What Are the Crucial Components of Complete and Balanced Nutrition for Dogs?

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When many people reach for the right dog food to feed their canine friends, they consider a few things before making their purchase, like the price range, their dog's food preferences, and possibly even the name of the dog food brand. What many people don't often keep in mind, however, is whether their dog is receiving balanced nutrition with their meals. Fortunately, nutrition-focused dog food brands, like Hill's Science Diet, offer balanced food and feeding guidelines to help you get there.

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What is complete and balanced nutrition?

The term "balanced nutrition" sounds reassuring, but what exactly does that mean? According to veterinarian Dr. Kristin Wuellner, a business account manager at Hill's Pet Nutrition, balanced nutrition is one in which the essential components of a healthy meal are accounted for and measured perfectly in order to meet your dog's health needs. "A balanced [meal] contains precise amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and fiber to meet the biological requirements for your pet's age and size," Dr. Wuellner explains.

Keeping a dog's food balanced isn't just about including these elements, but the right amounts of each one. "The sweet spot is providing these nutrients in the right quantity," she adds. "In their optimal levels, protein supports lean muscle and growth, fat promotes healthy skin and coat, vitamins help promote a strong immune system, minerals support strong bones and teeth, and fiber promotes healthy digestion."

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What is “unbalanced” nutrition?

A dog's food could be considered "unbalanced," on the other hand, if it doesn't properly take into account the exact needs of a canine in order to nourish them in a healthy way. "An unbalanced [meal] is any food that is formulated with deficiencies or excesses of the key nutrients: protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, [and] fiber," Dr. Wuellner states. "I see this occur most often in my patients who are eating home-prepared foods and have not consulted with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure the food is complete and balanced."

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Why is having balanced nutrition important for dogs?

While finding the right food for your dog may be a bit of a trial and error process, taking the steps to do so is one element of setting your dog up for good health. "Proper nutrition plays such an important role in our [dogs'] health, and we definitely can run into issues where there are deficiencies or excesses of certain nutrients," Dr. Wuellner says. "For example, minerals help our pets build strong bones and teeth. If there aren't enough minerals, those bones and teeth may be weak."

How can you make sure your dog’s food is part of a complete and balanced meal?

One of the first things a pet parent can do to ensure their dogs eat healthy food is to start thinking in terms of nutritional needs rather than specific ingredients, like chicken or lamb. "It is important to recognize that our pets have biological needs for nutrients, not ingredients," Dr. Wuellner explains. "There is no way to evaluate the quality of a pet food based on ingredients alone. Your veterinarian can help you understand what food is best for your pet's unique needs and provide you with their recommendation."

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So, while your dog may prefer beef over salmon, which is certainly something to keep in mind when shopping for food, remember that the ingredients alone are not what's meeting their nutritional and health needs. A food with biology-based nutrition in every bite, like Hill's Science Diet, can help ensure that your dog gets all the proper nutrients for a healthy life.

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From there, it's often best to keep it simple, and stick to commercially formulated foods, which are already balanced before hitting the shelves. "Most dogs can meet their biological nutrient requirements through commercially available pet foods formulated to be complete and balanced," she continues. "Kibble is the most common choice as it's convenient to feed, but I've had patients that exclusively eat canned food too."

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Additionally, there are labels on your pet's food known as the AAFCO label, which you can use as one of many tools to understand the balance of nutrition within your pet's food. "All pet foods are required to display a label known as the 'Guaranteed Analysis' containing the minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture," Dr. Wuellner explains. While these labels can be one helpful element in ensuring your dog is eating balanced food, it's not entirely recommended as the only measure to take as the percentage ranges can make it hard to compare brands, food types (wet vs. dry,) and doesn't really say much about the quality of the products. "If you have specific questions about a product, I always recommend calling the pet food manufacturer or speaking to your veterinarian."

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Does balanced food look the same for dogs across the board?

While balanced food is always going to be composed of the same nutritional makeup, sometimes, certain pets will require more or less specific measures of a particular thing. "All foods that are complete and balanced should contain the same key nutrients, however, the balance of these nutrients will differ based on factors, like size, age, health, etc.," Dr. Wuellner states. "It is critically important to feed your pet food that is appropriate for their life stage and size. As our pets age, their nutrient needs change."

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One major thing to consider is your pet's age, which can greatly determine how much fat or protein they might need at a particular time in their life. "Puppies and kittens are growing rapidly, so they need extra energy and calories on a pound-for-pound basis than their adult counterparts," says Dr. Wuellner. "As they enter adulthood, it becomes important to avoid excess levels of protein and fat to ensure they maintain a healthy weight."

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Other factors may influence the daily allowance further, like if you have a dog who's pregnant or nursing, who will require more calories than a dog who isn't. Older dogs will also have different nutritional needs than younger dogs, and may benefit from foods formulated to consider a canine's age. "When they enter their golden years, we know that they don't need as many calories as they did before and we start to pay extra attention to things like antioxidants for a healthy immune system and balanced minerals, like phosphorus, to help promote healthy kidneys," she adds.

Finally, some dogs may require specialized foods in response to certain health conditions. When making any decision about your dog's health and wellbeing, it is recommended that you check in with your veterinarian, who can help you make an informed decision based on your specific dog's needs at the time. "Some dogs have underlying illnesses or conditions that require more specialized nutrient levels to help manage," Dr. Wuellner explains. "Your veterinarian may recommend a therapeutic nutrition option or opt for a canned formula to increase the amount of moisture in your pet's food."

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