Diet do’s and don’ts for your pets

A healthful, balanced diet is as important to pets as it is to people, but with hundreds of different food brands to choose from, how do you decide what — and how much — to feed your pet?

“Because each animal is an individual, I always recommend beginning with a consultation with your veterinarian,” says Laura Eirmann, DVM, from AAHA-accredited Oradell Animal Hospital in New Jersey.

Your veterinarian will explain your pet’s nutritional needs based on age, breed, medical condition, and activity level. Although many dog and cat food manufacturers market products based on life stages, such as senior or lactating dogs, broad categories are not always appropriate for every pet.

For example, “some pets are physiologically older than their peers (because of disease) even though chronologically they’re the same age. That physiological difference is why it’s important to consult with your veterinarian (before you select a food),” Eirmann explains.

What brand should you buy?

Deciding which brand of pet food to buy can be confusing, especially since hundreds of dog and cat food products are introduced annually.

As you sort through various brands, look for a nutritional statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

The AAFCO determines appropriate levels of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals in growth and maintenance cat and dog foods and it “helps set the standards for the pet food industry,” says Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACCN, who works at AAHA-accredited Foster Hospital for Small Animals in Massachusetts.

Manufacturers frequently use terms like natural, organic, premium or gourmet to appeal to pet owners, but Freeman and Eirmann say “complete and balanced” are the terms pet owners should be most concerned about.

Before a food can be marketed as “complete and balanced,” it must undergo a strict feeding trial under AAFCO guidelines or meet AAFCO nutrition levels.

Cautions about raw food diets

Although raw food diets are popular with some pet owners, professionals from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say, “feeding raw meat products carries a risk to human and animal health that is significant” because of food-borne pathogenic bacteria.

The FDA cites published reports of pets becoming sick or dying after eating contaminated raw meat and warns that pet owners may be susceptible to “infection by pathogenic organisms from direct contact with the diet itself” or from contact with diet-related bacteria that passes from meat to pets. Bacteria may also be present in feces.

In addition, the FDA warns that raw meat diets may not provide proper nutrition for your pet. There may too little calcium and phosphorus, too much vitamin A (which may be toxic over time) or inappropriate amounts of other nutrients to ensure a complete and balanced diet.

In 2011, the American Animal Hospital Association passed a position statementopposing the feeding of raw protein diets to pets.

How much food should you give?

“If there’s one thing we know in nutrition, it’s that caloric restriction — keeping pets lean their entire life — helps them live longer,” Eirmann says.

Unfortunately, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) estimates that 25 percents of dogs and cats entering veterinary clinics are overweight and warns that “obesity can shorten a pet’s life by contributing to heart and liver problems, diabetes, arthritis, bladder cancer and skin disorders, and put a pet at higher risk while undergoing anesthesia and surgery.”

Gertie, shown to the right, is classified as obese by Pfizer Animal Health professionals, who provided the photograph. Check with your veterinary professionals to see whether your pet is overweight.

So does all of this mean you have to eliminate treats or the occasional table scraps from your pet’s diet? “There a little bit of leeway,” Eirmann says. “The general guideline is to look at the calories required to maintain ideal body weight. If you don’t exceed that number by about 10 percent of the calories, you’re unlikely to unbalance a complete and balanced diet.”

“My advice is to ask your veterinarian to assess your pet’s individual needs,” Eirmann says. “The amounts of those ingredients may vary by brand. Your veterinarian can determine if the amount (in a particular food) is appropriate for your pet.”

This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 1, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.

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