the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.

What Nutrients are Essential for My Pet?

What Nutrients are Essential for My Pet?
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While you may have heard us say “pets need nutrients, not ingredients,” what exactly are those essential nutrients? Here’s a breakdown of all the essential nutrients according to the  Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) that are required for foods to be called complete and balanced for adult and growing cats and dogs. Included are also links to other blog posts that describe some of these nutrients and why they’re essential.

Protein and Amino Acids

While the amount may differ between dogs and cats, and between adults and seniors, all pets have a minimum requirement for protein to make muscle in the body and help in many important body functions. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and there are approximately a dozen essential amino acids in addition to a minimum of overall protein that all pets need:

    • Arginine
    • Histidine
    • Isoleucine
    • Leucine
    • Lysine
    • Methionine
    • Cystine
    • Phenylalanine
    • Threonine
    • Tryptophan
    • Valine
    • Taurine (cats)


Fats and Fatty Acids

All pets have a minimum amount of total fat that they need in their diet and there are also some specific types of fatty acids that are also required for different lifestages. Overall fats and specific types of fatty acids help your pet maintain a healthy skin/coat, regulate inflammation, and aid in development in growing pets.

    • Linoleic Acid
    • Arachidonic Acid (cats)
    • Alpha-Linoleic Acid (growth)
    • EPA + DHA (growth)



 Minerals, some of which are also called electrolytes, are critical to keeping fluid balance, growing and maintaining bones, and helping to regulate many processes running in a pet’s body, such as movement of muscles. The amounts required can vary between growing and adult animals, and there is also a required ratio of certain minerals such as calcium and phosphorus for optimal health, especially for growing large breed puppies.

    • Calcium
    • Phosphorus
    • Potassium
    • Sodium
    • Chloride
    • Magnesium
    • Iron
    • Copper
    • Manganese
    • Zinc
    • Iodine
    • Selenium



 Cats and dogs require many of the same vitamins as we do (except for Vitamin C, which they can make themselves!), but the amounts can be very different. One example is Vitamin D, where dogs need less than 1/10th the amount that humans do, so we have to be very careful about using human products (or any supplements for that matter!) in pets to avoid toxic amounts of vitamin D. Vitamins perform many functions in the body from supporting the immune system to breaking down food for energy, and are either water soluble (the B vitamins) or fat soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K). The essential vitamins for dogs and cats are listed below with common alternate names that you may see on your pet food ingredient lists.

    • Vitamin A (retinol)
    • Vitamin D (cholecalciferol)
    • Vitamin E (tocopherol)
    • Vitamin K (phylloguinone, cats)
    • Thiamine (Vitamin B1)
    • Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
    • Niacin (Vitamin B3)
    • Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5)
    • Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6)
    • Folic Acid/Folate (Vitamin B9)
    • Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
    • Choline


 Where Can I Go To Learn More?

 If you’d like to learn more about the exact amounts required of these nutrients in different lifestages and species, booklets are also available online from the National Resource Council with more details on each of these essential nutrients for dogs and cats.

How Do I Know My Pet Is Getting All These Nutrients?

Foods that have AAFCO nutritional adequacy statements that state they are complete and balanced have to include all these essential nutrients and stay between the minimum requirements and any maximums. Providing extra through supplements may actually harm your pet because you may unknowingly be providing a toxic amount of some nutrients that have narrow safety ranges! We recommend only giving supplements with any of these essential nutrients when recommended specifically by your veterinarian.


Dr. Deborah Linder, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, is the head of the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals and has had articles appear in Eating Well, the Boston Globe, AARP, SHAPE, and XM Sirius Radio Doctor Channel. She has spoken at national and international conferences and a Capitol Hill briefing, and is an expert in pet obesity, nutrition communication, and in the human-animal bond. 

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