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Your small breed dog might think they’re one of the big dogs, but when it comes to dinnertime, their nutritional needs are unique. Food for small dog breeds needs to follow a specially-formulated diet to help your dog feel and act their best. Unfortunately, finding the best dog food for small breeds is not always easy, and different breeds may have different needs when it comes to food.

Nutrition for Small Dogs

Small dogs are different in many ways from their larger counterparts, beginning with their nutritional needs. Despite their small size, small and toy breed dogs might need more calories per pound than large-breed dogs. Their higher metabolic rates particularly affect their dietary needs in puppyhood, and there are health concerns as they age that diet can help address.

In general, dogs require a wide range of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Contrary to popular belief, dogs are not strictly carnivores. Domestic dogs rely on grains, fruits, and vegetables, as well as meat, for a complete and balanced diet.

Most dog foods from pet stores or supermarkets are convenient, and contain all of the nutrients that dogs need to stay healthy. Sometimes, they’re even more affordable. Since few owners are experts in dog nutrition, feeding a dry or canned dog food diet takes the guesswork out of balancing your dog’s nutritional needs.

Pembroke Welsh Corgi laying next to its bowl of kibble.
©Justyna -

Nutrition Risks for Small Breeds

Certain breeds may have their own nutritional concerns. Talk to your vet about your dog to see if there are any nutritional risks you should be aware of based on breed, age, or existing health problems.

Small breed puppies, especially toy breeds, require careful feeding to prevent a condition called hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia is the scientific word for low blood sugar, and small breed puppies are prone to developing this condition as a result of high metabolic rates and low sugar and body fat reserves. This means they need to be fed a calorie-dense, small breed puppy food anywhere from four-to-six times a day and watched closely for symptoms of hypoglycemia, like weakness, lethargy, muscle tremors, and seizures.

Best Food for Small Breed Puppies

You shouldn’t assume that small dog breeds are low maintenance and easy to feed just because of their size. This could be potentially dangerous for the dog.

Most complete and balanced small breed puppy foods contain the appropriate amount of nutrients for small breed dogs. They also have smaller kibbles, which are easier for small breed puppies to chew and are less of a choking hazard. Talk to your vet about the risks of hypoglycemia and what you can do to prevent it in your small breed puppy. If you suspect your puppy has hypoglycemia, talk to your veterinarian immediately.


Best Dog Food for Small Adult Dogs

Finding the best food for small breed adults can be tricky. There are lots of options claiming to offer your dog the best nutritional package in a variety of price ranges. You can narrow your search by asking your veterinarian what they recommend. Depending on your dog’s health, your vet might recommend a specific food or several brands that they feels offer the best food for small breeds.

Small breed adult dogs require more calories-per-pound than large dogs, and they also need smaller kibbles, which is why diets especially formulated for small breeds are usually best.

Best Food for Small Breed Senior Dogs

Small breed dogs typically live longer than large breed dogs. This means that your small breed dog could be eating the same food from the time they graduate from puppy food for over a decade. A diet rich in antioxidants could help keep them healthy over their long lifespan, so ask your veterinarian about the best foods for small breeds that contain plenty of antioxidants.

Both adult and all other life-stage formulas are appropriate for senior dogs. Currently, there is no senior, geriatric, or mature dog food nutrient profile recognized by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Dog foods that cater to senior dogs do not have to meet specific senior nutrient requirements, and they may not have undergone any clinical trials to test their effectiveness. This does not necessarily mean that senior dog foods for small breeds are a bad choice for your senior pet, but it is a good idea to talk to your veterinarian about a senior diet before you buy, in order to make sure you get an effective formula.

Senior small breed dogs may develop health problems that require special dietary restrictions or prescription diets. Prescription senior diets, unlike commercial diets, are specially formulated and clinically proven to help treat certain conditions. Your vet may recommend a prescription diet for your senior pet if they feel it’s necessary.

How to Read a Dog Food Label

Yorkshire Terrier laying down indoors.
STOWEN SETO/Getty Images Plus

One of the first things conscientious owners look at is the label on a bag of food. While this is a good practice, the reality is that dog food labels can be very misleading and hard to interpret. There are a few things to keep in mind as you look at a label:

  • Look for the statement “complete and balanced”
  • Check the life stages (ie. puppy, adult, all life stages)
  • Examine the ingredients for any allergens your pet may have

“Complete and balanced” dog foods contain at least the minimum amount of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients considered necessary for dogs, helping ensure that your pet does not suffer from a nutrient deficiency. Choosing the appropriate life stage also helps keep your pet nutritionally satisfied, and avoiding allergens prevents your dog from suffering from an allergic reaction.

