The saying goes “you are what you eat” and this is also true for dogs, who need a carefully balanced, wholesome diet to lead a long and healthy life.

Your dog’s diet not only plays a key role in keeping their teeth, bones, coat and internal organs healthy, but can also have a significant impact on their energy levels. That’s why it’s so important to ensure you’re feeding your dog the right sort of food, as well as the right amount of food, based on their life stage, general health and lifestyle.

Here you can learn all the basics of canine nutrition, including what constitutes a healthy canine diet and information around toxic foods, dog treats and obesity.

 

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Healthy diet for dogs

Good nutrition is essential to your dog's overall health. A complete and balanced diet will not only help your dog lead a long and happy life, but it can also help reduce the risk of your pet developing diet-related diseases or health problems. What should I feed my dog? Your dog’s diet needs to be nutritionally balanced in order for them to stay healthy. Good quality manufactured dog food, whether it be moist food or dry kibble, should contain the right amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and vitamins and minerals to provide your dog with a complete and balanced meal. To ensure the food you have chosen for your dog is of a high quality, read the packaging to check the product has a statement of nutritional accuracy. It should state that the food meets nutrient profiles established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) or that it has passed feeding trials designed to AAFCO standards. You should also choose a dog food which is suitable for your pet’s life stage. Many are labelled as suitable for all life stages or for adult maintenance and will contain everything your dog needs to stay healthy. However, if your dog is pregnant, overweight, or is a puppy or senior dog, your veterinarian may recommend a diet which is more suitable for their life stage. What is the best dog food for weight loss? If your dog is overweight or obese, then it’s important to seek advice from your veterinarian on how to help your dog reach a healthier weight and maintain it. Many veterinarians will recommend cutting back on treats and feeding your dog a complete, high-quality dog food. They will also prescribe plenty of exercise to help your dog shift those excess pounds. Your veterinarian may also test your dog for certain conditions which are linked to obesity, including diabetes, Cushing’s disease and hypothyroidism, and will offer treatment advice and recommend any dietary changes if necessary. If your dog suffers from diabetes, your veterinarian will normally recommend a low-fat, high-fiber diet to help keep your dog’s sugar levels as close to normal as possible and ensure they maintain a healthy weight. Find out more about obesity in dogs, including the necessary steps you can take to help your dog lose weight and prevent future complications. What should I feed my puppy? As puppies grow at a rate which is 20 times faster than an adult dog, they need a specially-formulated diet to aid their development. Your breeder or veterinarian should be able to recommend a food which is right for your puppy. However, there are plenty of high quality puppy foods available on the market. Puppies should start eating solid food at around four weeks old; however, the food may need to be moistened so it’s easier for the puppy to eat. A feeding chart should be provided on the puppy food label and this will let you know how much to feed your puppy based on their size and weight. You should feed your puppy four times a day until they reach four months old, and should reduce this down to three meals a day until they reach the age of six months. Once your puppy is six months old, they will only require two meals a day, and can continue eating twice a day throughout their adult life.   How much should I feed my dog? When deciding how much to feed your dog, it’s important to get the balance right. Feeding your dog too much can lead to obesity and other health problems, but feeding your dog too little may mean they don’t get all the nutrients they need to stay fit and well. The label on your chosen dog food should provide advice around how much to feed your dog based on its weight. Always measure the food using a scoop or measuring cup to ensure you are feeding your dog the same amount each meal time. If your dog is more active, it may require more food than the amount recommended by the supplier. Likewise, if your dog is more of a lap dog, then it may need feeding less. You may also need to adjust the amount you feed your dog based on the seasons, as some dogs are much more active during the summer months. Always speak to your veterinarian for advice around how much food your dog needs if you have any concerns. Is homemade dog food better for my dog? Some dog owners are concerned about the ingredients which go into commercial pet food and believe a natural approach is best when it comes to their dog’s diet. While feeding your dog freshly prepared meals which include natural, wholesome ingredients does have its benefits, there is also a risk that you may be depriving your pet of the essential vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy. Your dog’s nutritional requirements are very complex, and will vary depending on their life stage.  This is why it’s important to consult your veterinarian or a canine nutrition specialist if you want to start preparing home-cooked meals for your dog, even if you have a good understanding of human nutrition. While some dog owners swear by raw diets, they do come with the risk of food poisoning. It’s important to seek advice from your veterinarian around whether a raw diet is safe for your dog, as older dogs, puppies, or dogs with a compromised immune system may be more at risk. 10 Tips for feeding your dog Ensure there is always fresh water available for your dog to drink. Store opened cans or pouches of dog food in the fridge and store dry food in an air-tight container. Don’t serve dog food which is past its best before date. Keep food and water bowls clean and wash them separately to your family’s dishes. Feed your dog two smaller meals a day, rather than one large meal, to help minimize the risk of your dog developing bloat. Avoid feeding your dog scraps from the table, as this can encourage begging behavior and lead to weight gain. Keep any toxic foods well out of reach and know the symptoms to look out for if your dog has eaten something they shouldn’t. Gradually introduce any new foods to your dog’s diet over a period of 3-5 days to avoid any stomach upsets. Keep track of how many treats you’re feeding your dog, or switch to some healthier, low calorie alternatives to help decrease the chances of your dog becoming overweight. Always wait a couple of hours before exercising your dog after mealtimes. Weigh your dog regularly. If your dog is 10-15% heavier or lighter than the average healthy weight for their breed, then they may be overweight or underweight and you may need to adjust your feeding routine or get your pet checked over by your veterinarian to ensure they’re not suffering from any health problems.

