vitamins and minerals in dog nutrition, you’re not expected to calculate each individual micro-nutrient to ensure a perfectly balanced diet. By feeding your dog a variety of foods, you can ensure adequate micro-nutrients are provided. However, the most important ones to get right are calcium and phosphorus, particularly in puppies, especially in the correct ratio.

As a guide, the following table gives you an idea of some of the nutrition present in various foods (per 100g) compared to recommended quantities for adult dogs (per 100g of dry matter).

The following table provides details of the main nutrients that dogs require for maintenance and some of the health problems that can arise if a dog becomes deficient in any of them. It also provides details of the recommended quantities in a dog’s diet and the best food sources for each nutrient.

Making sure that your dog has a balanced, nutritional diet can make a world of difference to their general health and even specific health issues. Skin and coat problems can often be cleared up with nothing more than changing the food a dog is eating, and serious conditions that require medicine and treatment, such as diabetes, can be managed much more effectively when diet is taken into consideration.

Find this post interesting? Don’t miss Dr. Becky discussing the pros and cons of omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan diets for dogs in next month’s Food For Thought.

References and further reading:

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO

Pet MD – Principles of Dog Nutrition 

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About the author

Dr Becky Metcalf

Dr Becky Metcalf

Since the age of 11, after watching the BBC science documentary series Horizon, Becky wanted a career in science.

After completing a Bachelor’s in cell and molecular biology and a Master’s in molecular and genetic medicine, she finally settled on immunology as her field of choice, going on to complete a PhD in the subject. One post-doc later, Becky left her native England for India, to volunteer in the TB section at the Tibetan Delek Hospital in Dharamsala. Feeling quite at home in the mountains, her six-month trip turned into eighteen months.

Just as she was preparing to return to the UK in 2014, her good friend Richard from Dharamsala Animal Rescue asked Becky to foster a puppy they had rescued. However, this was no ordinary puppy: Pluto had been diagnosed with diabetes at the age of eight weeks, was very small and skinny, and had a skin condition. Becky agreed to take her in for the winter, researched diabetes in dogs, changed her diet and insulin regime, got her healthy, and decided to adopt her.

This was the start of Becky’s involvment DAR. She is now a full-time volunteer, has set up a diagnostic laboratory for the clinic, and aides in diagnosing and treating rescued animals.