Dog Nutritional Needs

Your dog's unique nutritional requirements will depend on its size, breed, and stage in life, among other factors. A better understanding of how dogs use the various nutrients in food and how much of them they need can help you choose a healthier diet for your pet.

Proteins and Amino Acids

Dogs cannot survive without protein in their diets. Dietary protein contains 10 specific amino acids that dogs cannot make on their own. Known as essential amino acids, they provide the building blocks for many important biologically active compounds and proteins. In addition, they donate the carbon chains needed to make glucose for energy. High-quality proteins have a good balance of all of the essential amino acids. Studies show that dogs can tell when their food lacks a single amino acid and will avoid such a meal. Dogs are known to selectively choose foods that are high in protein. Whether this is simply a matter of taste or a complex response to their biological needs for all 10 essential amino acids is not known. However, dogs can survive on a vegetarian diet as long as it contains sufficient protein and is supplemented with vitamin D.

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Fats & Fatty Acids

Dietary fats, mainly derived from animal fats and the seed oils of various plants, provide the most concentrated source of energy in the diet. They supply essential fatty acids that cannot be synthesized in the body and serve as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins. Fatty acids play a role in cell structure and function. Food fats tend to enhance the taste and texture of the dog's food as well. Essential fatty acids are necessary to keep your dog's skin and coat healthy. Puppies fed ultralow-fat diets develop dry, coarse hair and skin lesions that become increasingly vulnerable to infections. Deficiencies in the so-called "omega-3" family of essential fatty acids may be associated with vision problems and impaired learning ability. Another family of essential fatty acids called "omega-6" has been shown to have important physiologic effects in the body.

Daily Recommended Allowances For Protein And Fats

Puppies (Weighing 12 lb, 33 lb at maturity) - Crude Protein - 56 g, Total Fat - 21 g

Adult dogs (Weighing 33 lb) - Crude Protein - 25 g, Total Fat - 14 g

Pregnant/Nursing dogs (Weighing 33 lb with 6 puppies) Crude Protein - 69 g/158 g, Total Fat - 29 g/67 g

Determining Grams of Essential Nutrients from Petfood Labels Petfood labels do not generally list amounts of essential nutrients in grams. However, all pet food labels must state guarantees for the minimum percentages of crude* protein and crude fat, and the maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture. To convert these percentages to grams, simply multiply the crude percentages times the weight of your dog's daily portion. For example, if you feed your dog a 1-lb (454-gram) can of food per day, and the food contains 8% crude protein, the grams of protein would be 0.08 × 454 = 36 grams. *"Crude" refers to the specific method of testing the product, not to the quality of the nutrient itself.

Energy Needs

Dogs need a certain amount of energy to sustain the normal activities of their daily lives. Growth, pregnancy, lactation, and exercise all increase these normal energy requirements. Generally measured in terms of calories, energy comes from three major dietary components: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Omnivorous animals get some of their energy from carbohydrates, which include sugars, starches, and dietary fibers. The major sources of carbohydrates in commercial dog foods are cereals, legumes, and other plant foodstuffs. So-called absorbable carbohydrates, including glucose and fructose, can be directly absorbed and do not need to be digested by enzymes. Digestible carbohydrates are readily broken down by intestinal tract enzymes. Fermentable carbohydrates include certain starches and dietary fibers that pass undigested through the small intestine to the colon, where they are fermented by microbes into short-chain fatty acids and gases. Some studies suggest that fermentable fibers may aid in the regulation of blood glucose concentrations and enhance immune function. Nonfermentable fibers, such as cellulose and wheat bran, contribute little in terms of energy or nutrition and are primarily used to decrease caloric intake of the overweight animal.

Energy Needs for Growing Puppies

The growing puppy starts out needing about twice as many calories per pound of body weight as an adult dog of the same breed. Owners should start feeding puppies food at approximately 4 weeks after birth, because mother's milk is no longer sufficient. Food is best offered to puppies in multiple, well-spaced meals.

Energy Needs For Older Dogs

Because of decreased physical activity and slowed metabolism, older dogs need 20% fewer total calories than do middle-aged adult dogs. As dogs age, they tend to become overweight. It may take obese dogs longer for their blood glucose concentrations to return to normal. This disrupted carbohydrate metabolism can lead to diabetes.


