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How to Identify Nutritional Gaps in Your Dog's Diet

Commercial dog foods may lead to nutritional gaps in your pup's diet, but feeding them a high-quality food appropriate for their breed and age can help.

A brown and white dog lays down next to a food bowl filled with kibble.

Commercial dog foods may lead to nutritional gaps in your pup's diet, but feeding them a high-quality food appropriate for their breed and age can help.

Dogs have specific nutritional needs based on their species, life stage, lifestyle, and genetic factors, including diagnosed diseases or breed-specific health concerns. There is no one-size-fits-all diet approach, making knowing what to feed your dog confusing. One thing is for sure: All pet owners should focus on ensuring their dog gets a complete and balanced diet to ensure its body has all the nutrients it needs to be healthy and thrive.  

In this article, we'll discuss different diets available to pet owners, what it means if a diet is AAFCO approved, how the manufacturing process can alter the nutrients found in a diet, treat percentage concerns when it comes to a balanced diet, and common health concerns that could lead to an unbalanced diet.  

We will also look at the most common nutritional gaps and how to remedy them with supplementation. 

A brown and white dog lays down next to a food bowl filled with kibble.

Commercial Diets

What does it mean to feed your dog a commercial diet? Most commercial diets are easily accessible in pet stores, grocery stores, or online distributors. These foods commonly include kibble, canned, dehydrated, freeze-dried, raw, gently cooked, and fully cooked options. If you are purchasing one of these foods, your food will likely have an "AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy or purpose," also called a "nutrition claim" or "complete and balanced statement."

The Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, has established guidelines for ingredient definitions, product label requirements, feeding trial recommendations, and laboratory analyses of the nutrients that go into pet foods.

Their goal is to help pet owners know whether the food they purchase for their dog has had some regulatory oversight, especially regarding what is considered complete and balanced for your dog's particular life.  

Can an AAFCO-Approved Food Have Nutritional Gaps?

While there is a lower likelihood the diet has nutritional gaps, there is still a possibility that your dog isn't getting the nutrients they need from their diet. For example, puppies and adult dogs have different nutritional needs. A food that claims to be "all life stages" won't be held to AAFCO standards, which are much different for puppies than a healthy adult dog. A food that isn't balanced for a puppy can sadly lead to growth issues, malnutrition, and various health concerns. 

Another example of how an AAFCO-approved diet could have nutritional gaps comes from calorie alterations for inactive, overweight, and altered dogs. All food is balanced based on the amount of calories an animal needs for growth or maintenance. If a pet owner is not following the recommended serving size for their dog's weight and age, this can lead to nutritional gaps.

How Does Processing Dog Food Lead to Nutritional Gaps?

Another common reason for nutritional gaps in dog food is based on how it is processed. Any dog food extruded and cooked at high temperatures (mostly kibble, baked, and canned) will have nutritional gaps.

If you look at the back of your pet's food and see a large percentage of vitamins and minerals added, this is called a "premix" of vitamins and minerals. A "premix" is a blend of all required vitamins or minerals added to the pet food formula to meet the required nutrient profile for a complete and balanced pet food. The problem with this type of manufacturing is the dog food isn't tested after processing or even after the premix has been added, leading to nutrient deficiencies or excesses. Another problem with these premixes is they have synthetic vitamins and minerals that are not well absorbed and used by your dog's body, which leads to nutritional gaps.

Understanding how pet food is processed has led many pet owners to other diet options like air-dried, dehydrated, freeze-dried, raw, sous vide, and gently cooked dog food versions. These foods are manufactured differently in the hopes that the dog food retains its natural nutrient levels, leading to a higher quality dog food. Instead of a "premix" on your dog's food, you might see single vitamin or mineral additions. These companies are making more of an effort to provide your dog with AAFCO-approved nutrient levels at a much higher quality based on the type of ingredients included and how they process the food in-house.  

Can These Foods Still Have Nutritional Gaps? 

Even though they have better quality ingredients and are processed for nutrient retention, the answer is yes, depending again on your dog's life stage, calorie needs, or health concerns. These foods can also have nutritional gaps depending on how or where they are sold. The industry is booming with more and more alternative dog foods, including dehydrated, freeze-dried, raw, and gently cooked options. As alternative dog foods become popular, more people are purchasing foods from farmers' markets, co-ops, local butchers, breeders, and independent sellers. Although typically better in ingredient quality, these foods aren't regulated by AAFCO. Without any oversight, these foods definitely have nutritional gaps. 

For example, a pet owner purchases a "BARF" diet or biologically appropriate raw food from their local butcher, co-op, or farmer, assuming that the diet is complete and balanced. These diets are, in fact, not balanced. Nutritional gaps in a BARF diet typically include zinc, vitamin E, manganese, choline, vitamin D, Copper, certain B vitamins, vitamin K, and omega-3s (to name a few). Other nutritional gaps may also be present depending on the type of animal the food is made of (red meat, white meat, or seafood) and the type of organs and amount of bone meal used to formulate the diet. 

Calculating Your Dog's Calorie Needs

An animal's calorie requirements can dictate whether a diet has nutritional gaps. Your dog's nutrient levels are based on the daily calories consumed, their life stage (puppy, gestation, adult), and specific health concerns or genetic precursors. So, a diet in excess or deficient to your dog's daily calorie needs can lead to nutritional gaps.  

