You Are What You Eat: A Brief Look At Pet Nutrition
Author: Karen L. McGlothlin, DVM, PhD
My Dad’s old Labrador Retriever, Weebles, loves pizza night at Dad’s house because he gets the crusts from each piece. Weebles has been getting Dad’s pizza crusts since he joined our family at 8 weeks of age – almost 14 years of enjoying what is my favorite part of the pizza! I have never been a big fan of my Dad sharing his dinner with “the Weebs,” as we call him, and I have talked to him and made some recommendations, but he still gets the pizza crusts and sometimes he gets other things from the table, too.
Why not just feed our pets the same food that we are eating? Why worry about it – if it’s good enough for us, then sure it’s good enough for our pets, right? Well, not exactly… in fact, sometimes feeding pets from the table can cause serious health problems. We see a lot of pancreatitis cases after people have shared their meals with their pets and we see a large number of obese pets who get treated from the table at mealtime. To help keep your pets in top shape, it is better to feed a high-quality commercial pet food or if you prefer to make home-cooked meals for your pets, consult with a veterinary nutritionist to make sure that you are balancing their meals properly.
When we talk about a balanced diet, we are talking about a diet that contains the appropriate amounts of all the necessary nutrients required to provide the energy for healthy growth and activity. The energy provided by food is measured in kilocalories (kcal). The daily caloric requirement for the average cat is around 200-250 kcal/day and for the average medium-sized dog is around 500-750 kcal/day.
The major classes of nutrients that need to be included in your pet’s diet include:
Proteins are macromolecules that are made up of long chains of amino acids. These molecules are necessary for cell growth, tissue repair, and general maintenance of many of the body’s daily housekeeping functions. There is a pool of 20 different amino acids that are used (put together in different orders, depending upon type of protein and species of animal) to build all of the proteins needed on a daily basis. Humans, cats, and dogs can all make about half of these amino acids on their own. The other half are called the essential amino acids and must be obtained through diet. If there is a shortage of even one essential amino acid, individual proteins cannot be produced effectively.
As the primary source of energy in your pet’s diet, the proper balance of fats is extremely important. Fats are the source of the essential fatty acids, which are not produced in the body and are necessary for the absorption of some vitamins (A, E, D, and K), maintenance of healthy skin and coat, production of some hormones, and insulation and protection of organs within the body.
Do dogs and cats need carbohydrates? Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that they have an absolute requirement for meat in their diet, and dogs are omnivores, meaning that they are able to obtain their nutritional requirements by eating a combination of animal- and plant-based foods. While they do not require carbohydrates because they can use proteins and fats for energy, carbohydrates can be digested and converted to energy in dogs and cats, and are also good sources of iron, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.
Like humans, dogs and cats get needed vitamins from their food and therefore, vitamin supplements are usually not a necessity unless your pet has a vitamin deficiency. Vitamins are important for normal body functioning and for the conversion of calories to energy. If your pet is eating a high-quality commercial pet food, there usually will not be a need for vitamin supplementation.
Minerals are essential for the development of healthy bones and teeth, as well as maintaining muscle health. Important minerals include calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and sodium. It is important that minerals are balanced because too much of one may interfere with the absorption of another. As with vitamins, if your pet is eating a properly-balanced diet, mineral supplementation is typically unnecessary. There are some medical problems that cause imbalances in minerals, and lifelong treatment may be necessary to maintain the proper balance.
It should go without saying that water is vital – 60-70% of your pet’s body is composed of water and daily replenishment is necessary for life. It is imperative that pets have access to fresh, clean water at all times.
While this blog entry provides a brief overview of general nutrition basics, I would be remiss if I did not mention a recent FDA investigation that uncovered potential problems with grain-free diets in dogs. As you may have read, there are some interesting links between the feeding of grain-free diets in dogs and the development of dilated cardiomyopathy, a serious heart problem. While investigation is still ongoing, I sincerely believe that the findings in this study will permanently change feeding recommendations for dogs. If you are unaware of this report, please check out the link below.
Additionally, the feeding of raw diets should be briefly noted here, although this could be a blog topic all on its own. Raw or undercooked animal-sourced proteins can be a source of a variety of bacterial pathogens that can cause clinical disease not only in dogs and cats, but in the humans that handle and prepare the food for their pets. Again, a link to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s position statement on the feeding of raw diets is included below. If you have any questions or concerns about your pet’s dietary requirements and the basics of nutrition, we can help.