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    Dog Food: Why Ingredients Matter

    Age

    Puppies need foods specially made for growth, while senior dogs need food that can help with aging. The labels will tell you which foods are made for puppies or seniors, but Stewart suggests also looking at the ingredients. Look for antioxidants, specifically vitamin E and beta-carotene.

    "Antioxidants help protect the cells and tissues from damage," he says. "In the case of younger dogs, it helps as the immune system is developing. With geriatric dogs, their immune system is starting to decline, so helping to protect it is very important."

    Overweight

    Talk to your vet to rule out any underlying medical problems that could be causing weight gain, Farcas says. And be honest about how much you feed every day -- including treats.

    Your vet may suggest a prescription weight loss food. Or you may choose an off-the-shelf food with less fat, fewer calories, and more fiber, designed for overweight dogs.

    You also might want to look for an ingredient called L-carnitine. This amino acid is sometimes called the "smart nutrient," Stewart says, because it helps your pet's body burn fat.

    Energy

    If your dog competes in agility or other sporting events, you may need to give her special fuel.

    Look for food made for performance dogs, or just choose one a little higher in fat (like a puppy food), says Stewart. He cautions, however, to make sure you switch to normal food if your dog takes a break from competing. Or you could end up with a chubby ex-athlete.

    And if your dog just competes occasionally, you probably don't need a higher-fat food at all, Farcas says. Ask your vet.

    Joint Problems

    If your dog has arthritis or is a larger breed prone to joint problems, you may want to consider a food with added glucosamine and chondroitin. Your vet may also suggest giving glucosamine and chondroitin supplements, too. Omega-3 fatty acids can also help with joint inflammation, Farcas says. Look for EPA and DHA fatty acids when you're reading the ingredient label.

    Teeth

    Feeding your dog dry food instead of wet food may do a better job of keeping your dog's teeth clean. But there are also dog foods that are specially formulated to keep plaque from building up. In some, the kibbles are bigger and don't crumble -- offering more of a scrubbing action when dogs chew. In others, the food is chemically engineered to keep tartar from forming.

    If you're not feeding your dog a special diet for shiny fur or a tender stomach, then it can't hurt to choose a dental diet, Farcas says. But special food is no substitute for good doggy dental care. Brush your pet's teeth at least twice a week, and visit your vet for regular cleanings.

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