Shortcomings and significance
Nutrition intervention is a fundamental preventative measure and treatment option for a variety of animal diseases. Unfortunately, veterinary nutrition education and therapeutic nutrition implementation is lacking in the educational and clinical settings. Veterinarians and pet owners alike can help manage several common chronic diseases in pets by understanding the important fundamentals of nutrition in animal health.
Communicating pet nutrition
Veterinarians with adequate nutritional knowledge can help to educate their clients about the healthiest ways to feed and care for their pets. Regardless of weight or disease status, veterinarians should perform a caloric need assessment for each of their patients to determine their baseline nutritional needs. Circumstances such as pregnancy, age, and activity level are all personalized factors that will contribute to an animal’s maintenance requirements. Assessing individual nutritional needs can help healthy patients stay healthy and be the first step in treating pet obesity and several comorbid metabolic disorders.
Veterinarians with a good understanding of their patients’ current dietary patterns can determine the best preventative or therapeutic nutrition plan for them. Veterinarians should ask clients about their feeding schedules as well as which brands of pet food they buy. The best way for veterinarians to educate their clients on the importance of nutrition in animal health is by using statistical factsheets, images, videos, and other engaging materials. Additionally, if a pet is at risk of developing or already suffers from of obesity or metabolic syndrome, veterinarians can request that owners fill out the American College of Veterinary Nutrition’s diet history form.
All animals require the same six essential nutrients: water, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. A multitude of factors including the type of animal, their age, sex, and activity level determine the minimum and maximum limits of these nutrients. The nutritional guidelines, including specific energy and micro/macronutrient needs for pets including cats and dogs have been outlined in a report by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. While it is not necessary for pet owners to concern themselves with the details of the report, the most successful veterinary nutritional recommendations are based on these guidelines.
Dogs are omnivores and can meet their nutritional needs by consuming a variety of both plants and animals. Though their digestive organs and canine teeth evolved to accommodate meat-eating, meat is not necessary in their diets and proper nutrition can be obtained from a diet consisting of exclusively vegetarian or plant-based dog food.
Cats are part of the order Carnivora and are obligatory carnivores. This means that they absolutely need to ingest meat to satisfy their nutritional requirements. High quality animal protein should make up the bulk of a cat’s diet which is easily achievable through both canned and dry cat food.
Macronutrient (energy-providing) needs
Three of the essential nutrients provide animals with energy: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. While the human body prefers to use the calories from carbohydrates for energy, dogs and cats fuel most of their daily activities through the energy found in protein and fat. Dogs and cats should consume most of their calories from protein and fat sources.
No more than half of a dog’s total daily calories should come from carbohydrates because this nutrient does not provide them with energy as efficiently as protein and fat do. While the optimal ratio between protein and fat can vary, at least 10% of a dog’s daily calories should come from protein and at least 5.5% from fat.
Cats should consume even less carbohydrate-containing foods than dogs. Ideally, carbohydrates should contribute just 12.5% of a cat’s total daily calories. 52% of daily calories should be from protein and the remaining 35% should come from fat sources.
Just because they are required in smaller quantities does not mean they are any less important. An adequate intake of micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – is essential in maintaining an animal’s health. The micronutrient needs of cats and dogs depend on a lot of factors including their size, breed, activity level, and most importantly age. Puppies, kittens, and their pregnant dog and cat counterparts need higher quantities of vitamins and minerals that support growth and reproduction whereas older adult dogs and cats need more vitamins and minerals that support body health maintenance.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are seldom necessary for healthy pets. If a dog or cat is regularly consuming high-quality pet food that is right for their size, breed, and circumstance, then they are ingesting all the nutrients they need. In fact, consistent overuse of vitamins and minerals may even cause a pet’s levels to rise too high leading to harmful side effects and even toxicity.
As previously stated, there are specific circumstances where a pet may benefit from taking a vitamin and/or mineral supplement. Pregnancy in animals – dogs, cats, and humans alike – is extremely energy-costly and nutrient depleting. Iron and folic acid are two specific nutrients that must be ingested in higher quantities in pregnant females. These and several other important nutrients are all included in the prenatal vitamins that should be administered to pregnant cats and dogs.
