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The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Even Pet Health Care Providers Cannot Get Portion Control Right

This is a follow-up to my last post and other posts emphasizing the importance of portion control in the present pet obesity epidemic. Veterinarians and representatives of pet food companies continue to beat-up clients about feeding, or overfeeding, their pets. Owners leave veterinary hospitals feeling guilty for causing a host of future problems to their pets by their feeding practices. But guess what? Health care providers cannot do any better with pet portion control. A 2010 study from the United Kingdom is testimony.

The Study

Four veterinarians and six employees of a major commercial food manufacturer participated in the study. They fed six different diets — four feline and two dog dry kibble products — from three different manufacturers to cats and dogs using measuring cups provided by the manufacturer. The manufacturer recommendations were followed and each portion was shaken to level the food in the provided measuring cup. The food was weighed before feeding to document the actual food amount and calorie content for the study statistics. The statistics were then analyzed after the completion of the study.

Despite attempts to accurately measure the food amount, these health professionals had ranges of feeding amounts from 18% underestimated or inadequate amounts to 80% overestimation and excessive feeding. When multiple “feeders” were involved the quantities were the worst. Feeding small amounts to small cats and dogs had the greatest degree of overestimation. Precisely the group that every calorie counts! What is even more shocking is that two of the diets were pre-packaged, just as they are sold to the public, and were fed according to instructions; they were not even accurate.

What Does it All Mean?

Actually, I think there are multiple factors in play. First, is the probable inaccuracy of claims about calories per kilogram that commercial food manufacturers declare on food labels. My research suggests the means by which these figures are arrived at are guesstimates at best and probably vary from lot to lot.

Few pet food labels produce their own product. There are three major millers of pet food in the United States that package the hundreds of commercial pet food labels available. Calometric measurements (igniting the food and measuring its energy) is not required for every lot of food or combination of ingredients. It is not even clear if it is required at all, and calorie counts are derived by mathematical formulas. Estimation of calories are only required for the initial application of the formula. AAFCO is very lenient for the nutritional content of “families of foods.”

My point is that calorie claims made by manufacturers only approximate reality because the production process involves so many unsupervised steps.

Secondly, the calorie concentration in commercial food is extremely high. With counts near 400 calories per cup, each kibble piece is a calorie bomb. Simple, unintentional measured variations of leveling a portion measurement may mean the difference of 25-100 calories. For small or inactive dogs this is a significant difference. Pet owner obsession with the economical and convenience qualities of kibbled food means this problem is likely to get worse.

Thirdly is that proper pet nutrition is a dynamic process and not static. Owners cannot just settle on a portion and assume that it never changes. We have discussed many influences that affect diet in this post. Label instructions today may not be appropriate tomorrow.  Most humans don’t even eat correctly. How many families do you know who employ a registered dietician in addition to their house cleaning service, garden care service, car washing service, and pool cleaning service? All seem essential except the nutritional advice. We simply do not spend the necessary time and money to objectively understand nutrition. We are too absorbed with labeling "good" and "bad" foods and calories, which is a meaningless exercise and has little to do with weight control. Weight is about amounts of food, not the kind of food.

Weigh the food. It is still inaccurate, but it is better than measuring in a cup. Also realize that any recommendation is exactly that, a recommendation. Quantities need to be changed based on the body condition score (BCS) of your pet at any given portion. Reduce or increase portions based on their BCS.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: I know I shouldn't eat this, but... by Benny Lin / via Flickr


Comments  6

Leave Comment
  • Calorie Concentration
    07/19/2012 11:09am

    "the calorie concentration in commercial food is extremely high"

    For critters that are very food-oriented, wouldn't it make sense to use a food that isn't so calorie dense? Does that commercial food even exist?

  • Less calorie dense foods
    07/19/2012 07:11pm

    Yes, there are commercial diets that are less calorie-dense. Some of them are labeled as senior or weight management diets but some actually aren't, they are just formulated to have fewer calories per cup. I know some people view these foods as gimmicks but I was able to take a lot of weight off of two senior dogs using Canidae's senior formula, which is lower calorie. (Note that this was their canned food - I didn't find that the senior kibble was all that much lower in calories compared to regular adult formulas of some other brands.) So it's helpful to look at the various labels and in some cases, I actually emailed the manufacturer to get the info as they don't publish it on the cans.

  • overweight pets
    10/12/2012 06:06am

    I feel the if you allow you pet to get grossly over weight it is aminil abuse. The are our kids who can speak up whe my are sick, or hurt. My being over weight it puts their health a risk. You need to walk the pet more it will help you both. I love my dog and watch how much he eats and what he eats. Please a fat dog, cat or pet is not healthy.

  • 01/30/2013 04:27am

    I don’t think a person out there in internet land knows what you’re saying. Please learn to spell and use proper sentence structure. Your sentences don’t make any sense. Go back and read them, you’ll see what I’lm talking about.

  • Overweight pets
    10/13/2012 04:14pm

    Okay.. I'm just going to start off by saying.. My pets are healthy healthy healthy, They are not fat, they are not to thin, When they get their yearly check up. All 3 of my cats and my dog, they are all healthy and at the perfect weight. The key is a lot of work on the animals part, if you allow your animal to be lazy they will get FAT it's like a human.. Would you stay skinny if you sat in the house all day never going outside and never running, walking or never playing? YES!!!!! You have to work your animals body, like you work yours! To be honest, I free feed. Meaning there is always food available for them when they are hungry. If I see an empty bowl I fill it, Sometimes my dog lets his food sit all day before he eats it. Animals naturally have this key inside their brain, if they aren't hungry they do not eat... They tune that key out WHEN they are bored! When they get bored is when they start over eating, start gaining wait, start being lazy.

  • Overweight Pets
    11/17/2012 03:29pm

    Dogs are carnivorous, they are made to eat meat, not grain. Grain causes allergic reactions such as weight gain, itching, shedding, scratching, loose stools. Most commercial wheat and almost all corn and soy products are genetically modified, or GMO. Unfortunately, GMOs are not required to be labeled on the packaging. Feeding GMO grain can create intestinal distress and sick animals. The cheaper the kibble food, the more grain and fat and less meat they contain. An all meat and vegetable diet is one that will give dogs what they need to thrive without weight gain and other challenges associated with their food. Kibble, and frozen varieties are readily available at better pet stores, they cost a little more, but keep the overweight problem at bay.
    With Success Be Blessed.

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