Deciding what to feed your pet can seem overwhelming. But nutritious dog food can make all the difference in your furry friend’s well-being.

For many dog owners, choosing the right dog food is the hardest part of pet ownership. A quick glance at the pet food aisle reveals why: Not only are there numerous different brands of pet food available, but there are also trendy ingredients to parse through and specialty options with a host of different benefit claims to consider.

Despite that, consumer spending on pet food continues to grow—total sales are projected to increase by four percent this year—and pet adoptions have spiked due to the pandemic.

In the years to come, as their dogs age and pet food options multiply, pet owners will need a keener grasp of what “good nutrition” means for canines and why it matters.

In Purina dog food, for example, “every ingredient and nutrient work together so that your dog's diet is complete, balanced and designed to help him have a long, happy and healthy life,” said Purina’s chief veterinary officer Dr. Kurt Venator, DVM, PhD, who represents one of the more than 500 scientists, veterinarians and pet care experts on staff at the company.


The complexity
pet nutrition

When it comes to pet food ingredients, today’s pet owners are increasingly curious to know the ins and outs. Case in point: Four out of five pet owners typically read the list of ingredients on a pet food label before buying it.

“As people are becoming more aware of what they feed themselves, they’re becoming more aware of what they feed their animals and wanting to do what they feel is best,” said Dr. Lisa Weeth, a veterinarian and board-certified Veterinary Nutritionist in Los Angeles.

How much food does your dog need?

Pet experts recommend feeding your dog twice a day instead of free feeding or leaving out a bowl of food all day, says Dr. Venator. See below for feeding guidelines based on your dog’s weight and some additional factors to consider (always in consultation with your veterinarian).

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SMALL DOG3-12 lbs⅓ to 1 cupBreedCertain breeds may be predisposed to specific health issues that can affect nutritional needs. Yorkshire Terriers, for example, can develop pancreatitis if they eat a high-fat diet, according to Dr. Lisa Weeth, the veterinary nutritionist.
SMALL DOG13-20 lbs1 - 1⅓cupAgeDogs' nutritional needs shift as they progress from puppyhood to old age. Because of their supercharged metabolism, small-breed puppies demand more frequent feedings, for example.
MEDIUM DOG21-35 lbs1 ⅓ to 2 cupsActivity levelIn determining how many calories per unit of food your dog needs, it's important to consider their lifestyle, according to Weeth. A working search-and-rescue dog needs more energy-dense food than the average pet, for example.
LARGE DOG26-50 lbs2 to 2 ⅔ cupsSkin typeWhen a dog has sensitive skin, it not only impacts their quality of life, but influences which food they should eat. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids help nourish skin and promote a healthy coat.
LARGE DOG51 to 75 lbs2 ⅔ to 3 ⅓ cupsOwner lifestyleA pet’s human family’s schedule matters too. Food of lower energy density and fiber, for example, may be a better choice for a dog who gets more infrequent outside bathroom trips.
EXTRA LARGE DOG76-100 lbs3 ⅓ to 4 ¼ cupDigestionDifferent dogs' digestive functions may factor into the type of food they need. Look for a food containing oatmeal, which is easily digestible and gentle on the digestive system, helping to support optimal nutrient delivery.
EXTRA LARGE DOGOver 100 lbs4 ¼ cups plus ¼ cup for each 10 lbs. of body weight over 100 lbsGrowth rateEven as puppies, a huge dog like a Great Dane will grow more rapidly than, say, a Chihuahua, and consequently may need food with higher protein and fat content.
Daily suggested amount of dry food:

Moreover, pets are increasingly considered part of the family, so people want their dogs and cats to live longer and more fulfilling lives. But for many pet owners, the link between their pet’s nutrition and their overall well-being is unclear, according to Weeth, and the rules and guidelines around pet nutrition can seem inscrutable: 52 percent of dog owners find their dog’s nutritional needs more confusing than their own. Most owners of large-breed dogs aren’t aware that their dog may need puppy food until age two, for instance, and the false assumption that dogs are carnivores leads some owners to feed them only raw meat, according to Weeth. Others are putting their dogs on the same diet they follow, such as high protein, without consulting their veterinarian.

Conflating human and pet nutrition, or lacking understanding of pet nutrition overall, can both lead to health problems for animals. Many popular homemade dog food recipes lack enough essential nutrients, for example, making a high-quality commercially produced option the best choice for most dogs. In addition, older dogs often need their diet adjusted due to illnesses, such as kidney disease, but a dog accustomed to human food may refuse to eat anything else, according to Weeth.

“My two-year-old dog will eventually be a 10-year-old dog or a 12-year-old dog, and I want to make sure that I have the ability to adjust their diet if needed,” Weeth said.