As pets age, they absorb the vitamins and minerals in their food less efficiently which is why older-adult dogs may benefit from taking a daily multivitamin. Dogs with a genetic predisposition to a particular nutritional deficiency or are ill or injured should also be given a vitamin or mineral supplement. If a dog or cat is expressing symptoms such as fatigue, impaired vision, a dull coat, or changes in their skin or urine, they may be suffering from a nutritional deficiency. When an animal presents these symptoms, a veterinarian will typically conduct a blood test. If a nutritional deficiency is confirmed, the veterinarian should recommend a specific vitamin and/or mineral supplement to treat the deficiency.
If a pet is currently at a healthy weight, their owner does not need to worry about measuring the amount of food they offer at each feeding. All mammals have hormones such as leptin and ghrelin that are in constant circulation in the blood throughout the day. Right before a meal, mammals have high levels of ghrelin in their blood causing them to feel hungry. During and after a meal, leptin levels increase which signal the feeling of fullness. These hunger and fullness hormones guide mammalian eating behavior and will ensure that a dog or cat eats the right amount for them to maintain a healthy weight.
It is best to feed large dogs heartier meals infrequently. For most large dogs, 2 large meals per day are sufficient. These meals should be about 12 hours apart, once in the morning and again in the evening. Small dogs burn through the energy they consume more quickly so it is best to feed them smaller amounts of food 3 times a day.
Regardless of breed size, active puppies as well as pregnant, nursing, or injured dogs may require an additional meal since they have greater energy requirements. Alternatively, owners may choose to continue to feed the same number of meals but increase the portion of food they offer at each feeding.
Since most cats are the same relative size and there is less variation between breeds, more generalizations can be made for feline feeding patterns than acceptable for canine feeding patterns. All cats from the age of six months on should be fed 2 meals a day. Each of these meals should be between ½ and 1/3 cups large.
The exact size of each meal depends on factors such as age, pregnancy, and injury status. Like dogs, injured cats, pregnant and nursing cats, and growing kittens all typically require more energy and thus should be fed slightly larger meals.
Water is the most essential nutrient for sustaining animal life. It is involved in every bodily process - from keeping the heart beating to the lungs pumping - and its importance cannot be overstated. The amount of water an animal must consume daily differs based on their size and activity levels.
Pet owners and veterinarians should know the signs of dehydration. This is most common in puppies and kittens, small toy/ lap dog breeds, and pets with certain medical conditions like diabetes and cancer. Dehydrated cats and dogs often have dry gums dry noses, and loss of appetite. Panting in dogs is another clear sign of dehydration. Avoid dehydration by always making sure your pet always has a water bowl accessible to them. Do not worry about over-hydration - your pet will stop drinking when he or she has had enough.
Dogs require 1 fluid ounce of water per pound of bodyweight per day. More active dogs, dogs that live in warmer climates, and puppies typically have even higher hydrational needs. For example, a 30-pound, middle-aged dog living in a temperate climate that gets moderate daily exercise will need to drink 30 fluid ounces of water each day to maintain optimal health. An active puppy of the same breed living in a hot climate may only be 20 pounds but may have the same hydrational needs as the older, moderately active dog of 30 fluid ounces of water per day.
Cats are smaller and more sedentary than dogs, so they require much less water per day, usually anywhere from just 5 to 10 fluid ounces. This will depend on their age and size, with larger and younger cats requiring closer to 10 fluid ounces daily. For both cats and dogs, those that are fed dry food/ kibble will require more water throughout the day. Pets that are fed wet food receive decent quantities of water in their food though this should never replace drinking water.
Choosing pet food
Dog and cat owners should not worry about the specifics of each nutrient their pet ingests unless a deficiency or toxicity is determined by a veterinarian. This is because pet food manufacturers must adhere to the guidelines set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. However, pet owners should be mindful of the quality of food they are feeding their pet. Some pet foods contain added chemicals and preservatives designed to increase shelf-life or add flavor that may harm your pet’s long-term health. For example, a common artificial preservative in dog food, ethoxyquin, is also used as a pesticide and has been linked to liver complications in dogs.
Pet owners should choose pet foods that are minimally processed and contain real ingredients. Veterinarians should be familiar with the heathiest brands of pet food. A nutrition label lists its ingredients in descending order of abundance. The healthiest dog and cat foods have nutrition labels with easily identifiable ingredients (such as water, chicken, oatmeal, etc.) at the beginning of the ingredients list. In animal as well as human nutrition, the healthiest processed foods are the ones in which you can pronounce and understand each word in the ingredients list.
