Tips for Feeding your Dog – All Ages and Activity Levels

Proper nutrition is one of the most important aspects of caring for a dog.  The best way to ensure good health is to feed your dog a high-quality food that provides complete and balanced nutrition.  However, a dog’s overall nutrient needs are dependent upon life stage, activity level, and environment. Here, everything a pet owner needs to know about proper feeding in any situation will be discussed.

What are a Dog’s Basic Nutrient Requirements?

All dogs have the same basic needs, which include water, macronutrients, and micronutrients.  These bare-minimum requirements are important to ensure your dog can thrive. These requirements include:


An adult dog is comprised of 60-70% water, which makes proper hydration of utmost importance.  A dog’s primary water source should be fresh water from a clean bowl, as dry food has minimal moisture content.  Dehydration is extremely dangerous for canines, and even slight dehydration can result in health complications and death.


Protein is essential for proper functioning of every cell, tissue, and organ in a dog’s body.  Every system (i.e immune, endocrine, central nervous, etc.) is dependent upon adequate protein intake.  Dogs require complete protein (i.e. containing all 20 amino acids) sources since canines are unable to synthesize all the amino acids naturally.  Complete protein sources for dogs include meat, fish, and eggs while vegetables, grains, and soy have incomplete protein profiles.


Fat provides dogs with the best bioavailable form of energy for their metabolism.  Besides giving your dog the ability to play all day, lipids are important for hormone production, proper growth, healthy skin, and vitamin absorption.  Look for a high-quality, easily-digestible source of fat in your dog’s food.


While carbohydrates are less important than protein or fat, this macronutrient still must be provided for optimal health.  Without adequate carbohydrate intake dogs lack healthy digestive, neurological, and reproductive systems. Carbohydrates are also important for providing the energy required for short bursts of energy.

Additionally, fiber is comprised from carbohydrates which is necessary for good gut health.  Dogs with a diet low in fermentable fiber are prone to chronic diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.  Striking the right fiber balance is important, as high fiber diets are not recommended for highly active dogs or puppies.


Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals.  Since vitamins and minerals are not made in the body, it is important that dogs receive their nutrients from food.

Vitamins and minerals are important for healthy bones, teeth, skin, tissues, and metabolism.  Any commercial dog food labeled “balanced and complete” will provide a dog with the necessary micronutrient profile.  Unless your dog has been diagnosed with a nutrient deficiency or you have spoken to your veterinarian, do not supplement your dog’s diet.  Excess vitamins and minerals can cause health problems such as kidney failure.

Feeding Your Dog at Every Life Stage


A puppy should start being weaned from its mother’s milk at 4 weeks of age.  If the mother dog is unable to provide milk during the first month of a puppy’s life, contact a veterinarian.  Ideally, weaning will occur over a period of 3 – 4 weeks so that the dog is eating regular puppy food at 8 weeks old and the mother’s milk supply decreases gradually.

Puppies should be weaned slowly.  To start, separate the puppies from their mother for a short period of time each day.  During separation, feed the puppies a small amount of dry food. Over time, the length of time puppies are, separated as well as the amount of food, can be increased.

Puppies should be fed a high-quality food specially formulated for growing dogs with 25 – 30% protein.  The dry food should be mixed with warm water or milk replacer to make chewing easier for sensitive mouths.

Energy requirements for puppies are greater than that of adult dogs due to their accelerated growth rate.  However, puppies should not be encouraged to grow too quickly. Overfeeding a puppy will cause a growth rate that is faster than its body can sustain.


Once your puppy stops growing (typically at 7 – 9 months for small breed dogs and 18 – 24 months for large breed dogs), a maintenance formula that provides complete and balanced nutrition should be provided.

The amount you feed your dog will be determined by activity level and size.  For instance, a sedentary dog will have significantly fewer calorie requirements than a working dog.

To determine your dog’s nutritional needs, talk to your veterinarian and monitor your dog’s body condition.  If your dog begins to gain weight, reduce portion sizes. Likewise, if your dog loses weight you should increase the size of his or her meals.

