Proper nutrition is essential for ensuring the health and well-being of companion animals.  Feeding a diet that is appropriate for the life stage of the pet can help to promote proper growth and development of the younger animal as well as prevent diet-associated diseases in pets of all ages.  Diet is also an important factor in the management of many diseases and conditions.

Who determines nutrient recommendations for dogs and cats?

The National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences provides nutrient recommendations for dogs and cats.  Their recommendations are the foundation on which the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) develops and implements regulations and standards relating to the pet food industry as well as establishing nutrient profiles for dog and cat food.  To assure proper nutritional health for an individual pet, an assessment should be made by a veterinary professional - to determine the best diet or type of diet for that pet given their age, breed, sex, environment and overall health.

What other factors are considered in assessing a pet's diet and nutritional requirement?

  • Gastrointestinal function - is it normal or are there issues with vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence or constipation?
  • Medical conditions or diseases
  • Pet's current diet including treats and table food - type and quantity fed
  • Pet's environment and activity level
  • Physical Examination - Body Condition Score, evaluation of muscle mass, dental abnormalities or disease, skin or hair coat
  • Diagnostic work up - blood tests, radiographs (x-rays), and endoscopy may be recommended in pets if an underlying or concurrent medical problem is suspected based on the pet's history or exam findings
What is a Body Condition Score?
The Body Condition Score (BCS) is an evaluation of body fat.  There are several reference BCS systems or scales used by veterinarians but the more commonly used scales are the 5 point and 9 point scales.
A veterinary professional will assign a BCS based on their physical examination findings of the pet including the visible appearance of the pet and palpation of the boney structures including ribs and rump area.

An ideal BCS score for a dog or cat is a 2.5-3 on the 5 point scale and a 4-5 on the 9 point scale.  A pet with a less than ideal BCS would further be described as being lean, thin, very thin or emaciated.  A BCS that is higher than ideal indicates that the pet has excessive fat.  They would be further described as slightly overweight, overweight, obese or morbidly obese.

Interpretation of the nutrition assement findings and action steps

Information collected in the assessment of a pet is evaluated and interpreted so that a specific diet or action plan can be recommended to ensure their health and a nutritionally balanced diet.

  • Pet's calculated caloric or energy requirements will be determined based on their age, sex, breed, activity level and medical problems.  This will be compared with the amount of calories being fed.  If the pet is underweight or overweight, recommendations (increasing or decreasing quantity fed or a change in the diet) will be made to help that pet achieve an ideal body condition score or the nutritional goal determined for that pet.  
  • If a pet needs to gain or lose weight, milestones should be set for that pet to achieve the goal along with a monitoring plan (periodic weigh-ins).
  • If a diet change is recommended, instructions should be included for transitioning that pet on to the new diet as well as the specific feeding plan for that diet and any treats.
  • Increased opportunities for activity (play or exercise) may be recommended.  If a pet has physical limitations or orthopedic problems, recommendations may include steps to reduce or improve those factors.
Which diet is best for my pet?  Raw pet food, canned or kibble commercial diets or a home cooked diet?
Commercial pet food includes canned or dry kibble diets.  Commercial food has been a consistently safe and healthful option for feeding of pets for years.  Most manufacturers create complete and balanced diets and utilize mechanisms for quality control and food safety.  Safety problems are occasionally reported - including nutritional adequacy and toxin or microbial contamination (Pet Food Safety Recalls and Alerts).  
Raw food diets have gained popularity, with advocates claiming health benefits including improved longevity, health and, in some cases, disease resolution.  Proof of these benefits have not been supported by peer-reviewed scientific studies and these claims are anectdotal.  There are risks in feeding raw diets.  Risks include nutritional imbalance and bacterial or parasitic contamination.  Safety in the proper handling of raw food cannot be guaranteed and food poisoning is a risk when feeding and handling raw food.
Home cooked diets are often considered for a variety of reasons. Pet owners may prefer to feed a home prepared diet, believing them to be safer (in light of commercial pet food recalls), more natural or healthful than commercial diets since they can selectively avoid feeding ingredients such as grains or chemical preservatives.  Pet owners may also choose to feed a home cooked diet when a pet refuses to eat commercially available diet.  Lastly, a home cooked diet may be recommended by a veterinary professional when a pet has a condition or combination of medical problems or diseases requiring dietary management, and for which no commercial diet exists.  Generally, home cooked diets are more expensive to feed compared with commercial diets and preparation is time consuming.  It is critical that pet owners consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist (specialist in animal nutrition) to ensure that the diet they are preparing is nutritionally adequate and balanced for the pet.

What foods can be harmful for pets?

How much should I feed my pet?
There are many variables that affect how much of a specific food should be fed to a pet. The calorie requirements for an individual pet can vary depending on the age or life stage, genetics, activity level and their environment. In addition, foods vary in their energy or caloric density. As an example, dry food / kibble can range from between 300 to more than 700 calories per cup. It's also important to remember that treats add to a pet's caloric intake.