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Obesity in dogs

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) estimates that 54% of dogs in the United States are clinically overweight or obese, (that’s 42 million dogs!) and this number is increasing every year. It’s important to be able to recognize obesity in your own dog, and know the necessary steps you can take to help them lose weight and prevent future complications. What is obesity in dogs? Obesity is a nutritional disease that significantly increases the risk of other serious health issues in your dog. To recognize obesity in a dog, look for these signs: Noticeable weight gain at any point after your dog reaches 2 years old A weight which is significantly more than the breed standard (If your dog weighs 10-15% more than the average healthy weight for their breed, they are usually classed as obese) Inability to see the hourglass curve of your dog’s stomach when looking from above Shortness of breath, or seeming reluctant to exercise You may not notice the weight gain if it happens over a long time, and it’s often groomers who first flag the issue to dog owners. What are the risks of obesity in dogs? Even a pound or two of excess weight can take its toll on your pet, and over time can lead to severe health problems. Some of the most common problems that can be triggered by obesity are: Problems exercising, such as low stamina and difficulty breathing Intolerance to heat (this in turn can trigger other issues such as fainting or dehydration) Damage to joints and bones, even leading to lameness in some extreme cases Arthritis High blood pressure (also known as Hypertension), which increases the risk of heart failure Diabetes Liver disease Increased risk of various cancers Decreased life expectancy What causes dog obesity? The most common causes of obesity in dogs are lack of exercise and a poor diet. An especially significant cause is feeding dogs fatty, “human,” snacks like crisps, sausages or bacon. The fat and additives in these foods are difficult for your dog’s digestive system to break down and, combined with the added calories, can cause your dog’s body fat to quickly increase. There are also some underlying diseases which can cause obesity, but these conditions only make up around 5% of the total reported obesity cases in dogs. Talk to your vet if you are concerned that one of the following diseases may be responsible for your dog’s weight gain: Hypothyroidism Insulinoma Cushing’s disease (Hyperadrenocorticism) Adult onset diabetes Unfortunately, some dogs are predisposed to obesity due to their genetics. For example, Retrievers have been bred to not recognize when they are full, so that they would always be keen to work for food and fetch game for their hunting owners. The following dog breeds are most prone to obesity: Beagle Bulldog Boxer Dachshund Golden Retriever Rottweiler Mastiff Pug Labrador Newfoundland Chihuahua Does neutering cause obesity in dogs? It is a common misconception that neutering or spaying causes obesity in dogs. While neutering is not a direct cause of obesity in dogs, the change in hormones does slow down the dog’s metabolism, meaning that they do not need as much food to sustain themselves. As long as food intake is slightly reduced after neutering or spaying, there should be no risk of obesity. Your vet can advise you on how much less you should be feeding your dog to ensure they maintain a healthy weight. How can I help my dog lose weight? If you want to help your dog lose weight, it’s important to firstly check that your dog is getting the right amount of exercise. All breeds need at least 20 minutes of exercise daily, and many need significantly more. Research your breed online to find out how much is daily exercise is recommended to manage their weight. Next, ensure that the food you feed your dog is of high quality, without too much excess fat, and consider reducing the amount given to your dog daily. Treats are a great for rewarding your dog and encouraging good behavior, but keep an eye on how many treats or snacks your dog gets during the day, and be sure to reduce the amount your dog is eating at mealtimes to make up for these added calories. APOP have a dog calorie needs checker on their website where you can see how much food your dog should really be eating every day – it’s much less than you’d think! Finally, resist those puppy dog eyes! Stay strong and don’t give in to your dog begging for your food leftovers –  they don’t know what’s good for them, but you do. Many human foods can even be toxic to dogs, so it’s important to keep them well out of reach know the symptoms to look out for if your dog has eaten something they shouldn’t. If obesity is diagnosed by a veterinarian, they will carefully analyze your dog’s current exercise regime and diet. They will put together an exercise routine for you to follow with your dog, and may prescribe a special diet to help them shed the excess pounds. What’s the best dog food for weight loss? Your vet can advise you on the best diet for your dog if they are overweight. There are many diet dog foods available; some breed specific, or prescription only. If you’re looking to research some waistline-friendly dog foods yourself, a great place to start is Dog Food Advisor. This website is written by trained canine nutritionists and ranks and reviews hundreds of dog foods that are available across the U.S. These reviews show the composition of the foods, so you can easily see which ones have lower fat content. Look out for foods which also have high dietary protein and fiber contents, as these will help keep your dog feeling fuller for longer and are easily digestible. If you are happy with your existing dog food, try reducing your dog’s intake by 25% and making sure that this is further reduced on days when your dog has been given lots of treats.   Learn more about healthy diets for dogs, including what constitutes a complete and balanced diet and top 10 feeding tips.