Use the guidelines listed on the dog food label as a starting point.  If your dog rarely exercises, decrease the portion size by approximately 10%.  If your dog is regularly active, portion sizes may need to be increased by 20 – 40%.     


Dogs reach senior status at 7 – 12 years of age, depending on breed.  The bodies of senior dogs begin to slow down, especially at the metabolic level.  To avoid gaining weight, a dog’s diet should be changed. Obesity is a major risk factor for disease and maintaining a healthy weight will greatly improve an older dog’s quality of life.

New research has shown that, contrary to popular belief, senior dog food formulas should continue to be high in easily-digestible protein.  However, calorie content should decrease to compensate for their slower metabolism and lower energy output.

Feeding your Dog Based on Activity Level

Working Dog

A working dog has significantly higher nutritional needs than the average pet, largely due to the extra stress and activity level.  Depending on your dog’s purpose, i.e. guide dog vs. herding dog, additional energy consumption can be as high as 40 – 60% versus the standard companion pet.

Recuperating Dog

After a surgery or illness your may have additional nutritional needs to support his or her immune system.  Talk to your veterinarian to determine whether your dog requires increased fat, protein, vitamins, or minerals to enhance recovery.  Be mindful that portion sizes should decrease to reflect decreased activity.

Outdoor Dog

A dog that lives outdoors or spends a significant amount of time outside will have larger energy requirements as well.  Heating and cooling have a high metabolic cost, particularly during temperature extremes. Dogs that live in sub-freezing temperatures require 30 – 40% additional caloric intake.

How to Help a Dog Lose Weight

Even though maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do for your pet, most dogs are overweight.  The good news is that many obesity-related health problems can be minimized or prevented by returning your dog to a healthy weight.  Tips for weight loss and maintenance include:

Portion Control

A main reason for the obesity epidemic in household pets is poor portion control.  Many pet owners equate food with love and therefore increase a dog’s portion sizes as a result.  Use the tips provided above to determine the right portion size for your dog based on age and activity level.  Adding low-calorie vegetables to your dog’s food bowl, such as canned pumpkin or green beans, will help your dog feel full as he or she transitions to smaller meals.


Overweight dogs rarely receive enough exercise.  Not only does exercise aid in weight loss, but it provides numerous additional health benefits, such as a healthier heart and increased circulation.  Start with short walks on soft surfaces and increase your dog’s activity level gradually.

Limit Treats and Table Scraps

Treats should be used sparingly and should not total more than 5% of your dog’s daily caloric intake.  High-value treats should be given in the smallest portion size possible. Additionally, table scraps should not be fed to dogs.  If necessary, place your dog in another room during meal times.

Free Feeding vs. Timed Feeding vs. Portion Controlled Feeding

Regardless of how you feed your dog, meals should be given at routine times.  Most dogs benefit from being fed twice daily, however there are exceptions to this rule.  For instance, dogs prone to bloat can be fed 3 – 4 smaller meals per day to prevent large volumes of food in the stomach.  Working dogs, on the other hand, often do best with one meal per day that is optimally timed for performance.

Portion-Controlled Feeding

The most common manner to feed your dog is through portion-controlled feeding.  Here, a set amount is fed at each meal and the dog can finish at his or her leisure.  This method is ideal for dogs on a diet or single-dog households.

Free Choice Feeding

With free choice feeding, a food bowl is topped with food at all times and the dog decides when to eat.  Dogs with high energy needs, such as lactating mothers, can benefit from this approach. However, overweight dogs or breeds that are prone to obesity (such as Labrador Retrievers) should not be free-fed as this practice can contribute to overeating.

Timed Feeding

Timed feeding is the practice of only giving your dog a limited window to consume his or her meal, such as 30 minutes.  After that time is up, the food is taken away. This practice is ideal for dogs that are picky, or in multi-dog households with food-aggression issues.

Ultimately, what you feed your dog is important.  It is up to pet owners to provide the highest quality food possible to prevent disease.  Additionally, pet owners should take care not to overfeed their dogs, which can cause serious health problems.  By following this guide, dog owners can be better informed about the specific needs of their pets.