Best Dog Food for German Shepherds: What to Look For
By Emily Shiffer —
6 minute read
Breeds + Lifestyle
Reviewed by Emily Luisana, DVM
Every German Shepherd pet parent knows that this adventurous, energetic, oh-so-loveable breed can come with quite an appetite. But feeding your German Shepherd Dog (GSD) isn’t just about keeping hunger at bay. What you serve up at mealtime (and how much) can play a huge role in shaping the overall health, development, and longevity of your German Shepherd.
According to Tailored Pet Veterinary Advisor Emily Luisana, DVM, “German Shepherds have unique features that affect their nutritional needs, including their dental anatomy, double coat, muscle mass, energy level, and rapid growth rate as puppies.”
“Having not just sufficient nutrition, but optimal nutrition can make a visible difference in the health of German Shepherds,” Dr. Luisana affirms.
But what does optimal nutrition look like for GSDs? The answer depends on many variables, including age, weight, and health issues such as food allergies and sensitivities. With so many factors to consider, here’s a guide to help you choose the best dog food to meet your German Shepherd’s needs at every stage of life.
How to Choose the Best Dog Food for German Shepherds
When it comes to your dog’s diet, you’ll find no shortage of choices in dog food — from one-size-fits-most recipes to personalized options that fit your dog’s unique needs. The decision may seem overwhelming, but there are several ways to narrow down your choices to find the best food for your German Shepherd.
First, you can consult the experts to find out what your dog’s food should contain. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) publishes specific dietary nutrient recommendations that apply to all dogs, according to different life stages. As of 2016, AAFCO updated those recommendations to reflect new standards for large breed puppies, based on findings about health risks associated with overfeeding, accelerated growth, and high calcium and phosphorus levels in food.
But your German Shepherd’s unique nutritional needs don’t disappear when puppyhood ends. According to Dr. Luisana, the best dog food for your German Shepherd is one that’s tailored to your pet’s specific nutritional needs and health concerns.
German Shepherds are prone to issues including hip dysplasia, osteoarthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and bloat — all of which can be impacted, positively or negatively, by your dog’s diet.
Helping your GSD maintain a healthy weight is one way to prevent or manage some of these conditions. And according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), the need is greater than ever. APOP’s latest data shows that 55.8% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese.
But addressing your German Shepherd’s overall health and wellness requires more than counting calories. What’s most important is the nutritional makeup of the food, says Dr. Luisana.
German Shepherd Nutritional Needs
When you’re reading dog food labels, you may see language stating the food is “complete and balanced” according to the nutritional standards set by AAFCO for a specific life stage.
However, “complete and balanced” doesn’t tell the whole story about what your GSD is getting out of the food and how it can impact their health, says Dr. Luisana.
To help you with your dog food decision, Dr. Luisana has highlighted five essential nutrients pet parents should consider when choosing dog food for their German Shepherd and why they’re so important.
“Protein can affect German Shepherd immune systems, cardiac health, muscle development, skin, and coat,” says Dr. Luisana. “That’s why it’s important to pay attention to protein’s quality, source, and bioavailability.”
Bioavailability means how much of a nutrient is absorbed into the body where it can benefit your pet (as opposed to being excreted as waste). For example, certain sources of protein — such as muscle meats or eggs — tend to have high amounts of essential amino acids that dogs can readily use. And bioavailability is an indication of how much of a nutrient is digested and absorbed into the body where it can benefit your pet (as opposed to being excreted in the form of dog poop). To get the biggest nutritional benefit from your dog food, it must be easily digestible. And the better the quality of ingredients, the more digestible the dog food.
So it’s important to look for dog foods that use premium ingredients to boost bioavailability. However, if you notice your pet is sensitive to certain proteins (such as beef, chicken, or dairy) avoid them, no matter how high-quality. Food sensitivities can trigger gastrointestinal and digestive issues, which limit bioavailability.
Omega-3 + Omega-6 fatty acids
“Both essential and non-essential fatty acids can influence a dog’s hair coat, skin integrity, and even their nail health,” says Dr. Luisana. “Due to their thick double coat, imbalances or insufficiencies in these fatty acids can be very visible” in German Shepherds.
And in some cases, even a complete and balanced dog food with the recommended levels of fatty acids may not be ideal. According to Dr. Luisana, “German Shepherds are unfortunately prone to exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), which causes maldigestion and malabsorption of food, with fat intolerance being the most obvious effect.”
“An appropriate level of dietary zinc is essential for all dogs, but some German Shepherds can have zinc-responsive dermatitis, which usually shows up as hair loss and redness around the eyes and muzzle.,” says Dr. Luisana. Affected dogs typically have problems absorbing zinc and need extra supplementation beyond what is present in the diet. Since zinc can be toxic at high levels, this should be done with veterinarian guidance.
Calcium + Phosphorus
“Growing, large-breed puppies have unique nutritional needs, namely centered around avoidance of overly-rapid growth, which can cause a slew of orthopedic disorders,” says Dr. Luisana. “Ensuring their diet has not only appropriate amounts of calcium and phosphorus, but also an ideal calcium-to-phosphorus ratio and moderate energy density can help avoid lifelong joint disease.”