Age, size, and life circumstance are the most important differential factors in determining what to feed your pet. Many food brands on the market have specific product lines designed for the different life stages and circumstances.
The two main categories of pet food are wet and dry and there are pros and cons to each. Wet food can increase their daily hydration, leave them feeling satiated, and can be easier to chew and swallow. However, because of their additional processing and emphasis on flavor, wet pet food can get a bit pricey. Dry food is typically more affordable and has shown to help pet’s oral hygiene though it is usually more bland and less likely to be well received by our furry friends.
Are you a pet owner still unsure of which type of food to feed your pet? Or a veterinarian unsure of which type to recommend? In either case – experiment! See which one the pet prefers. Some people find their pet likes both wet and dry food, so they end up mixing both types at each meal. This is acceptable and can make for a very balanced diet. However, if a pet is given wet and dry food at the same meal, it is important to note portion sizing to offshoot the likelihood that your pet repeatedly overeats which could lead to obesity.
As previously mentioned, dogs are omnivorous and thrive from eating foods from a variety of plant and animal sources. However, they can maintain optimal health while sticking to a vegetarian diet. Most dog foods on the market contain ingredients from both plant and animal sources. Vegetarian and vegan dog foods tend to contain higher levels of artificial preservatives. Vegetarian and vegan dog owners should examine the nutrition label to make sure the foods they select and maintain nutritional integrity.
Cats are true carnivores. This means that a healthy cat must eat animal meat and thankfully all cat foods reflect this requirement. However not all animal meats are the same. It is best to choose cat food that contains high-quality meat sources that are high in protein and healthy fats. With its high-protein and omega-3 content, salmon is an excellent choice. Cat foods containing chicken as their predominant source of animal meat are a great and affordable option as well.
Though it may be tempting, pet owners should not give in to those puppy dog eyes. There are several human foods beyond just chocolate and caffeine that are harmful and even toxic to animals. There is not one category of human food that is more dangerous than others, and the effects of ingestion differ depending on the type of food, the quantity ingested, and the complications resulting from consumption. For example, while some vegetables are safe, onions and garlic are dangerous to both cats and dogs. The artificial sweetener xylitol is extremely toxic to both animals and can be life-threatening upon ingestion.
Pet owners who suspect that their pet has been poisoned because they are exhibiting signs such as vomiting, trouble breathing, collapsing, muscle tremors, or abnormal behavior changes should contact their veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline at 1-800-213-6680 right away.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity and Prevention, more than half of adult dogs and cats in the United States are overweight or obese. The rise in pet obesity can be attributed to a host of trends – but overfeeding and under-exercising are two of the major indisputable factors. Many pet owners, and even some veterinarians, do not have enough nutritional knowledge to make healthful pet feeding decisions. Additionally, life may get in the way and people may forget the importance of giving their pet many opportunities to play (and exercise). Older dogs are less active and are thus at an even greater risk of developing obesity. However, the opposite is true for cats; obesity is more prevalent among younger cats and kittens than in older ones.
Chronic overweight or obesity is problematic for all animals because it increases the risk of developing several potentially life-threatening complications such as diabetes and associated metabolic disorders, hypertension, heart disease, joint problems, and stroke. Unfortunately, overweight and obesity are more common phenomena in our pets now more than ever. It is important for veterinarians and pet owners alike to understand the risk factors, preventative options, and treatment measures associated with pet obesity to help all pets to live long and healthy lives.
Helping an animal get back to a healthy weight can be a challenge for veterinarians and pet owners. Reducing portion sizes at each meal and providing plenty of opportunities for exercise are the most fundamental and effective ways to help dogs and cats lose weight. This should be a gradual process and changes should be made incrementally. Reducing portion sizes too rapidly can leave your pet hungry, unhappy, and deplete of energy and essential vitamins and minerals. Pet owners who are ready to facilitate their pet’s lifestyle change should seek professional guidance from a practicing veterinarian. Veterinarians without substantial nutritional knowledge should reference outside educational materials such as research studies, case reports, and articles like this one.
By Jayden Robert, DVM Candidate, Class of 2022, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and Jayne Cudia, MS-RDN Candidate Columbia University 2023.