5 pet nutrition questions answered

By: Stephanie Zolis and Vickie Reichardt

Getty Images Author: Canadian Living Credits: Getty Images


5 pet nutrition questions answered

By: Stephanie Zolis and Vickie Reichardt
Feeding your pet well is about more than finding a food your cat or dog will happily eat (though that's important, too!), and many owners have questions about what, or how much, their pets should eat. Here are answers to your top five concerns.

1. How much should I feed my pet?
This is a bit like asking, "How much should I feed a human?" So many variables come into play, including your pet's age, weight, breed, activity level and medical conditions. That's why Dr. Adronie Verbrugghe, chair in canine and feline clinical nutrition at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ont., advises consulting your vet to determine how much to feed your pet. She also recommends having your vet regularly reassess your pet's weight and muscle condition to see whether you should adjust its portions.

Tip: Once your vet tells you how much to feed your pet, use a measuring cup or spoon to precisely measure the food.

2. How do I know if my pet is overweight?
To keep tabs on your cat or dog's weight between annual checkups, you can try this online healthy-weight calculator. For a more hands-on approach, Dr. Jim Berry, veterinarian at Douglas Animal Hospital in Fredericton and Canadian representative to the Pet Nutrition Alliance, advises pet owners to perform this quick body-condition test on dogs and cats once a week:

- With your pet on all fours, stand above it and look for an hourglass shape to its body.
- Then, run your hands over your pet's rib cage and spine. You should be able to easily feel the last two or three ribs.

"The widest point should be the last rib, then the waist should tuck in and [the body should] get bigger again at the hips," says Dr. Berry. If it's hard to feel your pet's ribs or spine, or the tuck at its waist disappears, it's becoming overweight and you should decrease its meal size.

3. How do I know if my pet has a food allergy?
If you've noticed your pet scratching excessively, sneezing, chewing its tail or paws, vomiting, losing weight or hair, or experiencing frequent or loose stools, the problem might be its food.

It's possible for animals to develop allergies to foods they are fed repeatedly, says Dr. Jean Hofve, holistic veterinarian in Denver and author of What Cats Should Eat and Paleo Dog. Over time, a pet's body can become less able to break down the proteins in certain foods it eats often, resulting in allergy symptoms. Chicken, which is the most common protein in commercial pet food due to its low cost, is the number one food allergen for both cats and dogs, notes Dr. Hofve.
To get to the root of the symptoms, take your pet to the vet. If no underlying medical conditions are determined to be the cause, your pet will be placed on an elimination diet to resolve the allergy. Then, you'll be advised on how to choose a new food.

4. Should I make homemade pet's food?
Preparing well-balanced meals for your pet entails more than boiling a chicken breast and dropping it in a bowl. You need to be mindful when using raw meat to avoid giving your pet (or yourself, if you don't wash your hands and utensils properly) a food-borne illness, and you'll have to ensure that what you're feeding fulfills all your cat or dog's nutritional needs. 

Recipes for homemade pet food abound online, but Dr. Verbrugghe recommends consulting your vet or a pet nutritionist to determine the ingredients and supplements to include. "Many of the recipes you'll find on the Internet are not complete or balanced," she says. "It's really important that you seek advice from someone who has the credentials to formulate that kind of diet."

5. Which human foods are dangerous for animals?
Whether you like to occasionally feed your pet scraps from the table, or your cat or dog steals the odd taste from your plate, some "people foods" can be harmful to pets—and the effects can range from mild (stomach upset) to severe (kidney failure and death). Some foods to never feed your pet include:

- Xylitol – This artificial sweetener is found in everything from gum to sugar-free snacks and can cause seizures, liver failure and death in cats and dogs.

- Onions, garlic, chives – Can cause stomach upset, intestinal irritation and anemia.

- Grapes, raisins – Can cause kidney failure.

- Chocolate, coffee – Can cause vomiting, diarrhea, heart-rhythm abnormalities, seizures and sometimes death. (Note: The darker the chocolate, the more toxic it is to animals.)

- Raw meat and eggs – Can cause food poisoning (from bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella) or parasitic infection (from raw seafood), leading to vomiting, diarrhea and possibly death.

Different animals have different reactions, and symptoms can take a few hours to a few days to manifest. So, if you suspect that your pet has consumed something toxic, take it to the vet right away. For a comprehensive list of all foods, plants and medications that are toxic for pets, check out the Pet Poison Helpline's searchable database.

Check out these five ways to keep your pet healthy.
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5 pet nutrition questions answered