“Having a varied mix of soluble and insoluble fiber can promote a healthy microbiome and gastrointestinal system in German Shepherds,” says Dr. Luisana. However, dog food labels may not indicate whether fiber is soluble or insoluble. So it’s best to look at the ingredient list.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and improves the overall health of the large intestine and the bacteria that live there. Some examples are oats, barley, beet pulp, and some types of fruits and legumes. Insoluble or “woody” fiber comes from sources like cellulose or wheat bran. It does not dissolve in water and isn’t even digested. But its sturdy structure helps keep digestion moving smoothly, which helps the body absorb more nutrition.
What to Look for in German Shepherd Dog Food
As a muscular, large dog bred to work, German Shepherds have specific nutritional needs that vary at different life stages. And those needs can change if your dog is dealing with other health issues common to the breed. Here’s a helpful guide to help you find the best dog food for your German Shepherd.
Best Dog Food for German Shepherd Puppies
For German Shepherd puppies, it is key to make sure they have a diet that promotes slower, steady growth. Otherwise, accelerated growth in puppyhood can increase the risk of developing debilitating bone and joint conditions as an adult, such as hip dysplasia.
“Puppies need moderate calorie density with a focus on protein, as well as correct levels of calcium and phosphorus — two minerals that are important for appropriate growth of bones,” says Dr. Luisana.
Avoiding obesity at an early age is also extremely important nutritionally. According to AAFCO, for large breed puppies in the “growth” stage, the breakdown of nutrients in dog food should contain:
- A minimum of 22.5% crude protein
- A minimum of 8.5% crude fat
- A minimum of 1.2% and maximum of 1.8% calcium
- A minimum of 1.0% and maximum of 1.6% phosphorus
“For younger puppies under 4-5 months, we recommend feeding 3-4 times a day,” says Dr. Luisana. “At about 6 months, the transition tends to slow to twice a day.”
Best Dog Food For German Shepherd Adults
Avoiding obesity is crucial for adult German Shepherds, as extra pounds can make many of the health conditions the breed is prone to even worse. Also, though active and bred to work, the metabolism of German Shepherds is slower than smaller adult dogs, so it’s easier for weight to creep up.
Dr. Luisana also recommends choosing a balanced dog food that promotes lean muscle mass, one with “highly bioavailable protein and fat sources, as well as quality carbohydrate and mixed fiber sources,” including proper soluble and insoluble fiber to help keep your dog’s gut healthy.
Pet parents may also want to consider supplements that promote joint health. “Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin can be beneficial in some dogs,” says Dr. Luisana.
Best Dog Food for German Shepherd Seniors
“Senior German Shepherds should have a diet with a protein level that reflects their physical demands, which can be tricky,” says Dr. Luisana. “Senior dogs tend to be less active, but they are also prone to losing lean muscle mass. They can benefit from decreased caloric density to match their activity level, as well as supplemental Omega-3 joint supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin.”
Best Dog Food For German Shepherds with Skin Allergies
German Shepherds are also prone to allergies and food sensitivities that can affect their skin. If you notice that your dog is constantly scratching, has dry, flaky skin (dandruff), or often suffers from ear infections, these could be signs of an allergic reaction caused by something in your dog’s environment or diet.
Allergies trigger an inflammatory response in the immune system, which can result in intense itching.
“Food allergies are typically due to the protein in the food,” says Dr. Luisana. So you may want to start by steering clear of food containing proteins known to be common allergens for dogs, like beef, dairy, and chicken. Your veterinary nutritionist or veterinarian may also recommend an elimination diet to help you determine what is triggering your dog’s allergic response.
In addition to a diet free of allergens, look for dog food rich in essential fatty acids, which can help soothe itchiness and promote healthy skin and coat.
Best Dog Food for German Shepherds for Sensitive Stomachs
German Shepherds are also known to have sensitive stomachs and digestive issues. These include:
- Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus, a condition that can cause severe bloat and/or gas-filled stomach twists
- Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency, a deficiency of digestive enzymes, which can lead to poor absorption of nutrients
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease, a disease that can result in chronic vomiting and/or diarrhea, which can be food sensitive
To address mild stomach issues, Dr. Luisana recommends a diet that promotes good digestion. Look for dog food that has limited ingredients, is high in fiber, or includes both prebiotics and probiotics. Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that keep your dog’s gut happy and healthy. “Prebiotic fibers are food for probiotic bacteria, and they work in the gut synergistically,” says Dr. Luisana.
Custom Nutrition for Your German Shepherd
Most commercial dog food options are designed to meet the needs of the many. As a result, it may be hard to find all the nutritional benefits you’re looking for in one dog food. That’s why a customized diet, personalized to meet your German Shepherd’s needs, may also be a great option.
Tailored Pet offers customized diet plans for your dog’s specific health and nutritional needs based on a personalized quiz that delves into age, size, breed, sensitivities, health and wellness goals, and current dog food to match your pup with the right foods.
The best food for your German Shepherd can depend on many factors, including your dog’s age, health, and dietary allergies or sensitivities. But finding the best diet and nutrition for your dog’s needs can be achieved by working with a veterinary nutritionist or your veterinarian. And with the advances in pet nutrition, it’s easier than ever to find a personalized diet perfect for your pup.
About the Author
Emily Shiffer is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania and is a former online staff member at Men's Health and Prevention magazines. She writes for a multitude of publications, including Women's Health, Parade, SHAPE, and more. Emily loves all things antiques, cilantro, and American history. She grew up with two dachshunds and aspires to one day be a Doxie mom.