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The Daily Vet by petMD

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.

Commercial Dog Food's Role in Pet Obesity

An estimated 59 percent of American pets are overweight or obese. Many factors contribute to this. The role of food and treats in the human-animal bond, the sedentary lifestyles of owners and pets, inadequate and/or incorrect nutritional information from veterinarians, and a lack of recognition of health and disease and risk factors for even small amounts of excess body fat are all major contributing factors. Of equal importance are the practices by commercial pet food companies with regards to feeding guidelines and lack of nutritional label transparency.


Feeding Guidelines


Due to the individual variations in metabolism, any feeding instructions should be viewed as starting or reference points that are subject to change. Weight loss or gain at any level of feeding should signal the need to increase or decrease the amount of food. Medical status, life stage, and activity changes should also signal the need to change feeding practices. But in general, feeding instructions on commercial pet food is too generous and calorie recommendations are typically high. This is in part due to the formulation guidelines of the National Research Council (NRC) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).


In their recommendations the NRC and AAFCO specify the amount of all essential daily nutrients for dogs and cats that is required in each 1,000 calories of food. These guidelines assume calorie consumption based on laboratory dogs (generally sexually intact) or active pet dogs and lean cats (also usually intact). In other words, these guidelines are targeted at the nutrition necessary for animals with greater caloric needs than the normal, neutered, less active pet. As a result, feeding charts on pet food tend to encourage overfeeding.


I did a quick comparison of four dog foods: two popular economy brands and two premium brands. The NRC equation for less active dogs recommends a 50 lb dog get 1,000 calories daily. Using the feeding instructions of the four brands, my 50 lb. dog would receive, on average, 140-170 extra calories per day. For one year, that is 51,100-62,050 extra calories. Assuming that 3,500 calories equals one pound of body weight (commonly used in human nutrition), then my imaginary dog would gain an extra 14 ½- 17 ¾ lbs. every year.


Label Transparency


Pet food labels are not required to disclose the calorie density of their product. AAFCO has recently announced that starting in 2015 this information will be mandatory on pet food labels. What form that information will take is not yet clear. Will it be easy to read, calories per cup or can, or more complicated calories per kilogram of food? If the latter is the case, it would mean owners would have to mathematically calculate the calories per cup or can after weighing a cup or can of food on a kitchen scale. I am pessimistic enough to think it will be the more complicated. Why is calorie information important?


Commercial pet food does not have universal calorie counts. Every food is different. The calorie counts in the four foods in my above comparison ranged from a low 335 calories per cup to a high 531 calories per cup. If you were feeding the low calorie food and then switched to the higher calorie food and fed the same amount (this is what most pet owners do!) your dog would be getting 196 extra calories per cup of food.


Necessary Action


Commercial pet food feeding instructions must be more precise, with 5 lb range categories rather than 10-25 lb ranges. Multiple feeding charts for appropriate lifestyle and life-stage should also be available on the label. This will be tough for small cans; they may need attached feeding instructions. Labeling with smart phone readable codes is an easy solution for all labels.


Calorie counts need to be presented in the easiest to understand format so owners and veterinarians know exactly how many calories pets are being fed. Ideally, the calorie contribution of protein, fat, and carbohydrate should also be indicated in the same format used on human food labels.


This won’t solve the entire problem, but it sure would make it easier to develop programs that address the other major causes of pet obesity.


Dr. Ken Tudor


Image: Thinkstock

Comments  3

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  • Feeding Guidelines
    07/11/2013 04:53pm

    As the feeding guidelines on pet food packaging are all designed for intact active male animals, I always presume that about a 1/3 less is needed for our indoor sedentary altered pets. It was my understanding that this was the common rule being circulated among veterinarians in workshops and conferences these days.

    Personally I always gradually reduce serving sizes, (if weight is an issue), until there is no further problem for our pets. It is just common sense.

  • Fat Cats
    07/11/2013 10:38pm

    It's been my experience that kitties that once lived on the street and scrounged for their meals tend to worry that the feeding dish might be empty the next time it's checked. As a result, once they have a home, they will overeat if they can.

    While a muscular, lean kitty is optimal, does anyone have thoughts regarding the stress it might cause a former stray to have their meals decreased?

  • Overweight Critters
    07/11/2013 11:03pm

    I have a sheltie I compete with in obedience and he also knows a HUGE number of tricks. I can tell you that he gets LOADS of treats. I keep them VERY small and when we are not working on something new or in a tough class, I frequently use a high-quality kibble. Fortunately, he will work for kibble. Because of this, I keep his meals very small and include such goodies as pumpkin, watermelon and greenbeans to keep it low calorie and satisfying.
    I know that some studies have shown that low-intensity exercise is not particularly helpful for dogs, but for a smallish dog such as a sheltie, a brisk paced walk, espcially if it includes hills, should be helpful. I keep my pace around 4 miles an hour and generally walk 3-1/2 to 5 miles. We do this about 4 times a week, the other days we do formal obedience training and shorter walks.
    I walk dogs for people and all of the dogs I walk regularly are at a good weight. My unscientific view is that exercise really does help and most people and dogs need more. People just need to keep the dogs walking (it is a walk, not a sniff) and keep as brisk a pace as they can. I also agree that the feeding directions on most bags of kibble are unrealistic. Most bags suggest that my dog eat around 1-1/2 cups a day! Even without all the goodies, I doubt he'd need more than a cup.
    As to kitties...good luck! Cats are far more difficult to manage than dogs and WILL or WON"T eat as they please. It is so hard to get most indoor cats to exercise. So many of them turn into kitty couch potatoes.
    Oh, this computer is located by the container in which I store the yummy kibble. My sheltie, naturally, is here tapping my leg with his paw!

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