How much should you feed your pet?
Ever asked yourself this question? If you’re like a great many of my clients you most certainly have. You’ve also asked your friends, your breeder, your neighbors, your mother in law and, eventually, perhaps, your veterinarian.
It can be a confusing topic, more so because there’s no one right answer. I should know––I’ve got at least a few up my sleeve depending on the dietary scenario in question.
Recently I’ve taken to examining this subject rather personally. Now that Tulip (my goat) is back home and pregnant with two kids in her belly (confirmed by ultrasound on Monday, I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear), I’ve been stressing about how to keep her comfortably out of hypocalcemia (low calcium, which can happen as pregnancy advances) and keep her from getting too porky (to my dismay, she was already too fat when the whole breeding thing started).
It’s not easy, I’ve learned. Especially when the local feed store seems to carry none of the good stuff my goat consultants recommend. Especially when Tulip hates the Tums I try and ply her with and could care less about the high-selenium seeds I keep offering. It’s going to come down to needles and paste, I keep telling her. After all, pregnancy and lactation is a tough thing to plan for, nutritionally speaking.
Luckily, most of the non-goat situations I deal with on a daily basis come down to one thing: weight management for pets. And when you consider that most of these patients are couch-potatoed pets living la vida luxurious with humans willing to feed them whatever diet the vet recommends, the calculus on how much to feed is not too difficult. It’s gotta be way easier than the goat approach, at least.
That’s because the right answer for how much most pets need to eat comes down to a few simple rules:
#1 Feed a nutritionally balanced diet
Whether it’s from a nutritionist’s recipe or a super-premium branded bag or can, dog and cat foods have a tendency to arrive in a premixed, ready-to-feed format. This makes it easier for most pet owners.
#2 Pay attention to protein and moisture for cats
For cats, the default setting is always towards the moist and meaty. Weight managment for cats––at least in my book––always means higher-protein foods. And because biologically appropriate percentages of protein are tough to come by in kibbled fare, the cans (or, even better, home-cooked or raw) are a must for most kitties.
#3 Measure, measure, measure
Measuring is fundamental if you’re trying to figure out how much to feed, right? Use a proper measuring tool, then. A mug, for example, is not good enough when it comes to getting it just right––especially when you have other feeders in the household.
#4 Be consistent
It might go without saying but measuring right also means you need to 1) make food more less the same way every time (if you home cook, that means being careful about the calorie counts of the ingredients you use so that adding variety doesn't throw off your measurements), 2) consistently feed the same formula/brand of food, or 3) keep tabs of calorie counts on different formulas/brands (find calorie counts here).
#5 Are you currently feeding too much or too little?
Here’s where you ask your veterinarian point blank how fat your pet is. Fat pets need less food. Too-skinny pets need more. It's not rocket science. But if you want to make it more interesting, add in the body condition score concept:A high body condition score (BCS) means you need to lose weight. A low body condition score means she needs to gain weight. Smack in the middle? Goldilocks. (Check out this post for BCS info.)
You might not have heard this term since tenth grade chemistry but here’s the basic idea: The right amount of food is almost always arrived at through trial and error. You will likely have to increase and decrease amounts of foods over time until you get to the right daily volume.
Example: You start with one can of food a day but your vet says your cat is too fat. You reduce the food by 1/4 can a day and she starts to lose weight. After about a month you think she’s getting a tad skinny so you add back a tablespoon a day. Easy, right?
#7 Every animal is different
There’s no mistaking it. Every animal is different. For example: I have two dogs and two goats. In each species’ case one animal eats almost double what the other eats. In each species’ case it’s the smaller one that eats twice as much. The moral of the story: DO NOT LET VOLUME sway you. Every organism’s metabolism runs at its own pace.
#8 Treats count
Treats are food too. And they’re usually more calorically dense. All of the above goes for treats, too. Here's a past post on treats and their calorie counts.
#9 Factor in exercise
Most of the above assumes a consistent amount of exercise (or lack thereof). If you add in an
#10 Expect changes
With age, most pets' metabolism (like our own, sadly) slows down. That means less food. On average, about 5% to 10% less every year. Spay or neuter? That also means less food. On average, 10%-30% less. Keep it in mind.
I promise that if you follow these basic rules you'll figure it out. But with Tulip? Chances are the moving target provided by her developing fetuses and subsequent lactation will keep me on my toes for the whole of 2010. It may take a while, but I'll get there. And so will you.