Visit any pet store or online pet food retailer, and you will find an enormous selection of available dog foods. You can purchase canned food, traditional kibble, or pre-made raw meals. Some pet owners even choose to feed their dogs a home-cooked diet.
With so many options to choose from, it can be hard to know what food choices are healthy for dogs and which ones aren’t.
Following these veterinarian-reviewed tips can help you maintain your dog’s healthy diet. Here are a few basic guidelines that will help you tell the difference between healthy vs. harmful dog food.
1. Feed your dog the right portion size
Dogs, like humans, quickly gain excessive weight if fed incorrect portions. In 2021, a survey conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that over 50% of dogs are overweight or obese. However, only 39% of dog owners view their pets as overweight. These statistics suggest a dangerous disconnect between pet owner perceptions and the realities of dog health.
Maintain a healthy body condition score
Aim to maintain a healthy body condition score (BCS) when feeding your dog. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association provides a free Body Condition Score Chart that you can use to evaluate your dog’s fitness. A dog should ideally score a four or five (out of nine) on the BCS chart. Dogs in these categories have defined abdominal tucks and waists, easily palpable ribs, and minimal body fat.
Keeping your dog at a healthy weight will benefit them physically and mentally. A fit body can extend life expectancy by two years and help them stay healthier for longer. Dogs with an ideal body condition typically have more energy and endurance to engage in physical activity. They also tend to have a lower risk of significant health conditions, including:
- Broken bones
- Damaged muscles and joints
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- Respiratory disease
- Some forms of cancer
How to determine the right portion size
How much should you feed your dog to keep them at an ideal body weight? The right portion size depends on several factors, including:
- Activity level
- Calorie content of the dog food
- Health conditions
Consult your veterinarian to determine the correct portion of food for your dog. The Merck Veterinary Manual calories calculator can also help you figure out an appropriate number of daily calories for your dog.
2. Choose a balanced diet that meets AAFCO standards
While simply home-cooking meat and vegetables can be tempting, the nutritional requirements for dogs are complex and require expert knowledge. A balanced diet includes carbohydrates, fats, minerals, proteins, and vitamins.
To find a healthy dog food that includes all of the necessary nutrients, look for the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) label. This seal verifies that pet food has met rigorous predetermined nutrient requirements and provides a complete and balanced meal.
When dogs don’t receive adequate nutrition from their food, they can suffer from debilitating and even fatal health conditions. By selecting an AAFCO-approved food, you can feel confident that your dog is receiving the proper nutrition.
3. Keep your dog hydrated
Make sure your dog always has access to clean, fresh water. An easy rule of thumb to follow is that dogs should drink about 1 ounce of water for each pound of body weight every day. Dogs should increase their intake by about 10% during the summer months.
4. Feed your dog on a consistent schedule
Feed your dog at roughly the same time every day to provide them with a consistent schedule. This tactic can also aid housetraining, because you can take your dog outside consistently every day after meals.
Most veterinarians recommend feeding adult dogs twice a day. Puppies need more frequent meals to fuel their growing bodies, so plan to feed your puppy three or more times daily, depending on their breed and size. Talk to your vet to develop a safe puppy feeding schedule.
5. Practice good hygiene
No matter what kind of water and food bowls you use, wash them daily to prevent the buildup of dangerous bacteria. Follow the Food and Drug Administration guidelines on the proper storage for pet food, including when to wash food bowls, how to clean storage containers, and how to store both wet and dry dog food.
6. Note which foods for humans are safe for dogs
Some foods that are healthy for humans are also healthy for dogs. Many fruits are safe to feed to your dog, including:
- Pure pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
Because fruit typically contains high amounts of sugar, it may upset some dogs’ stomachs. It’s a good idea to start by letting your dog taste a small piece of fruit and see how they respond.
You can also safely give your dog many common vegetables, including:
- Brussel sprouts
- Green beans
Other healthy snacks to feed your dog that you may already have in your kitchen include:
- Peanut butter, as long as it doesn’t contain the toxic ingredient xylitol
- Plain popcorn, in moderation (without butter or seasoning)
- Plain yogurt
When added to regular meals in small amounts, these healthy ingredients for dogs keep mealtime interesting.
If your dog needs to lose weight, you can replace a small portion of their meals with low-calorie vegetables like green beans and peas to help them feel full longer. This trick can help your dog feel sated after eating while decreasing the number of calories they consume.
Always consult your veterinarian before placing your dog on a diet to ensure that your dog will still receive the proper amount of nutrients and lose weight at a healthy rate.
7. Avoid toxic foods
Before giving your canine companion a bite of your snack, always check to make sure that the food isn’t toxic for dogs.
Some human foods are harmful or even toxic to dogs. For example, onions can cause Allium toxicosis in dogs. Symptoms include anemia, dark urine, jaundice, and vomiting.
Foods that are toxic to dogs include:
- Macadamia nuts
- Turkey bones and skin
- Uncooked bread and pizza dough
Additionally, cooked chicken bones can splinter inside your dog and puncture their internal organs. Never give your dog chicken bones to snack on, and always monitor them when introducing new foods.
8. Monitor treats carefully
If you spend a lot of time training your dog—or if you can’t resist their begging face—you may unintentionally give your dog too many treats. This can lead to excessive weight gain and possible health issues, like pancreatitis.
Experts recommend that treats make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily calorie intake.
Depending on your dog’s preferences, there are a variety of healthy foods that you can use for training. Generally, it’s best to select dry training treats, which can be broken into small pieces for frequent rewards.
You can also use your dog’s regular kibble for training. If your dog seems unmotivated by usual foods, you can mix the kibble in a container with chicken or hotdogs and alternate between using the two foods for rewards. The meat will give the kibble a strong odor, increasing its appeal for many dogs.
Keep your dog fit and healthy
Maintaining a nutritious and balanced diet for your dog can pay off in the long run and help them live a longer, healthier life.