The most common indicator for pet parents to consider is the amount of treats or human food a dog gets in their diet. Nutritional gaps start becoming a concern if your dog is getting more than 10% of their calories from treats or human food. We recommend using a website like Pet Nutrition Alliance to calculate your dog's calorie needs.

Once you know how many calories should come from their diet, look on the back of your pet's food to find the kcal per cup, lb, or oz. Then, divide your pet's calories by the amount to determine how much of your pet's food they should be getting daily. Then, using your treat calories, look at all the treats you give and their labeled calories. Make sure you are staying within the allocated amount during the day. To include high-quality human foods, decrease your treat calories to compensate for those additions. This process is a great place to start to ensure your dog meets its nutrient requirements daily.

A tray of bone- and paw-print-shaped homemade dog treats.

Identifying Signs of Nutritional Gaps

There are several signs and symptoms you might see with your dog that would indicate a nutritional gap. Poor digestion is related to vomiting, diarrhea, loose stools, mucus on the stool, or eating strange things like other animals' poop, tissue paper, socks, toys, and even behaviors like counter surfing or scavenging from your trash or compost.

Skin and coat issues are also linked to nutritional gaps, including excessive shedding, fur loss, itchy skin, flaky skin, and premature aging. An overweight or underweight dog can also have dietary gaps and dogs that seem lazy and always sleep. Also, if your dog has been diagnosed with a particular disease, this can lead to nutritional gaps.

If your dog isn't processing the diet you are giving them effectively (no matter what you are feeding them), nutrients are lost, and nutritional gaps are formed.

Common Nutritional Gaps for Dogs

Water

One of the most common nutritional gaps dogs face is a lack of moisture in the diet or water intake. Dogs that consume an all-dry food diet (freeze-dried, air-dried, baked, and kibble) have less than 15% moisture coming in with the food. Dogs need 1 ounce of water for every 1 pound of body weight to help metabolize their food.

They will also require additional water for exercise, cooling the body down in summer, and detoxification, among other needs. Also, many diseases, including kidney disease, bladder crystals, UTIs, IBD, IBS, Colitis, pancreatitis, liver disease, and more, necessitate additional moisture in the diet to help with organ system dysfunction.   

Bone broth is one of the best ways to get more moisture in your dog's diet. A freeze-dried beef bone broth can be efficiently rehydrated and added as a topper to your dog's dry food. Some dogs have a low thirst drive, which can also lead to dehydration. Make a batch of bone broth and put the mixture in an ice cube tray. You can give your dog a few ice cubes each day or pour some warm water on the ice cube to get your dog to drink even more water. This can be beneficial when rehydrating your dog, especially after digestive distress.

Other options for meeting your dog's moisture needs include: 

  • Changing your dog's diet (at least in part) to include moisture-rich options like dehydrated (plus water), raw, gently cooked, sous vide 
  • Add high-moisture foods as part of your daily calorie allocation. Options include Goat milk, bone broth, gently cooked veggies, fresh fruits (no grapes), lean meats and seafood, smoothies, and juices (no additives).
A woman pours water from a bottle into a collapsible bowl for her dog.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s are another nutrient that is deficient in many dogs' diets. Due to factory farming, there are typically much higher quantities of omega-6s in most manufactured dog foods, including kibble, canned, dehydrated, freeze-dried, raw, and home-cooked options. Looking at the back of your dog's food, you might also see highly processed seed and vegetable oils, considered inflammatory omega-6 food sources.

To balance out pro-inflammatory omega-6s, pet owners can supplement their dog's diet with a high-quality Omega Oil supplement. These omegas are processed for nutrient retention and are instrumental in balancing the omega-6 levels in your dog's diet. They are also an essential nutrient to decrease most inflammatory health concerns, including skin and coat issues, kidney disease, liver diseases, autoimmune diseases, cancer, diabetes, weight loss, and more. Another great option is adding fatty fish, such as salmon, sardine, anchovy, mackerel, herring, and trout, to your dog's diet.

Other Common Nutritional Gaps

Other common nutritional gaps found in dog food include amino acids and fatty acids, minerals like zinc, manganese, calcium, iron, copper, selenium, iodine, and vitamins like vitamin E, vitamin K, vitamin D, and many water-soluble vitamins like Vitamin B.

Avoiding Nutritional Gaps in Your Dog’s Diet

Seeing your dog as a unique organism living in a unique environment is essential. So many people walk into a pet store and ask for "The Best Dog Food" or try a food recommended by a family member or friend. Instead of asking what food is best, ask what is best for your dog. When we look at our dog as a unique expression of genetics, age, and health status, we can discover what food is best for their body.

A food that is working for your dog means that your dog doesn't have a high percentage of uncomfortable symptoms or health concerns, they won't need a cupboard full of supplements or medicines, they will have soft and glossy coats, clear eyes, abundant energy, high spirits, and much more! Each dog really is unique in their genetics and the environment they live in, which means that there isn't a one-size-fits-all diet approach for every dog.

Deciding what you feed your dog can feel daunting. We all want what is best for our dogs; luckily, we have many options. If you need more help figuring out the best diet for your dog, work with a holistic veterinarian or certified pet nutrition counselor. They can help you figure out what foods fit within your budget and how to meet nutritional gaps based on the diet used and your dog's specific health needs.

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