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When it comes to nutrition, dogs are a lot like people. They're omnivores, meaning they can live healthy lives while eating a variety of food. Meats, vegetables, and grains all can be a part of a dog's diet.

But also like us, dogs need balanced, moderately-sized meals that fuel their activities, not an overindulgent diet that will expand their waistlines and put them at risk of diseases like diabetes.

Know Your Dog's Needs

How much you feed your dog mainly depends on three factors:

  1. Age
  2. Activity level
  3. Ideal weight

A young Australian shepherd, for example, needs a lot of exercise, and that means a lot of food to keep him going. A tiny, 10-year-old Chihuahua, though, may be more accustomed to spending her day in your lap rather than building up a big appetite.

Dog food labels often provide some guidance on portion size, but your vet will know best how much food your dog needs to maintain a healthy weight, says veterinarian Louise Murray, DVM. She's vice president of the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York.

"Diet should be based on a dog's condition, and it should be very tailored to the dog," Murray says. "Talk to your vet."

Your vet can also recommend foods that may help protect your dog against disease, says veterinarian Chea Hall, DVM, of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Large dogs may be more likely than smaller dogs to develop arthritis, for instance. Proper nutrition may help protect your dog's joints and reduce the risk of arthritis.

Know Your Dog's Food

Your vet can calculate how many calories your dog should get each day, but most dog food labels don't tell you how many calories the food provides.

"One cup could be 200 calories or it could be 400, and that's a huge difference," says Hall, who recommends a mostly dry food diet because dry is generally lower in calories than canned food.

Hall's advice: Contact the food's maker for calorie and other nutritional information. You should also look for a statement on the package that says the food meets at least the minimum requirements for a healthy diet set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) for your dog's life stage.

Food labels often use terms like "gourmet," "natural," and "premium," Murray notes. Those words may sound appealing, but they have no standard definition when it comes to dog food -- so they tell you nothing about what's in the food.

"They are not something to go by," Murray says.

Your vet can be a good guide to selecting an appropriate dog food both for your dog's health and your budget. Hall often recommends the foods sold by animal clinics, but since that's not always a convenient or affordable option, she works with people to pick out a food that works for both owner and dog. Your vet can do the same.

Would you rather make your dog's meals yourself? It's crucial that you talk to your vet first to learn how to meet your dog's nutritional needs, Hall says.