Dog Food vs Human Food: What's the Real Difference?

Dry food, wet food, raw food. Those terms would rarely be used to describe your meals at home. But they are how we talk about the food we give our dogs. It seems like a pretty big difference but when it comes to the breakdown of what the food we are putting in our bodies and the food going into theirs, is the gap that large?

A Balanced Diet

The term "balanced diet" is something that we as people know very well because it is taught in schools as apart of living a healthy lifestyle. We are taught what foods that our bodies need to function properly and how to get them. There are countless informational guides, photos, and posters to show us exactly what we need to achieve a balanced diet. But how much do you know about your diet compared to the diet your dog has? If humans need a balance of different foods to stay healthy, then is the same for our pets?

Dietary Needs for People

The human body needs six key nutrients1 to stay functioning as stated by the Department of Health.

These are the things that the body cannot produce on its own and are introduced mainly through the consumption of food. When the human body is properly nourished through food, we feel better, happier, stronger, and overall healthy. But what about when you are not getting enough our of your diet? When you are lacking key nutrients from your food it is called malnutrition. According to an article in Medical News Today, as reviewed by Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, Stacy Sampson2, few common symptoms of malnutrition are fatigue, depression, and skin problems.

People are very aware of our own nutritional needs and the foods that keep us going, but how much do we know about the food and nutrients needs of our dogs? What do our pets need to keep them happy and healthy? Can it really be that different from our own?

Dietary Needs for Your Dog

Just like humans, dogs need the same six essential nutrients:3

    • Carbohydrates
    • Lipids (Fats)
    • Proteins
    • Vitamins
    • Minerals
    • Water

It is crucial that your dog gets all of these nutrients to keep them healthy and prevent possible diseases. Also like us, dogs have minimum intake requirements for these nutrients that they must also get from their food. AAFCO4 (Association of American Feed Control Officials) has issued a set of percentages for these nutrients for both growing pups and adult dogs.

Nutrient Requirements for A Dog

A dog's nutrient intake support's optimal function and quality of life but what happens if they consume too much or too little of one thing? According to the National Academies 2006 publication, Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, here is what you need to know.


Protein is necessary to dogs in order to survive. Suitable dietary proteins contain 10 essential amino acids. These amino acids contribute to the break down and use of protein as well as the production for glucose used for energy. Given a choice, dogs are very selective and prefer foods with higher proteins. They will naturally choose meat over veggies and carbs.

Growing puppies need a higher intake of protein to fuel their rapid development. Dog's who are pregnant or nursing need an increase in their protein intake to support their puppies, much like humans.

Without the proper amount of protein, dogs can suffer from unhealthy weight loss, muscle loss, problems with digestion, and other health issues.


Dogs need to get essential fats and fatty acids from their diets (usually from animal fat and seed & plant oils) to keep their coats and skin healthy as well as receive vital, fat-soluble vitamins. These fats also contribute to cell production and function.

Much like protein, developing pups need a higher intake of fats to assist their growth. Pregnant and nursing dogs need more fats than others to keep themselves healthy.

Dogs who are deficient in fat intake from their diets can develop problems with vision and slowed or impaired learning. Without the necessary intake of fat, dogs can have dry skin and coarse hair. However, too much fat in a dog's food usually means lower levels of protein. It is important not too over feed on a high fat diet.


There are a wide range of vitamins that are needed for optimal health in dogs. They all have different advantages and functions within the body. Some of the key players include:

  • Vitamin A: vision, growth, and immune system function
    • Deficiency: weight loss, skin lesions, respiratory problems, and increase chances for infections
    • Excess: dehydration, joint pain, and artery and vein degeneration
  • Vitamin D: balance phosphorus in the body
    • Deficiency: loss of muscle and bone swelling
    • Excess: diarrhea, vomiting, muscle loss, weakness, and anorexia
  • Thiamin : carbohydrate synthesis into energy, tissue activation
    • Deficiency: weight loss, growth stunting, nervous system damage and heart damage
  • Vitamin B6: red blood cell function, immune system function, hormone regulation
    • Deficiency: weight loss, convulsions, anemia
    • Excess: poor motor control and weakness

Other vitamins that are needed to complete a dog's diet include Vitamin K, Riboflavin, Vitamin B12, Folic Acid, Choline, and Vitamin E.