Ingredients in Small Breed Dog Food

The ingredient list is a good way to see what the primary ingredients in the dog food are, but it will not tell you very much about the quality of the ingredients. The best way to determine if the food is made from good quality ingredients such as meats, grains, vegetables, and fruits is to contact the manufacturer or consult your veterinarian.

The manufacturer should be able to give you a complete nutritional analysis of the product, which you can present to your vet, and can also verify whether or not there is a board-certified veterinary nutritionist on its staff. Most manufacturers have this information available on their websites, and if not, you should feel free to call their customer service representative with your questions. Other questions to ask are:

  • Do they follow AAFCO feeding trials?
  • Have they participated in clinical studies about their products?
  • Do they manufacture their foods in-house where they have control over all aspects of development, or do they outsource?
  • Where do they source their ingredients?
  • How many calories are in their servings?

Cost of Small Breed Dog Food

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel meeting a Yorkshire Terrier at the park.

Once you have sorted through the various dog food brands and found one that you and your vet think will best benefit your dog, you need to decide how much you are willing to spend. A good rule of thumb to follow for commercial dog food diets is to stay away from the cheapest option. Your dog’s food is a vital part of their preventative healthcare, and so you want to invest in it as much as possible. When it comes to dog food, you usually get what you pay for.

On the other hand, an expensive dog food is not a guarantee of quality, either. By talking with your veterinarian and comparing brands of dog food in a variety of price ranges, you should be able to find the best dog food for small dogs that also matches your budget.

Types of Small-Breed Dog Food

Dry Dog Food

Dry dog food is the most common choice for dogs, and often, also the least expensive. Dry dog food for small breeds is convenient because it’s easy to store, and easy to transport when traveling or boarding your dog. Since dry food is typically solid, the corners help reduce plaque on your dog’s teeth and rub off tartar. It’s also easy to use as a treat to give your dog, since you can give them small pieces instead of treats if they’re food-driven.

Wet Dog Food

Since wet dog food is moist, it contains a lot of water. If your dog is dehydrated, wet food could be a good choice to help them get the water intake that they need. It’s easy to chew since it’s soft, so it’s a great food choice for senior dogs, or dogs that are missing teeth. Because it has a higher water content, wet food for small dogs is also typically a lower-calorie choice than dry food.

Specialty Diets for Small Breed Dogs

Pet food trends come and go. Feeding your dog raw diets, grain-free diets, and home-cooked pet meals are also options, and could have other health benefits. If you are considering feeding a non-traditional diet to your small breed dog, talk with your veterinarian. There are serious concerns associated with some of these trends, especially raw diets, that pet owners need to be aware of in order to keep both their pets and their families safe.

Some small dogs have allergies to certain ingredients. If your dog has a food allergy or sensitivity, talk to your vet about the best type of food for your dog and what ingredients to avoid.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel with its head in its food bowl eating.
AVAVA/Getty Images Plus

Dog Obesity in Small Breeds

While small dogs might need more calories per pound than larger dogs, that does not mean that owners should overfeed them. One of the biggest concerns regarding dog nutrition is obesity. Obese dogs are more prone to a variety of health issues, and it is estimated that obesity takes as many as two years off of our dogs’ lives.

Obesity in dogs can have serious health concerns. Osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart and respiratory disease, kidney disease, cranial cruciate ligament injury, and even cancer are at a heightened risk in obese dogs.

If your dog is overweight, talk to your vet about your options. Feeding your small breed low-fat or weight controlled food, on top of regular exercise, can help them

How Much Should I Feed My Small Breed Dog?

Finding the best dog food for small dogs is the first step toward helping your pet live a long and healthy life. Figuring out how much to feed them is the second. In general, the guidelines on the back of the food bag are a good place to start. Measure out each meal and monitor your pet’s weight closely to see if they gain or lose weight when you follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Don’t hesitate to talk with your veterinarian to help you determine the best weight for your dog.

Unfortunately for small breed dog owners, breeders, and enthusiasts, there is no single best dog food for small breeds. Following these guidelines and consulting with your veterinarian are good ways to find a dog food that works for your wallet and your dog. With a little research, you can feel safe knowing that your dog is getting the best possible nutrition to help her live a long and healthy life.
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