Five Common Nutrition Mistakes We Make For Our Dogs

Clearing up the confusion.


We all want to feed our dogs as nutritiously as possible, but many owners’ earnest efforts are misguided. Even with the best of intentions, they end up choosing their dog’s diet on faulty assumptions. Here are five common mistakes loving dog guardians make — and how to correct them.

Mistake # 1. Choosing food by the ingredients list. The ingredients list doesn’t tell you whether the food has the right nutrients in the right proportions to insure your dog’s health. And it can prove a red herring. It might list something like flaxseed, which sounds good. But dogs cannot readily convert the omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseeds to the type of omega-3s found in fish oil that research has shown are beneficial to health. It’s important to think through what you hope your pet’s food will provide and insure there is evidence behind it.

Much more important than the ingredients list for choosing a dog food is the Statement of Nutritional Adequacy by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO. It won’t say “Statement of Nutritional Adequacy” on the label, but you’ll see the AAFCO letters. The wording should be something like “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that X food provides complete and balanced nutrition…” or “X food is formulated to meet AAFCO nutrient profiles.”

Mistake #2. Not knowing how many calories you are feeding. Exceedingly few people know how many calories their pets are consuming. As we discussed in the December issue, there are some fancy equations for determining the exact number of calories your dog should take in, but a quick way to check your dog’s calorie needs is by using an online calculator you can find at It’s worth taking a look, since at least two out of five dogs are estimated to be overweight.

We don’t want you to drive yourself crazy with counting calories. You can go a long way to determine whether you are feeding too much by periodically checking your dog’s body condition (making sure you can feel his ribs and see his waist behind them, with perhaps a slight abdominal tuck). But do check the calorie content of your pet’s food, and make sure you’re at least in the ballpark for matching serving sizes to his needs while leaving a little wiggle room for treats.

Mistake #3. Giving too many treats and other extras. Speaking of calories, no more than 10 percent of your pet’s calories should come from foods that are not part of his regular diet. Treats, for the most part, are nutritionally unbalanced, and if they crowd out nutritious food or add too many calories to his daily meal plan, his nutrition is less than adequate, compromising his health.

Since a 30-pound dog requires, on average, 600 calories a day, that means no more than 60 calories from treats are recommended for him — one and a half medium Milkbones. It’s not much, and if you administer a daily pill to your dog by wrapping it in cheese or a pill pocket, let him lick various leftovers, or top his food with beef, chicken, or other items, you have to include those calories in his daily overall tally.

Mistake #4. Picking a food based on marketing. Here are just some of the terms that have no legal meaning and therefore mean whatever the manufacturer wants them to mean: “holistic,” “gourmet,” “senior.” In fact, if you choose a “senior” food because your dog is getting on in age, you might actually harm him. Consider that because there’s no standard for the nutrient levels in so-called senior dog kibble, it might have significantly more or less protein or phosphorus than the diet he has been eating. If the dog has kidney disease, the change could accelerate the disease process. (See story on kidney disease.)

Senior food also has no particular level for calories — your pet could end up eating too many or too few. Again, go with the label’s AAFCO statement. For an older dog, you want to choose a food “for all life stages” or for “maintenance” (not for “growth” or “gestation/lactation.”)

Mistake #5. Picking a food based on price. Some years ago, a study conducted by the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University gave research subjects a particular wine two different times but told them one of the times that it cost $5 to $10 a bottle and the other that it cost $45 to $90 a bottle. The upshot: the participants said the wine tasted better when they were told it was more expensive. MRI scans of their brains even showed enhanced activation of certain brain areas when the wine was said to cost more. That is, their physiological perceptions of taste shifted according to what they were told about the price tag.

We’re not going to taste our dogs’ food, of course, but the finding still applies. People tend to think more expensive equals better.

Don’t fall for it. A lot of “higher-quality” pet foods have exotic-sounding ingredients that allow manufacturers to charge more but do not improve canine health. In other words, feeling convinced by a high price tag is an emotional reaction that has nothing to do with whether a food is right for your dog.


  1. I was particularly interested in your assessment of flax seeds in dog food; I had no idea their nutritional value was not easily accessible to dogs. And there’s the problem: how do I get this valuable information? My vet doesn’t know, and I don’t know, myself, where to do the research. Could you go further, please, and go down a generic list of dog food ingredients, and give the kind of information you gave about flax seeds? Could you go even further and name a commercial dog food that is healthy and contains the right percentage of vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, and other nutrients? I deeply appreciate this article, but it leaves me wanting so much more. I feel barely educated. Many thanks for this article, and your expertise. Yes, I can feel his ribs and backbone!


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