The function of food

The goal of veterinary nutrition is to identify the essential nutrients, the roles they play and their optimal concentrations to ensure the animal takes in exactly what it needs from its diet. Progress is being made in this field all the time. New foods and nutritional formulas are marketed every year that provide not just the essential nutrients needed to keep an animal fit and healthy, but additional nutrients that can provide extra benefits, better protection and even help prevent certain diseases.

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Advancements in dog food

Over the past four decades, foods prepared by the leading manufacturers of companion animal food have had a very positive effect on the quality of life of dogs. It is estimated that the dog’s average life expectancy has been extended by around three years over the past 15 years.

First, we took the step from simple survival foods – the provision of the very minimum to ensure the animal stays alive – to specific food that brings out the beauty of the animal and allows it to be more active. The third stage is “nutrition”, which is based on ever-deeper knowledge of how the body works and the study of the health benefits of natural purified ingredients. It is now within our power to formulate foods that meet very precise requirements, helping fight deficiencies that threaten the animal in extreme climates or when disease strikes.

Our knowledge expands with each new scientific study. Diet is now recognised as a fully-fledged aspect in the care of some diseases and new specialisations are being defined all the time, including preventative nutrition, health nutrition and clinical nutrition.

Dogs are also facing a threat, however, and that threat is ignorance. Humans are inclined to forget that dogs are a different species, attributing human characteristics to them when it comes to dietary matters. It is essential for us to understand that dogs are not humans. Dogs are carnivores although not exclusively so, having some omnivorous ability, with a totally different dietary behaviour from humans.

Humans are omnivores with a very well developed taste palette. We love variety in our diet. Too often, we imagine that dogs are just like us in this respect. As a result, the way we feed our dogs has a lot to do with our own preferences rather than theirs. This is a serious mistake, because over ten thousand years of domestication has still not been enough time to transform the dog’s gut into a human one.

Originally highly active animals – some of them still are, happily – dogs get their energy from fat provided in their diet and do not suffer from human problems like high cholesterol and coronary disease. They can, however, suffer from obesity if they are not fed correctly, which has serious consequences.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin
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Are dogs strict carnivores?

Just like their ancestors the wolves, dogs should normally eat the whole of their prey, although this does not always occur.

Depending on the availability of nutritional resources, they eat more or fewer vegetables and are able to adapt to other diets. Due to their digestive system and metabolism, they can digest a large variety of food, within limits.

Much more than they used to be, dogs nowadays are almost totally dependant on humans for their food. That means that owners have great responsibility for ensuring their dog eats correctly.

Humanising the animal – or the mistaken belief that it has a certain disease – can lead to malnutrition and poor health.


Professor Jurgen Zentek, Department of Veterinary Medicine, Freie Universität, Berlin (Germany)

Food is a regulator of behaviour in dogs. As stated previously, the same food, in the same bowl, at the same location, at the same time every day is what dogs prefer. Dogs fed in this way will be well balanced and mentally healthy.

Veterinary research has driven the expansion of the traditional concept of nutrition as something that constructs and maintains the body by providing energy and building blocks to include prevention and often also therapy. Health nutrition has become an established idea in the dog world.

The goals

Nutrition has four well-defined goals:

• Building and maintaining the body: protein (specifically ten essential amino acids), minerals and trace elements, vitamins and some lipids (those that form part of the cell membranes).

• Providing energy: mainly dietary lipids, but also non-fibrous carbohydrates.

• Nourishing and preventing: specific nutrients (antioxidants, clays, vitamins) that participate directly in the prevention of kidney and digestive disorders, as well as helping fight the effects of ageing.

• Nourishing and healing: specific nutrients that can participate in disease therapy and recovery.

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Canine Nutrition is a Specialty In Its Own Right

The European Society of Veterinary and Comparative Nutrition (ESVCN) was created in 1995. This scientific organization is dedicated to improving knowledge in the area of nutrition for domestic animals. Its members include veterinary nutritionists from all over Europe and from the United States. Its principal areas of study and development include species and topics not studied in the fields of agronomy or human nutrition. Dogs are one of its main areas of interest. Studies range from food for the canine athlete to meeting basic nutritional needs during critical periods (such as after surgery). The ESVCN’s affiliation with the European Society of Veterinary Internal Medicine shows the extent to which dietetics is now an integral part of medical treatment for many canine diseases. The ESVCN organizes an annual international conference that brings together several hundred veterinarians from all over the world.

Professor Ellen Kienzle, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine University of Munich (Germany)

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

The nutritional approach

The nutritional approach involves solving a complex puzzle to formulate a single food containing around fifty nutrients – sometimes more – in the right proportions to achieve these four goals, while taking account of specific physiological characteristics in certain situations or in certain groups of dogs.

The ingredients approach

The ingredients approach is based on a simple list of raw ingredients in a food without any concept of balance between nutrients. Because of this, it is less precise and less able to meet the animal’s strict requirements.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin
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