How to make sure your pet is getting the right nutrition

April 19, 2024 - 6 min read
Image of a dog with a food bowl in its mouth

Nutrition can get complicated. Even for humans, there are various opinions, conflicting research and personal experiences that muddy the water. Finding the right food is hard.

Thankfully, pet nutrition is a little easier to understand. However, it still has nuances, and you should pay close attention to your cat or dog. Do they like their food? Are they a healthy weight? How are their energy levels?

Here, we discuss the nutritional requirements for cats and dogs, how they differ depending on factors like age, and how you can choose the right diet for your pet.

Understanding pet nutrition

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines nutrition as the ‘intake of food, considered in relation to the body’s dietary needs’. It’s a complicated way of saying eating things that make bodies work and feel good.

The WHO wrote that definition for humans, but it applies to animals too—when pets rely on us for food, they need things that keep their bodies working well.

So, what is good nutrition for dogs and cats? How can we tell?

While nutrition is complex, there are signs that your pet's is in good shape. These include:

  • strong energy levels

  • a body condition score (BCS) and weight within the healthy range

  • a clean coat

  • solid stools of normal consistency and colour

  • not scavenging or begging for food 

  • not trying to eat inedible items (a medical condition known as Pica)         

Assessing your pet’s nutritional needs

A black and white adult cat eating dry cat food from a white ceramic bowl on top of a table with place mats

But what does this mean when it comes to what you put in their bowl? Well, you need to consider your pet’s:

  • size 

  • age 

  • weight or body condition score

  • activity level

  • health conditions 

  • personality

  • likes and dislikes 

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Like us, different pets need different food. For any concerns, your vet can help.

However, one thing that applies to all owners is to trust vets and nutritionists. Don’t fall into the pet food myth trap.

What are the nutritional requirements for my pet?

Pets need macronutrients, like proteins and carbohydrates, and micronutrients, like vitamins, at the right levels for their age, sex and breed.

In total, there are 37 nutrients your pet needs. However, the key things to track are:

  • carbohydrates

  • protein

  • fat

  • fiber

  • micronutrients

So, what do these all do, and why does your pet need them?


Carbohydrates are the body’s primary energy source. They include starches, like potatoes, sugars, like honey, and fiber sources, which we’ll discuss later.

A pet's body will turn carbohydrates into glucose, which is then stored as glycogen. This is what gives your pet the energy to get the zoomies.


Protein helps build and repair muscle fibers. They’re also essential for creating new skin cells, growing hair, and assisting in hormone production. A strong amount of protein is what makes your pet more athletic and maintains their coat.

Proteins are made up of amino acids. Some foods are known as complete proteins, meaning they give your pet all the amino acids they need.

There are ten essential amino acids for cats and dogs:

  • arginine: helps blood circulation 

  • histidine: improves oxygen circulation 

  • methionine: gives your pet healthy skin 

  • threonine: helps deploy glucose for energy 

  • isoleucine, leucine, lysine and valine: aid protein synthesis and help muscle development

  • phenylalanine: for their thyroid and adrenal glands 

  • tryptophan: regulates circadian rhythm, which helps your pet sleep

Some proteins can be synthesised (made) in the body. Others need to come from the diet. This is particularly true for Taurine, an essential amino acid for cats, as it's important for heart function. Without this amino acid supplement in the diet, cats can become very sick.


Fat may be dense in calories, but it’s essential to keep mammals going. It helps massively with hormones, and it allows vitamins to be absorbed. Fats act as an energy store for cats and dogs to call on in times of illness and recovery. Without fats, cats and dogs struggle to absorb all the daily calories they need.

Within these are essential fatty acids, which you’ve probably heard of: omega-3 and 6. It’s important to have these in the correct ratio. For dogs and cats, The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommended ratio limit is 30:1.

You don’t need to be too in-depth when it comes to this, but just take note of it, especially if you’re feeding your pet lots of egg or fish oil supplements. If you're unsure, ask your vet for advice. 


Fiber slows down the digestion rate of food, meaning it keeps your pet's stools regular and allows nutrients to get absorbed properly.

What are the nutritional requirements for my dog?

There are no standard values for dog nutrition. Things vary massively depending on your dog's characteristics. 

Factors that influence nutritional requirements include:


Older dogs may need less food, given lower activity levels.


