What is a 'Balanced' Dog Food? | PetMD

Dr Elsa Jungman

What is a 'Balanced' Dog Food?

PetMD Editorial
Updated: February 12, 2021
Published: December 19, 2012
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Choosing the Best Pet Food for Your Dog Health

By Amanda Baltazar

Balance is important in every area of our lives, but for our pets it’s probably most critical in their nutrition.

A dog or cat that eats an unbalanced diet that does not contain all the essential nutrients he needs is likely to suffer health problems and live a shorter and less happy life.

How Do I Know My Dog Food is Balanced?

A balanced diet for your dog should contain protein (from an animal), vegetables, whole grains, fat, and micronutrients (omega 3 fatty acids for skin and brain function; and for large breed puppies and older dogs, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate).

Dogs and cats also require more than 50 key nutrients, the most vital of which are vitamin C and minerals magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus. The balance between these nutrients is important, too. “The body is a very complex organic place where biochemical reactions are going on,” explains Kerri Marshall, DVM, a licensed veterinarian and chief veterinary officer at Trupanion.

Should I Change My Pet Food According to My Dog's Lifestage?

Yes! Like humans, dogs and cats have different dietary needs depending on their life stage. Puppies and kittens, and lactating and pregnant females, in particular, need plenty of calcium and magnesium for bone health and growth; older animals typically need fewer minerals to avoid kidney damage.

Because of these different requirements, “be sure to always buy pet food that’s specifically balanced for the life stage of your pet,” says Dr. Marshall.

If your pet has one of a number of diseases, such as arthritis or renal disease, his problems could worsen if you feed him an incorrectly balanced diet. To avoid problems, there are foods that are especially designed for these issues, which pets can eat indefinitely.

And, says Dr. Marshall, there are even foods specifically balanced for shorter-term medical problems like obesity, bladder infections, vomiting, kidney stones, and anemia. For example, a cat with anemia could recover quickly if given high calorie, rich food to replace her red blood cells; or a lower pH diet can help with bladder infections.

If your pet is on a special diet for a short-term medical problem or a short-term life stage like being a puppy or pregnancy, be sure to switch onto the new pet food — or back to the old food — gradually, warns Dr. Marshall, or your pet could suffer vomiting or diarrhea from the sudden change. The transition should take at least a week.

Don't Forget to Check the Pet Food Packaging

Another aspect of ensuring you are buying a quality and balanced pet food is to verify that the ingredients are bioavailable. “This means they are readily absorbed — and used—by the body,” Dr. Marshall explains. If all ingredients aren’t easily absorbed, the balance of the food could be affected.

The first item listed on the ingredient list of a balanced pet food should be a high-quality protein, probably followed by a natural vegetable. And double-check that there are no dyes included; they are added to some foods to make them more appealing — to humans!

Dog and cat foods should also contain fatty acids, such as omega fatty acids of fish oils, which are essential for a healthy, balanced diet. But beware, warns Dr. Marshall. Many lower quality pet foods contain too much fat (some are sprayed with fat for palatability), which can lead to obesity and diabetes.

Commercial pet foods are often declared, under AAFCO guidelines, to be “complete and balanced.” Dr. Marshall says that consumers should trust the science behind the big brands, and not supplement them or they could feed their dog or cat a dangerously high level of some minerals.

Commercial pet foods marked as “complete and balanced” under AAFCO guidelines are a sign of a proper diet as well. In fact, Dr. Marshall says that consumers should trust the science behind the big pet food brands, and not supplement or they could feed their dog or cat a dangerously high level of some minerals.

What about long words found on the pet food label ingredient list? These are not all necessarily bad. In fact, seemingly unusual words such as "omega 3" and "L-carnitine" are actually very beneficial to our pets. If you are unsure of the use of an ingredient, consult your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist.

Consult Your Veterinarian

Ultimately you veterinarian is a great — if not the best! — resource when considering which dog food to buy.

“It sometimes takes a PhD in nutrition to understand ingredient panels on food,” Dr. Marshall says. “[Your veterinarian] will know which brands can be most trusted and which are most suitable for the life stage of your pet.”

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