Understanding (and then providing!) proper nutrition is one of the most important roles for pet parents. Nutrition is not only a foundational aspect of your dog’s daily health maintenance, but it’s also often a key component of disease management. But what is a nutrient? A nutrient is any food constituent that helps support life by being involved in all basic functions of the body, such as:
- Acting as a structural component
- Participating in chemical reactions
- Transporting substances
- Maintaining temperature, and
- Supplying energy.
Every ingredient in your dog’s food contains different nutrients, which can be thought of as either macronutrients or micronutrients.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the big building blocks, the main components of your dog’s nutrition. These nutrients, including protein, fat, and carbohydrates, are responsible for supplying your dog, a facultative carnivore with the energy and structural elements for all of their systems.
Below is a quick overview of the three types of macronutrients, although whole books are dedicated to the subject:
- Protein: Proteins are used for energy production, building and repairing muscles and other body tissues, and are part of many bodily functions, including immune and hormone functions. Proteins are a critical part of your dog’s dietary needs because they are made up of amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids commonly found as protein components, of which dogs require 10 (referred to as their essential amino acids). Sources of protein include meat and other animal products like eggs. Proteins can also be found in plants, like legumes, nuts, and whole grains.
- Fat: Made up of fatty acid chains, lipids have many functions in the body, including a dense supply of energy, cushioning for organs, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and insulation. Sources of fat include the storage fat from other animals, such as beef or fish, as well as seed oils from plants, such as sunflower oil. The wide range of fatty acid sources and profiles impact where fat is stored and metabolized when part of your dog’s diet. In general, your dog will need a variety of fat sources to meet her physiological needs.
- Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are also a source of energy for your dog, and can be found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and more. It’s also important to mention that grain-free diets do not mean carbohydrate-free. In general, fiber is a nondigestible carbohydrate that can’t be broken down into sugars, and therefore, passes through the digestive tract whole. Fiber is important in regulating blood sugar, giving your dog that satiated, full feeling, and regulating their bowel movements.
FUN FACT: Not all macronutrients provide the same amount of energy. Fat provides about twice as much energy (kcal/g) as either carbohydrates or proteins. Why does this matter? Because in addition to feeding for your dog’s daily caloric requirements, it’s helpful to evaluate the appropriateness of the source of these calories.
Another important part of a dog’s diet is water. Although water is not an official macronutrient, it’s involved in nearly every bodily process, such as regulating body temperature, lubricating joints, and providing the fluid component of blood and cells. Learn more about avoiding dog dehydration.
What Are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are the nutrients that are needed by your dog in smaller amounts. However, just because your dog doesn’t need as much of these nutrients doesn’t mean they aren’t important. In fact, many home-assembled meals can be more detrimental than commercial diets if not properly analyzed and balanced for your dog’s micronutrient needs. Their main function is to support your dog’s wide range of bodily functions, which makes it difficult to summarize. Though there are many nuances, micronutrients include vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamins: Vitamins play a part in immune function, energy production, blood clotting, and more. There are two categories: fat soluble and water soluble. Fat soluble vitamins must be absorbed in your dog’s gut along with fats and include vitamins A, D, E, and K. Water soluble vitamins are typically absorbed by passive diffusion within your dog’s body and are needed on a more regular basis and include the B vitamins and vitamin C (note: unlike humans, dogs can synthesize vitamin C within their bodies). Vitamins can be found naturally in all types of foods, especially whole fruits and vegetables. For dogs eating a dry diet, different approaches are used to recover vitamins lost due to the harsh manufacturing and storage conditions.
- Minerals: Minerals are important for bone growth and repair, fluid balance, and cellular growth and represent the inorganic parts of food. Minerals can be part of plant and animal sources. The major minerals necessary in dog nutrition include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and sulfur. Trace minerals, like iron, copper, zinc, iodine, selenium, and others are important as well, just in smaller amounts.
Healthy Dogs: Focus on Variety
Your dog’s nutritional needs change throughout their lifetime with factors like age and certain health conditions playing a key role in changing requirements.
Although pet food manufacturers would like you to believe this to be true, there is no one magical brand or product that will provide your dog with what they need their whole life because macronutrients, micronutrients, and your dog’s body are complex and everchanging.
Similar to managing our own diet, the value of variety also extends to our dogs! We encourage you to try adding as much variety as you can – whether that includes mixing diet types, switching up brands on occasion, alternating recipes, or more.
Hand, Michael S. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. Mark Morris Institute, 2010.
Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. The National Academies Press, 2018.