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Dog eating chocolate from heart shaped box

Dogs that have eaten chocolate are regular emergencies for veterinarians everywhere, but what is it about the delicious candy that is so good to us, yet so dangerous for our best friends? The answer lies in the fact that a dog’s body can’t break down substances called mathylxantines like human bodies can, causing potential deadly symptoms.  Depending on the size of your dog and the type of chocolate they have eaten, the toxic substances will have varying effects, but it’s important to make a trip to the vet, to be safe. Why is chocolate dangerous to dogs? Chocolate contains varying amounts of substances called methylxanthines, most notably caffeine and theobromine. These substances act as stimulants in dogs, increasing the heart rate and putting pressure on the central nervous system and kidneys. Whilst human bodies can break down these substances quickly, a dog takes much longer, meaning the effect on them is far greater.  The stimulants’ effect on the body is dangerous because if the dose is too high it can lead to seizures, heart attacks and perhaps even organ failure. Even a smaller amount can have unpleasant effects on your dog causing vomiting and incontinence. However, it’s not just these substances that cause chocolate to be dangerous to dogs. High levels of fat and sugar can also cause serious problems if consumed, even if it’s only on one occasion. Unexpected peaks in sugars and fats can cause your dog’s pancreas a great deal of stress, which in extreme cases, can lead to pancreas failure up to 3 days later. What are the symptoms of chocolate poisoning? The recognizable symptoms of chocolate poisoning in dogs can vary from pet to pet, but the main ones to look out for include: Vomiting  Diarrhea Increased urination / incontinence Seizures  Tremors / shaking Hyperventilating Increased heart rate Not all dogs will display all or any symptoms when suffering from chocolate poisoning, so if you know that your dog has eaten chocolate it’s important to seek veterinary advice as soon as possible, even if there are no visible symptoms. How much chocolate is dangerous for my dog? The amount of chocolate that can be life threatening to a dog varies hugely depending on the type of chocolate and the size of your dog. Generally speaking, the more bitter the chocolate, the higher concentrate of toxic substances are present. This means that bakers chocolate and dark chocolate are the most dangerous for your dog gram for gram.  A large dog may be able to consume an ounce of milk chocolate without any problems whatsoever because his size dilutes the toxins, however for a small dog the same amount could be fatal. White chocolate is the least toxic form of chocolate because of its low cacao levels. However, it still contains very high amounts of fat and sugar and so can be dangerous in other ways.  There are some useful online calculators available as a guide to how much chocolate is dangerous for your dog, but these should be used with caution as every dog is different. In any case where you know your dog has consumed chocolate, always contact a veterinarian for advice; it’s never worth the risk! How is chocolate poisoning treated? If you manage to bring your dog to your veterinarian within a couple hours of ingestion, they will safely induce vomiting to rid the stomach of any chocolate that is yet to be digested. They may also flush the stomach with decontaminating substances such as activated charcoal. As ingesting chocolate is sadly such a common occurrence for pets, it’s advisable to ask your vet to teach you how to safely induce vomiting in your dog so that you can act quickly yourself if ingestion occurs again. They will be able to recommend products such as hydrogen peroxide, and will be able to tell to how much is a safe measure to induce vomiting in your dog. If the situation is more serious, the next level of treatment would be for your dog to have an overnight stay at the veterinarian practice with constant fluids and anti-seizure medication. The veterinary nurses will try and counter the effect of the stimulating toxins on the heart and muscles to stabilize your dog until they have fully eliminated the toxins. Is chocolate dangerous for cats too? Chocolate is toxic for cats as well as dogs, in fact, it’s significantly more dangerous for cats to consume, and takes much less to cause a poisoning.  However, chocolate poisoning is much more prevalent in dogs because cats do not have sweet taste receptors like dogs do, so are more likely to turn their noses up at chocolate rather than scoffing it down. Chocolate is also poisonous to rabbits, so bunnies kept in the house are also at risk of finding a potentially fatal snack. The mathylxantines are much less toxic to small rodents such as rats and mice. Remember to keep any human sweet treats away from your pets this Valentine’s and Easter period, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spoil your pets too! There are lots of dog friendly chocolates available from pet stores which are made without mathylxantines, although these are still often high in sugar and fat so be sure to check the label for recommended serving sizes. Or alternatively, why not make your own healthy dog treats with dog-friendly ingredients.  Read about other human foods that are dangerous for dogs on our Toxic Foods for Dogs page

