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YOUR DOG'S NUTRITIONAL NEEDS

Your dog might be happy to eat anything you drop in the dish, from a spoonful of cottage cheese to a serving of primo canned dog food to a scoop of generic kibble from the supermarket. Even if your pet's choosier than that, dogs certainly don't eat with an eye to the right balance of vitamins and minerals, or carbohydrates, protein and fat. Pets need you to make sure meals will help them stay healthy and strong. For you, the hard part is figuring out what will provide an adult dog with complete nutrition.

Even the experts disagree. That's why even the premium brands aren't identical. As far as anyone knows, there is no perfect food. However, the experts' consensus on many related issues will lead you to a good choice.

Changing Needs

As dogs leave puppyhood behind, they need less protein and fat and fewer calories. A young dog can switch to an adult food when the growth rate slows or the dog reaches 75 to 80 percent of the adult size, usually around 1 year of age, depending upon the breed. If you're unsure whether your dog should change to adult food, consult your veterinarian.

When you switch to a new food, do it gradually, over a one to two week period. Mix in increasing amounts of the new type as you decrease the proportion of your dog's original food.

Choosing the Food

With so many formulas of various grades available, what should you do? It is important that your dog maintain a balanced diet. This diet should consist of the appropriate amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins as well as fresh water. Not sure if your dog's food measures up? The better the diet, the better your pet should look. A shiny, silky coat and no dry skin are good signs. What works well for one dog may not suit another, so try a different brand if you're dissatisfied.

Heading Off Obesity

Your dog relies on you to avoid overeating. You'll want to keep your pet near the optimal weight your vet tells you. When determining how much food to provide, you can start by checking the feeding guidelines that appear on the labels of most pet food, but take your dog's activity level into account, too. If your pet doesn't polish off what you put in the bowl, cut back a bit.

The biggest nutritional problem for older pets is obesity. As in humans, carrying extra pounds around can lead to life-threatening illnesses. Fortunately, you can head off this hazardous condition by monitoring your dog's weight and keeping it in a healthful range throughout adulthood.

If your dog starts packing on the pounds and reducing his normal food intake and increasing exercise doesn't seem to help, talk to your vet about trying lower-calorie food. These products contain less fat and more fiber than adult maintenance foods, so your dog consumes fewer calories yet feels full. Also, if you've been feeding once a day, a twice-daily schedule may aid weight control.

Finally, limit treats - those calories count, too! Keep in mind the amount of exercise your dog is getting, as it may be necessary to increase activity level while adjusting diet. Your veterinarian can offer suggestions for helping your dog slim down and may want to run a few tests to ensure nothing else may be contributing to his weight gain.

When those soulful eyes beseech you for a bite of your ham sandwich, remember that the kindest thing you can do for your four-legged friends is help them stay fit and healthy. Nutritious dog food goes a long way toward preventing problems down the road.