Just like humans, pets’ health is immensely impacted by what they eat. While most owners know this, it doesn’t make deciphering different pet food labels any easier. So we consulted two local veterinarians about the most important things to be aware of when feeding your furry loved ones. Dr. Anthony Ashley, co-owner of the Animal Clinic, Inc., and Dr. Marcia Toumayan, a veterinarian at the Cat Clinic of Chattanooga, share their expert guidance on selecting, storing, and serving healthy food to your dog or cat.
Nutritional requirements for dogs vary depending on their age and the size of their breed. Dr. Ashley confirms, “You want to buy a food approved for your dog’s life stage. This ensures proper nutritional compositions for their bodies’ needs. You also need to know the specific life stages for your breed.”
Generally, the life stages for dogs are:
- Puppy – Weaned to six months old
- Adult – Six months old until specific breed is considered “senior”
- Senior – Varies depending on size of breed – giant breeds (like Great Danes) are senior at four years, toy breeds (like Chihuahuas) are senior at nine years, other breeds fall in between
Puppies generally need higher protein and fat percentages than other life stages, as well as more calories. Your dog’s first year of life is usually the most crucial time in their diet, as they are developing mentally and physically.
Adult dogs still require a high protein diet with a supporting balance of complex carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Their protein and fat intake will be slightly lower than that of a puppy, but higher than senior dogs, who require more fiber and carbs for energy and balance, and less protein as it is harder for them to digest.
“Once you’ve started them on a food, make sure that your dog doesn’t vomit or have diarrhea while on this diet, and that their coat looks good. Also watch to make sure there are no major changes in weight,” Dr. Ashley advises.
Selecting Healthy Food
When choosing a healthy dog food, it’s helpful to know what you’re looking for on the packaging. Foods labeled “complete and balanced” are held to production standards set for pet food by the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO). According to PetMD,“By law, to be able to use this statement, the food must meet certain minimums or maximums established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO sets these rules to make sure that pet foods really do meet the nutritional needs of animals.” And Dr. Ashley confirms that the only label you can truly trust is one approved by the AAFCO. “Unfortunately, no other health claim labels are verified. They are simply used for marketing purposes,” he warns.
You can also read the ingredients listed, and pay attention to which ones are listed first. Ingredients are listed on dog food labels in order of weight, so the first few listed are what compose the majority of that food. Look for proteins like “chicken,” “fish meal,” “beef,” “lamb,” or so on to be listed in the beginning since protein is one of your dog’s most needed nutrients. And remember to always have fresh water readily available to your dog throughout the day.
Dr. Ashley recommends storing food in an airtight container and serving with a measuring cup, rather than a large plastic drink cup. “Feed them for the weight you want them to be, not the weight they are,” he reminds. If your pooch needs to shed a few pounds, or put on a little more weight, your vet can recommend more specific feeding times and amounts.
Cats’ life stages are organized a bit differently than dogs’, as they tend to live a bit longer on average and have different nutritional needs during these stages.
Generally, the life stages for cats are:
- Kittens – Weaned to about one year old
- Young Adult – One year old to about
seven years old
- Mature – Eight to 12 years old
- Senior – 13 to 15 years old
- Geriatric – 16 years old and above
Dr. Toumayan explains that kittens and pregnant/nursing cats have the highest caloric, fat, and protein requirements.
When transitioning from kitten foods to a young adult formula, Dr. Toumayan recommends having your cat’s body composition evaluated by your vet, “This is around the age, especially following the cat’s spay or neuter procedure, when unwanted pounds can accumulate, putting the cat at risk for obesity.”
Young adult cats should likely be eating a food labeled “maintenance” or sometimes “young adult.” In general, cats require more protein than dogs, so after the kitten stage, their food formula should really be comprised of a minimum of 35% to 45% protein.
Next, mature cats’ nutritional needs can vary depending on activity level. This is the age when cats begin to become more sedentary, and their energy requirements may be less. Because their bodies process protein for the majority of their energy, smaller servings of a protein-rich and low-carbohydrate food are recommended to keep your cat satisfied while maintaining a healthy weight in this stage of life.
For senior and geriatric cats, Dr. Toumayan stresses that this is the age range when underlying medical conditions may require an altered diet. “Blood tests and examinations can help your veterinarian determine a need for prescription diets, such as those to treat kidney disease, thyroid issues, or diabetes,” she says.
Selecting Healthy Food
Similarly to selecting healthy dog food, you should always look for an AAFCO approved label, or the phrase, “complete and balanced,” which denotes that the food meets AAFCO standards. Dr. Toumayan advises sticking with national brands that maintain a good reputation and enforce their own quality control standards throughout production. She also recommends reading the ingredients. Like dog food, ingredients are listed by weight for cat food.
Dr. Toumayan also explains that a cat who is fed dry food will require more water than one who eats wet food, and that fresh water is one of the most important nutritional requirements. “Fresh water should always be readily available to your cat, whether you feed them wet or dry food.”
Dr. Toumayan also advises buying in quantities that are consistent with your pets’ needs, “Buying too large a bag, while often less expensive, can compromise freshness.” Just like with dry dog food, it is recommended to store dry cat food in a clean, airtight container and serve it with a measuring cup. Make sure wet food cans and pouches have not been compromised before purchase.
When caring for your furry friend’s nutritional needs, you may encounter special needs, dietary allergies or restrictions, or even preference complications. But if you abide by these simple guidelines and consult your veterinarian throughout the process, your animal should be kept well-fed and happy with plenty of energy.