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Toxic foods for dogs

Let’s face it, sometimes those puppy dog eyes are just too hard to resist. But it may surprise you to learn that letting your dog have an occasional ‘human food’ treat or feeding them scraps from the table could be harmful to their health.  Some types of food can even be fatal to dogs, so it’s important to know which foods should be kept well out of reach and know the symptoms to look out for if your dog has eaten something they shouldn’t. Alcohol Just like in humans, alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, causing your dog to become drowsy and disorientated. Alcohol is absorbed by a dog’s body much quicker than a human’s, and if your dog is exposed to high levels of alcohol, they may suffer from alcohol poisoning and experience vomiting, dehydration, breathing problems and loss of consciousness. Alcohol isn’t just found in beer, wine and liquor; some foods, cough syrups, perfumes and even mouthwashes can all contain alcohol, so be sure to keep all these items well out of reach of your dog.   Avocado Avocados contain a toxin called persin, which is found in the leaves, the pit and bark, as well as the fruit. Persin is poisonous to dogs in large quantities and can cause vomiting and diarrhea. An avocado pit is also a choking hazard, and can also easily become lodged in your dog’s stomach or intestines, so it’s important to dispose of your avocado pits in a dog-proof trash can and visit your veterinarian straight away if you think your dog may have swallowed one.  Bones Believe it or not, feeding your dog leftover bones can often do more harm than good. Not only are they a choking hazard, but cooked bones splinter easily and can damage your dog’s teeth, tongue or mouth, and even puncture their digestive tract. Smaller bones can also get stuck in your dog’s intestines, and consuming large amounts of bone can cause constipation, so it’s best to buy a recreational bone from the pet store if you want to give your pup something to gnaw on. Chocolate As most pet owners know, chocolate is a big no-no for dogs. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea, or more serious issues such as heart problems, seizures and even death, depending on the size of your dog and the amount they’ve eaten. The toxin found in chocolate, theobromine, is more concentrated in dark chocolate and cocoa powder, but it’s important to get in touch with your veterinarian for advice if you think your dog has consumed any type of chocolate, no matter how small the amount. Citrus fruits While they may be a great natural source of vitamins and fiber, citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, grapefruit and oranges are actually toxic to dogs. The high levels of citric acid can cause vomiting, diarrhea and sensitivity to light. Fruits such as apples, bananas, pears and pineapple are much safer alternatives, however always be sure to remove all cores, skins and rinds before letting your pup tuck in. Coffee Coffee contains caffeine, which can be fatal to dogs in high doses. The symptoms of caffeine poisoning include increased heart rate, restlessness and vomiting, and in more serious cases, your dog may even collapse or experience seizures. Energy drinks, tea, cold and flu medicines and coffee-flavored products can also contain just as much caffeine as your morning coffee, so be sure to get in touch with your veterinarian for your advice if you believe your dog has ingested something containing caffeine.  Corn on the cob While a corn on the cob may seem like a healthy treat for your dog to chew on, dogs often struggle to digest them, and corn cobs can cause an obstruction in your dog’s gut. Signs of intestinal obstruction include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and discomfort, and so it’s best to get in touch with your veterinarian if your dog shows any of these symptoms and they’ll advise you on the best course of action.  