Naturally, some dog breeds are bigger than others. The bigger your dog, the more calories they will need. At the same time, working dogs, like border collies, will have high caloric needs.

Activity level

As mentioned, very active dogs will need more calories, while low-energy breeds may need less.

Health status

Health conditions can impact what food a dog needs. For example, issues like cancer may mean your dog needs more readily digestible energy with lower protein and higher fat. Others may need less fat or salt, like dogs who have cardiac disease.      

Generally, you should follow your vet’s advice here.

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What nutrition do cats need?

As with dogs, these can change depending on your cat’s age, activity level, etc. It's very similar to what we discussed above.

Choosing the right diet for your pet's nutritional needs

So, how do you pick the right diet? What do you actually feed your pet? What's the best option?

Is it commercial pet food? A homemade diet? Or a raw diet? Perhaps a vet has recommended a speciality diet, like a prescription-based one, for your pet.

We’ll discuss each type below.

Vegetarian or vegan diet

Dogs can survive and thrive on a vegetarian or vegan diet if it's specially formulated by a veterinary nutritionist. Don't feed a vegetarian or vegan diet to them without the help of a veterinary nutritionist as you can make your dog very unwell quickly.

Cats can't survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet; they’re obligate carnivores, so need animal sources of nutrition. Cats therefore should never be fed a vegetarian or vegan diet, even for short periods.

Commercial pet food

This is the most popular food for pets. The majority have everything a pet needs, but some may not be suitable.

We recommend sticking to one brand once your pet is used to it, as switching diets too quickly can cause diarrhea.

Check it has everything your pet needs, and always follow the feeding guidelines as a starting point. And as always, ask your vet.

Homemade diet

Some owners like to make their own food for their pets. The only thing to pay attention to here is making sure you meet your pet’s nutritional needs. Using a veterinary nutritionist is key to feeding a homemade diet.

Pay very close attention to what food you use, as some common household foods can be toxic to cats and dogs. If unsure, ask your veterinarian for advice.

We recommend looping in your vet if you decide to do this.

Raw diet

Some pets love a raw diet and thrive on it. However, it does carry risks, and it’s quite a controversial subject.

Chat with your vet before starting this, and make sure you read our guide on everything you need to know about raw pet food.

Speciality diet

Sometimes, your pet will need a speciality diet, especially if they have food allergies.

Do your research if you need to do this, and always be in communication with your vet so they can help advise on the right type of speciality diet.       

Reading pet food labels

cat food

You can’t feed your pet the right diet if you don’t know how to read labels. Food companies must follow strict regulations, listing each ingredient and a nutritional overview of their products.

Take time to read the ingredients list of your pet’s food: is there anything in there they can’t have? Does it have too much of a particular macronutrient? Is it too calorie-dense?

Cost is another factor. Commonly, people assume more expensive food is better, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, food is more expensive as it’s for a particular life stage, like a senior diet, not because it’s better. Other diets may be more expensive as they have added nutritional products such as glucosamine and chondroitin. These raw ingredients can be costly to add to a diet, and not always needed in young or healthy animals.

Overall, you should make a note of the:

  • ingredients: check to see if it has anything your pet can’t have, and look at the amounts of each ingredient too

  • additives: these can be things like colorings and flavorings your pet may not like or have intolerances to, but they can also be healthy stuff like amino acids

  • nutrients: check to see if this matches what your dog needs

  • feeding guidelines: this is usually a serving size recommendation. If there isn't a serving suggestion, then the product may not be compliant with regulations.    

Supplementing your pet's diet

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Sometimes, you need to supplement a pet’s diet. This may be due to higher-than-average vitamin needs or an inability to extract certain nutrients from food.

Generally, if you decide to supplement, check with your vet first. You should also always follow the instructions, as some supplements need to be taken with food.

Always follow the recommended dosages, too. Vitamins can be good for pets, but too much of them (or the wrong ones) can lead to health issues.

Monitoring your pet's health

As with anything, monitor your pet. Are they enjoying their diet? Putting on weight? Less energy?

Sometimes, you may just need to switch pet food. However, if your pet’s appetite decreases significantly, they lose interest in exercise, or if they lose a lot of weight, always go to your vet. These can be major warning signs of sickness.

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