Since your dog can’t go shopping or read labels, it’s up to you to make good, sound decisions about your dog’s diet. This guide will teach you what to look for next time you’re cruising the dog food aisle.

Though it may seem obvious, many pet owners don’t realize how important a balanced, high-quality diet is to their dog’s overall health. A healthy diet will help ensure that your dog enjoys strong bones, healthy teeth and gums, a robust immune system, a lustrous coat, and a long and happy life. In fact, feeding your dog a healthy, balanced diet can even cut down on costly unplanned vet visits.

1. Ask Your Vet for Advice
With so many options available, choosing the right bag of kibbles can seem like a daunting task. Just remember: Your dog will love you no matter which one you pick. Perhaps the best way to sort through your options is to ask your vet which brands and/or formulas they recommend for your dog.

2. Understand That There are Different Feeds for Different Needs
Even if you select an ideal food for your dog today, his nutritional needs can change over the course of a lifetime:

Consider your dog’s size. Many brands offer foods that are formulated specifically for the needs of growing puppies. If your puppy falls into the large or giant breed category, it’s important that you select a food designed for large breed puppies. These formulas usually include altered calcium and phosphorus levels to accommodate the rapid growth of larger dogs.

Manage disease with diet. Certain types of diseases can be managed using food prescribed by your veterinarian. For example, low-protein diets are often prescribed for dogs with kidney disease.

Combat the aging process. Older dogs, like older humans, may need nutritional supplements to feel their very best. Dog foods formulated for senior dogs often have higher levels of antioxidants and glucosamine to fight inflammation and support joint functioning for dogs with arthritis.

3. Don’t Over-treat
Treats can be a huge ally during the training process but don’t overdo it. Too many treats can lead to canine obesity, a condition that often results in diabetes, high blood pressure, and orthopedic problems – all of which will greatly shorten your dog’s lifespan.

4. Be Stingy With Table Scraps
Feeding your pup table scraps, much like being too generous with the treats, poses the risk of adding unnecessary calories to your dog’s diet. Contrary to popular belief, treats and scraps rarely “fill the gaps” in a dog’s diet. Instead, these extra morsels often lead to an even greater nutritional imbalance. In addition, many dogs are allergic to human foods like wheat and chicken, which can give them itchy skin or ear infections. If you must indulge your begging pet, some vets recommend healthy treats like raw carrots or green beans.

5. Consult Your Vet About Homemade Food
While homemade diets have their advantages, like the ability to tailor meals to fit your dog’s specific needs, it’s best to develop a homemade diet under the guidance of a veterinary nutritionist. Seemingly minor substitutions in a dog food recipe can result in a diet that’s unbalanced, nutritionally deficient, or, even worse, toxic to your dog.

6. Understand the Risks of Raw Food Diets
While proponents can be very enthusiastic about a diet that more closely resembles what a dog might eat in the wild, there’s little scientific evidence that suggests there’s any advantage to feeding your dog raw bones and meat. Not only do raw diets pose the same risks as homemade diets in terms of being potentially unbalanced or nutritionally deficient, but raw diets run a higher risk of food-borne contamination like salmonella. What’s more, tiny fragments of raw bone can puncture your doggie’s digestive tract. Ouch!

As always, it’s always a good idea to consult with your vet before making any radical changes to your dog’s diet.