Fortunately, striking the right nutritional balance for their dogs may be easier than many pet owners believe. According to Venator, “dogs have an advantage of being able to get all their nutritional needs met in one complete and balanced meal, which is something that is much more difficult to achieve for people.”

What’s in that
dog food, anyway?

Veterinarians point to certain essential nutrients that should form the foundation of dogs’ regular diet: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. And according to Venator, high-quality pet food can provide all of that and more.

“Feeding pets a complete and balanced diet formulated by pet nutritionists is key to ensuring they get all of the nutrients they need to thrive,” he said.

Many of the ingredients found in dog food will be familiar to people. These items, such as barley and sunflower seed oil, are purposely integrated into recipes by dog nutrition experts. Veterinarians and nutritionists at Purina, for instance, draw on the latest research to develop products that are just right for dogs of a given size. They also understand the benefits of adding an ingredient like a high-quality protein source, which encourages muscle growth and provides glucosamine to promote healthy joints. They might add fish oil, or the aforementioned sunflower seed oil, an excellent source of omega-6 fatty acids to promote a shiny coat. Nutritionists also make sure that dogs receive the proper proportions of essential vitamins and nutrients, like bone- and teeth-strengthening calcium carbonate and immune-supporting copper proteinate.

Dog Food Label Decoder

Long ingredient lists on your dog’s food can seem confusing, but every item is included to benefit your pet, says Dr. Kurt Venator, chief veterinary officer at Purina.

main ingredients

Organic chicken, organic chicken meal, organic cassava root flour, organic pea starch, organic canola meal, organic dried egg, organic coconut oil, organic sweet potatoes, organic pea hulls, organic pea protein, natural flavor, potassium chloride, salt, mono and dicalcium phosphate, DL-Methionine, calcium carbonate, L-Lysine monohydrochloride, taurine

main ingredients

Organic "Certified organic pet food recipes meet the same strict USDA Organic standards as food intended for human consumption," Venator said.
Meat "Meal" Meat meal is a ground and cooked product that can consist of animal flesh, skin and accompanying bone, creating a protein-rich ingredient. Chicken meal in particular provides protein and amino acids to strengthen and maintain dogs' muscles, plus glucosamine for joint health. Moreover, chicken meal doesn't compete with the human food supply, according to Venator. "We believe we can feed our pets and ourselves harmoniously," he said.
Dried EggThis product consists of egg yolk and white, but no shell, providing protein and essential amino acids for healthy muscles. Dried egg also supplies glucosamine to support a dog's joint health. The fats and fatty acids found in dried egg can leave dogs’ skin and coat in better health as well.


[Vitamin E supplement, niacin (Vitamin B-3), Vitamin A supplement, calcium pantothenate (Vitamin B-5), thiamine mononitrate (Vitamin B-1), Vitamin B-12 supplement, riboflavin supplement (Vitamin B-2), pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B-6), folic acid (Vitamin B-9), menadione sodium bisulfite complex (Vitamin K), Vitamin D-3 supplement, biotin (Vitamin B-7)]


[zinc sulfate, ferrous sulfate, manganese sulfate, copper sulfate, calcium iodate, sodium selenite], choline chloride.

Minerals & VITAMINS

"All of the vitamins and minerals listed on a bag of Purina pet food are important to a pet’s overall health," Venator said. Each one offers specific benefits. Vitamins A and E, for example, are immune-boosting antioxidants that scavenge and clean up free radicals that can cause damage to dogs' cells. And the mineral Zinc sulfate can promote skin and coat health, as well as support immunity and aid metabolism.
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Trace Purina’s pet food ingredients back to their trusted sources with this interactive Traceability Map.
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Trace Purina’s pet food ingredients back to their trusted sources with this interactive Traceability Map.

Of course, while very rare, some dogs have food allergies, and others should adopt a certain diet based on a veterinarian's assessment. For those pets, companies often formulate specialty options that offer more specific outcome-based diets, sometimes requiring a prescription from a veterinarian. And because dogs’ metabolism and nutritional needs change as they age, “it’s also critical to feed pets based on their life stage and lifestyle,” said Venator. Dogs ages seven and older tend to gain weight and struggle to lose it, for example, so they may need a lower-calorie food, depending on a veterinarian’s advice. And a higher-fat diet can help optimize the metabolism of more active, rambunctious dogs.

The power of
good nutrition

As for how to know whether a dog’s nutrition needs are being met, Venator advises pet owners to pay attention to signs of weight loss or gain. Additionally, “clean ears, bright, clear eyes, white teeth, a shiny coat and consistent elimination of stool are also good indications of health,” he said.

And while Americans may be willing to go above and beyond for their dogs’ well-being—more than 40 percent would buy healthy food for their pets before buying it for themselves—they can take comfort in one simple truth, according to Venator: “Playful, energetic and happy dogs are usually healthy dogs.”