Westbury Animal Hospital
713.723.3666 · 4917 S. Willow Dr. Houston, Texas 77035 

Part 1 of 4 of the Pet Nutrition Series

Jennifer Garb, DVM, MPH

Emily Gaugh, DVM, MPH

“Taking the Excuses Out of Neglecting Your Pets Nutrition”

Every day I enter my exam room and am met by a pet who stares up at me bravely through puffy cheeks and rolly love handles. They wag their tails and paddle over to greet me or raise their plump rear end to receive a scratch. All of us are aware of the obesity epidemic that is occurring in this country, but what may not be so obvious is that this phenomenon has trickled down to affect the lives of our furry friends. There are so many obese pets in this country, that I feel it has almost become a standard. When I see an ideal weight pet, many people perceive this as being too “skinny”.

Everyone struggles with the temptations of overeating and lack of exercise, including myself. But it is SO easy to help our pets be better than we are. They only eat what we give them! They can’t go stand in front of the fridge out of boredom and choose a whole pie to consume; we have to make that decision for them. Humans have a tendency to want their animal’s meals to be as exciting as their own and tend to overdramatize the need for variation and snacks. 

Why is this happening? The human animal bond has grown tremendously over the years; right along with our pet’s waist lines. Our furry companions have made their way out from under the front porch on the farm and straight into our own beds. One of the biggest contributing factors I suspect comes from the fact that it is so hard to figure out what to feed our pets. When I ask clients about their own pet’s diet I get a wide range of answers from, “I don’t know; my wife buys the dog food.” Or “Whatever is on sale at the store.” or my favorite is “We only buy organic corn free food because our neighbor told us it was the best.”

No more excuses people! Your pet’s nutrition is just as important as the rest of their physical and behavioral health. Don’t get me wrong, the pet food industry does not make things easy for us. There are so many types of pet foods on the market as well as an extensive amount of hypes and trends.

Regardless of which food you feel you need to feed your pet, please consider following these rules of thumb:

AAFCO Approved

Pet foods made in the US must conform to standards met by the FDA and AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). You should choose a food with the AAFCO label on the bag.

Feed For Your Pet’s Life Stage

When reading the labels on the bag there will always be a designator stating what population it targets such as “dog food” or “for kittens”. It is important to get a product that is intended for your pet’s proper life stage. Avoid products that state “All Life Stages”. What works for a lactating mom is probably not what you need for your couch potato pooch. Choose products that are intended for your specific animal such as puppy, active adult, indoor cat, or senior pet.

Make sure it has undergone a feeding trial

Another important thing to check on your bag of food is the basis of nutrition claim. This is the statement telling you how the company determined the accuracy of their statements on how the food was tested. You want a product that has undergone a feeding trial method. Bags of food will say such things as; “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (brand) provides complete and balanced nutrition for…”

Don’t fall for the labels!

The biggest downfall for consumers is when they get tripped up over the ingredient list. Many bags will try to draw you in with statements on the front telling you they have real beef or real chicken. However, this can be completely inaccurate. For instance, products that state “chicken” require at least 70% of the product to contain chicken. “Chicken entrée” means that only 10% of the product must contain chicken if moist, and “with chicken” means that only 3% of the product actually contains chicken. So just because the word chicken is on the bag doesn’t really mean you are feeding chicken to your pet.

Another enticing label is the ones that have organic written all over the front. There is nothing wrong with wanting to buy organic things, but you need to know what this term means. There is absolutely no evidence showing that organic food is more nutritious or healthier than non-organic. You are paying for the type of processing. Period. No bag of dog food that has to tell you ten times on the front how it’s ranked or how nutritious it is will mean that it is what is right for your pet.

The Ingredient List

Keep in mind that the ingredient statement does not provide information on the quality of the ingredients. This is where you have to rely on the reputation of the brand. When the ingredient list is made, the ingredients are ordered by weight, this can be deceiving because meats are higher in moisture content making them heavier. This does not mean that they are a large source of the protein content in the food. It just means it is heavy.

Where does my protein come from?

Many consumers automatically have a negative response to the term “meat by-products”. It is true that some by products are greater protein sources than others, but the products listed on the bag have to meet the AAFCO standard of proper nutrition. In some countries meat by-products are much more of a staple diet. Next time you knock eating tongue meat, which is a meat by-product, remember it can be considered a delicacy to some people, and I really doubt fluffy can tell the difference where her protein comes from.

Unlike cats, dogs are omnivores. This means they can get protein from many sources such as corn, barley, bran, etc. Most commercial foods are going to have a mixture of protein sources including animal and vegetable proteins. There are many differing opinions on what is preferred, but this author wants you to at least keep in mind that meat is not the sole ingredient dogs require and that all meat should be cooked thoroughly.


Don’t Fall for the Hype!

There is a very small population of animals who have food allergies and an even smaller percentage of those who are allergic to grain, corn, or soy. If your pet has not been diagnosed with this condition, you do not need to pay for that food.

It is easy to think that our pets need to avoid the things that humans are told to avoid. This wouldn’t be a problem for humans if we ate a balanced preprogrammed diet. Don’t feel you need to cut back on your pet’s fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Unless your pet has a specific medical issue, this is not a problem. The only thing most pets need to cut back on is calories. This simply means quantity.

Feed the correct amount:

Only buy pet foods that list a feeding guideline on the bag based off weight and possibly age. This will help give you a starting point, but not all pets are made equal and you may need to consult with your veterinarian. The more important point of this rule of thumb is to remember if you feed your pet anything other than his or her food you are just adding more calories. Why not use your pet’s daily allotted food as treats? If you do feed treats, note the calories of those items and feed your pet less food. Remember though, these are balanced diets and if you are feeding more treats than food, you are missing out on the “balanced” part of the idea. Consider using low calorie treats such as cooked green beans or carrots.

What about supplements?

Many people read the labels and see items grouped at the end and interpret this as bad chemical fillers. These items are important vitamins and nutrients. For instance, calcium carbonate provides calcium for bone health, thiamin mononitrate provides vitamin B1. Trying to take these items out of the ingredient list would be hazardous as well as trying to additionally supplement these ingredients can cause overdoses. Forgetting that cats require taurine can cause serious heart complications.

If you are feeding your healthy pet the proper food you should not need anything more. Don’t pay for something that your pet does not need. Your veterinarian can prescribe supplements if your pet has a condition that requires them.

Please keep all of these ideas in mind when you are next wandering the aisles at the store wondering what will work best for your pet. Your veterinarian should always be able to conduct a full examination and assess appropriate body condition score and advise a proper feeding schedule and diet for your animal.


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