Energy Needs For Lactating Dogs

New mothers generally suckle their puppies for at least 6 weeks. The mother's need for calories increase with the number of puppies and the week of lactation, up to 4 weeks. Giant breeds (like Great Danes) have proportionately smaller digestive tracts and may not be able to eat enough to sustain themselves during lactation. Owners of such dogs may need to start feeding puppies supplemental food at an early age.


Twelve minerals in the table are known to be essential nutrients for dogs. Calcium and phosphorus are crucial to strong bones and teeth. Dogs need magnesium, potassium, and sodium for nerve impulse transmission, muscle contraction, and cell signaling. Many minerals that are present only in minute amounts in the body, including selenium, copper, and molybdenum, act as helpers in a wide variety of enzymatic reactions. Dogs can get too much or too little of a specific mineral in their diets. A deficiency of dietary calcium, for instance, causes a condition known as secondary hyperparathyroidism. Recognized clinically for many years in dogs fed meals consisting mainly of meat, this disease results in major bone loss, skeletal abnormalities, and pathological fractures. An excess of calcium, on the other hand, may also cause skeletal abnormalities, especially in growing large-breed puppies.

Daily Recommended Allowances For Minerals

CalciumFormation of bones and teeth; blood coagulation; nerve impulse transmission; muscle contraction; cell signaling 0.75 gNutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism; significant decreases in bone mineral content, which can result in major skeletal abnormalities Different types of skeletal aberrations, especially in growing puppies of large breeds
CalciumFormation of bones and teeth; blood coagulation; nerve impulse transmission; muscle contraction; cell signaling0.75 g Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism; significant decreases in bone mineral content, which can result in major skeletal abnormalities Different types of skeletal aberrations, especially in growing puppies of large breeds
PhosphorusFormation of bones and teeth; blood coagulation; nerve impulse transmission; muscle contraction; cell signaling Skeletal structure; DNA and RNA structure; energy metabolism; locomotion; acid-base balance 0.75 gReduced weight gain; poor appetite; bowing and swelling of forelimbs in puppies
Magnesium Enzyme functions; muscle and nerve-cell membrane stability; hormone secretion and function; mineral structure of bones and teeth 150 mgReduction in weight gain, irritability, and convulsions in puppies; hyperextension of carpal joints and hind-leg paralysis later in life
SodiumAcid-base balance; regulation of osmotic pressure; nerve impulse generation and transmission 100 mgRestlessness; increased heart rate, water intake, and hemoglobin concentration; dry and tacky mucous membranes
Potassium Acid-base balance; nerve impulse transmission; enzymatic reactions; transport functions 1 g Poor growth in puppies; paralysis of neck muscles and rear legs and general weakness later in life
Chlorine Acid-base balance; transfer of extracellular fluids across cell membranes 150 mgReduced weight gain and weakness in puppies
IronSynthesis of blood components; energy metabolism 7.5 mg Poor growth; pale mucous membranes; lethargy; weakness; diarrhea At acute levels, dangerous oxidative reactions that lead to gastrointestinal and other tissue damage
Copper Connective tissue formation; iron metabolism; blood cell formation; melanin pigment formation; myelin formation; defense against oxidative damage1.5 mgLoss of hair pigmentation in puppies; anemia
ZincEnzyme reactions; cell replication; protein and carbohydrate metabolism; skin function; wound healing15 mgPoor weight gain; vomiting;skin lesions
Manganese Enzyme functions; bone development; neurological function 1.2 mgNo studies of deficiency in dogs
SeleniumDefense against oxidative damage; immune response90 µg Anorexia; depression; breathing discomfort; coma; muscular degeneration
Iodine Thyroid hormone synthesis; cell differentiation; growth and development of puppies; regulation of metabolic rate 220 µg Enlargement of thyroid glands; dry, sparse hair coat; weight gain Excessive tearing, salivation, and nasal discharge; dandruff


  1. Your Dog Nutritional Needs. A Science-Based Guide For Pet Owners. This pamphlet is based on recommendations from the 2006 release of Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. The report contains useful information for companion animal nutritionists, veterinarians, scientists in industry and academe, regulators, pet owners and anyone with an interest in the health and welfare of these important animals. To order the report, contact the National Academies Press, 500 Fifth Street NW, Washington, DC 20001; (800) 624-6242 or



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