Pet Nutrition


This article was written for Pet Guardian Angels of America by Jenn Lee
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5 Easy Steps for Understanding Your Pet’s Nutrition Needs

Gone are the days when pet food options were limited to a few dusty bags of dry kibble at the grocery store. Shoppers with an interest in their pets’ nutrition often ended up making food at home to ensure a balanced diet for their furry friends. Fortunately, modern pet parents now devote almost as much attention to their pets’ diets as they do their own, and they’ve driven demand for a host of ready-made foods designed with health and longevity foremost in mind.

There’s more accessible information than ever about pet nutrition, but some of it can be confusing and even contradictory, making it a challenge to sort through the options and choose the right food-in the right quantity-for each stage of a pet’s life. The five tips ahead can help sort through the noise.

Know The Right Macronutrient Balance

Cats, dogs, and other pets all have different dietary systems, so they each need foods with different macronutrient profiles. Macronutrients are simply nutrients that the body needs in large quantities, and they’re the same for humans as they are for animals: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. For example, cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they have to eat mostly meat. Dogs, on the other hand, are omnivores, so they need to consume other foods like fruits and vegetables in greater quantities than cats do. Most rodents are also omnivores; a few, like chinchillas and guinea pigs, are herbivores, and should only eat plants.

Since cats are carnivores, quality cat foods have substantially more protein and fats than carbohydrates, and cat owners should look for brands with plenty of meat. For instance, Dr. Marty Nature’s Feast reviews emphasize the high levels of both protein and fat in the formula, which make it both a nutritious and appealing choice for cats. Nutritious dog foods, on the other hand, balance healthy sources of carbohydrates with fat and protein.

In recent years, grain-free dog foods have grown more popular. These formulas fulfill dogs’ carbohydrate requirements by replacing wheat, rice, corn, and other grains with legumes, like lentils or peas, and potatoes. Some dog owners report that their pets thrive on a grain-free diet.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy, linked to dogs who consumed a grain-free diet and weren’t vulnerable to the disease because of their breed. In dogs with DCM, the heart’s ventricles expand and the heart muscle thins, interfering with its ability to pump oxygenated blood throughout the body. Pet parents may notice symptoms, but in some cases the disease appears suddenly with congestive heart failure.

The FDA has not concluded that grain-free foods are unsafe, but for large-breed dogs predisposed to DCM, like Irish Wolfhounds or Doberman Pinschers, consult with a veterinarian before feeding grain-free. While some dogs have grain allergies and should eat a grain-free diet, most don’t need to avoid them entirely.

Introduce New Foods With Care

Weight management, allergies, or aging can prompt pet parents to change what they’re feeding, but it’s important not to switch foods suddenly. Abrupt changes in diet can cause stomach upset, and picky eaters may reject new foods. Instead, mix the new food into the old food over the course of a week, replacing the old food about a quarter portion at a time. Watch for digestive disturbances, allergy symptoms like scratching or licking, and changes in appetite. If no issue appears by the end of the transition period, it’s likely safe to start feeding the new food by itself.

Although changing foods is a simple task for most pets, owners should not transition off a prescription diet without bringing up their concerns to their vet. If owners suspect allergies, veterinary advice is invaluable for guiding food choices and managing symptoms.

Tailor Pets’ Diets to Their Lifestyle and Needs

Most shoppers are familiar with foods marketed towards different animal life stages, particularly puppy/kitten, adult, and senior formulas. Weight management is another important consideration, but owners may not want to switch their pets to a weight loss formulation, especially if the current food is well-tolerated or their pet has allergies that make finding new foods a challenge. Changing how much food pets eat is often enough, but it requires owners to dig into just how many calories their pets need.

Pet parents who aren’t sure whether or not their cat or dog needs to lose weight should consider their pet’s body condition score, a visual and tactile measure of body composition. For both dogs and cats, ribs should be palpable, but there should be some fat on top, and there should be a noticeable waist visible from above. Overweight pets have a less prominent waist and more fat covering their ribs. If there’s any uncertainty, a vet can help determine body condition score during a routine visit.

Use a calculator that considers the body condition score and current weight to determine pets’ ideal weight and caloric intake. In general, the older and less active pets are, the less they need to eat. Moderate activity, like lots of walks or plenty of time outside, requires more energy. For working dogs or those involved in competitive canine sports, the requirements are higher still. Spayed and neutered animals need fewer calories than their intact counterparts. Special cases include birth and pregnancy; lactating animals should feed freely, and pregnant pets should eat a vet-recommended diet.

To calculate how much food pets should eat, look on the packaging for the number of calories per cup, and divide their recommended daily intake by that number. For instance, a spayed dog with an ideal weight of 50 pounds needs 1,019 calories per day. If her food offers 400 calories per cup, she’ll need just over 2.5 cups of food per day to maintain her weight.

Keep an Eye on Treats and Table Scraps

In the example above, the 2.5 cups of food accounts for everything the dog eats, but that might not be realistic. Many pet parents love to spoil their companions with fancy treats, chew toys, and even a pet-sized portion of whatever they’re eating for dinner. How much food should come from treats and scraps-and should pets eat human food at all?

Quality pet food contains plenty of ingredients that sound familiar to humans. Brands tout flavors that sound like a dinner menu, like free-range chicken and wild rice or Alaskan salmon and sweet potatoes. But pet foods are designed to meet animals’ specific nutritional needs with exactly the right amount of vitamins and minerals essential to their health, like potassium, calcium, and folate.

To be marketed as a “complete and balanced” food in the U.S., manufacturers have to meet standards established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials. Brands can meet this standard either by submitting a nutritional analysis or performing AAFCO-certified feeding trials. The vast majority of brands are AAFCO-certified, because it assures buyers that the food will meet all of their pet’s health needs. Feeding exclusively whole foods prepared at home, whether cooked or raw, can require supplementation or veterinary supervision, so cats, dogs, and other animals may develop nutritional deficiencies or gain weight if table scraps are a big part of their diet.

Treats, although they might be developed just for pets, don’t have to meet the same feeding standards that regular foods do, so too many treats can have the same effect as too many table scraps, especially if they’re fatty. For dogs and cats alike, veterinarians recommend that 10% or fewer of their daily calories come from treats and scraps. If “people food” is a habit, always know what to avoid, and limit sharing to lean, unseasoned items. Some pets have delicate stomachs, so discuss treats and table scraps with a vet to be sure furry friends can enjoy safely.

Convince Picky Eaters To Eat Enough

As pet parents know, some animals will eat anything! While indiscriminate snacking has its downsides-shoes, furniture, and the like-it makes dietary management easy. However, certain pets are much more particular about what they eat. If their pickiness prevents them from eating enough, it can cause understandable stress for their owners. Apparent loss of appetite should always be brought to a vet’s attention. It can indicate issues such as dental pain, intestinal blockage, cancer, or even extreme stress. A vet’s full understanding of the pet’s medical history and other symptoms is crucial for deciding how to help.

If the vet agrees that a pet’s lack of appetite should be treated as its own issue, topping their usual food with something warm and savory, like cooked chicken, hamburger, or eggs, can make meals more attractive. Switching from dry food to canned or fresh might also help, since wet foods tend to be more fragrant and thus more appealing to pets. An alternative feeding method might spark new interest in mealtimes, too; try food-dispensing toys or feeding them by hand.

Every pet parent wants to make the best food choices they can for their companions. Fortunately, with some careful research and patience, it’s easier than ever to find safe, high-quality options to ensure pets live their longest, healthiest, and happiest lives.

Jenn Lee, is a family blogger and proud parent of Reggie the Golden Retriever .