Grapes and raisins Grapes and raisins are dangerous to all dogs, even in small quantities, and the toxins found in these fruits can even cause kidney failure. If your dog has accidently eaten grapes or raisins, or you suspect they may have, then look out for signs of lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration and get in touch with your veterinarian for advice. Remember that foods such as mince pies, hot cross buns and fruit cake all contain dried fruits such as raisins and sultanas, so be sure to keep them well out of reach. Macadamia nuts Macadamia nuts are high in fat, which can give your dog an upset stomach, and they also contain a similar toxin to grapes and raisins. Sensitivity to macadamia nuts varies between dogs, but as little as six raw or roasted macadamia nuts is enough to make your dog unwell. If your dog experiences weakness, particularly in their hind legs, tremors, depression and vomiting, then seek advice from your veterinarian. Milk, cheese and dairy Milk, cheese and other dairy products contain enzymes which your dog’s digestive system struggles to break down. Dairy products which are high in fat can also cause vomiting and diarrhea, and blue cheeses such as Stilton and Roquefort contain a substance called Roquefortine C which can also make your dog sick and cause tremors, twitching, seizures and a fever if eaten in large doses. Dairy products can also trigger allergies in dogs, so it’s best to avoid treats such as ice cream and cheese altogether. Onions and garlic Onions, garlic, leeks, shallots and chives are all poisonous to dogs, and are equally dangerous in all forms, including raw, cooked, dried or powdered. The toxins found in these plants can cause damage to your dog’s red blood cells, which can lead to anemia, organ damage and, in extreme cases, even death. Look out for signs of weakness, lethargy, dark colored urine and occasional vomiting and diarrhea, as any of these symptoms could be an indication of garlic/onion toxicity. Peaches, plums and cherries The issue with peaches, plums and cherries is that their pits, leaves and stems contain a toxin called cyanide, which is poisonous to both humans and dogs in large doses. The pits can also become lodged in your dog’s digestive tract and cause intestinal blockages, particularly in smaller dogs, so keep an eye out for symptoms including vomiting, constipation and decreased appetite if you believe your dog has swallowed one of these fruits. Raw fish, meat and eggs While many pet owners believe raw diets are beneficial to their pet’s health, raw eggs, meat and fish contain bacteria which causes food poisoning. Bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli are common in raw eggs, while raw fish such as salmon, trout and sturgeon contain parasites which cause “fish disease” or “salmon poisoning”. If your dog experiences symptoms including fever, vomiting and enlarged lymph nodes, consult your veterinarian straight away. Xylitol Xylitol is a sweetener which is commonly found in foods such as candy, sugar-free gum, baked goods, toothpastes and diet foods, and it’s extremely toxic to dogs. Xylitol affects your dog’s blood sugar levels and can even cause liver failure. The symptoms of xylitol toxicity include vomiting, weakness, lack of coordination and seizures. Liver failure can occur within a matter of days, so seek help from your veterinarian straight way if you think you dog has eaten something containing xylitol.   No matter how cautious you and your family are, there’s always a chance your dog may end up eating something they shouldn’t. If you think your dog may have swallowed something toxic, call your veterinarian for advice or get in touch with the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center or Pet Poison Helpline as soon as possible.