There are 12 minerals that a dog needs to receive from their food in order to develop properly and stay strong and lively. They are labeled essential because a dog cannot produce them on their own. The most notable of these include:

  • Calcium: bone and teeth growth, muscle function, assists in clotting when cut or injured
    • Deficiency: bone abnormalities, loss of appetite, weakness, seizures
    • Excess: excess water drinking, weakness. Prolonged excess can cause kidney stones and other urinary issues
  • Phosphorus: bone formation and maintenance, balanced metabolism
    • Deficiency: weight loss, limb swelling in growing puppies
    • Excess: increased thirst and urination, risk for dehydration
  • Magnesium: muscle contraction, nerve function, hormone regulation
    • Deficiency: muscle tremors, weakness, potentially dangerous heart arrhythmias
    • Excess: weakness, heart arrhythmias, cardiac arrest, inhibited breathing
  • Sodium: muscle function and contraction, cell function
    • Deficiency: increased heart rate, vomiting, seizures, disorientation
    • Excess: dehydration, stiff muscles, and in severe cases, convulsions

Dogs also need daily servings of Potassium, Iron, Copper, Chlorine, Zinc, Manganese, Selenium, and Iodine.

Know Where Your Dogs Nutrients are Coming From

You would most likely check the packaging of your meals to assess their caloric and nutritional value, your dog's food should be no different. The key when it comes to properly feeding your dog is to know the macro nutrient profiles of their food, the ingredients it is made with, and whether or not the nutrients provided are coming from mostly whole foods.

Proteins in dog food are usually written as meat, meat by-products, or other types of "meals." This kind of protein can help meet the recommended daily intake but by-products are the parts of the animal that are rejected from human consumption, which means that they could still be dangerous. For example, if meat is left unrefrigerated for an extended period of time, it is unfit for humans but is still able to be made into food for dogs.5

You can use this calculator to help you determine the amount of calories your dog needs it. However, this should be used as a caloric guideline rather than a strict parameter - every dog is different just like us! Knowing the source of your dog's nutrient intake can help you better feed them.

So, Dog Food vs Human Food: How Different Are They?

It's safe to say that human diets and dog diets are relatively similar. We both need the same six essential nutrients to stay healthy and functioning properly. BUT when it comes to the actual food that we use to supply our bodies with these nutrients vs what some typical dog food is given to our pets, there is are pretty big discrepancies.

Feed Grade vs Food Grade Ingredients

Knowing the difference in the quality of the food that your dog is being fed can help you better nourish them. Feed grade vs food grade ingredient labels will tell a lot about the nutrient contents of the food.

Feed-Grade: ingredients that are not suitable or safe for human consumption & are intended for animals.

Food-Grade: ingredients and products safe for human consumption. Typically ingredients are tested for safety to prevent against bacteria, mold, and other illness causing particles. Facilities and products are regulated by a government program such as the USDA.

If they are deemed suitable for animals, then why might feed-grade food be harmful? A study conducted by the Poultry Science Associate titled, Nutrient Composition of Feed-Grade and Pet-Food-Grade Poultry By-Product Meal6, compared the two types. They found that food-grade quality foods had more protein and phosphorus levels along with higher levels of amino acid digestibility. While feed-grade had higher levels of ether, low moisture levels, and a high amount of variability when it comes to protein content.

Feed-grade was less consistent in their levels of nutrients and minerals with large discrepancies in Iron content which is crucial for keeping your dog's blood full of oxygen.

What to Do About Your Dog's Food

If you fear that your dog is not getting the proper nutrients, there are some alternatives that can provide them with an alternative source of nutrients.

Some of these include:

    • Raw dog food made with only human grade ingredients
    • Preparing their meals yourself (under guidance of a holistic veterinarian)
    • Contact your dog food manufacturer and ask about the quality of ingredients; are they using food grade or feed grade in the contents?
    • Avoid labels with meat by-products; meat by-products will contain feed grade ingredients

Knowing that pet nutrition is just as important as our own and how to provide them with the best food for their needs is a great first step!

Sources & References


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