Balancing Pet Food and Treats

By Ashley Gallagher, DVM on Jul. 19, 2013

Ed. Note: Today we feature a special guest. Ashley Gallagher, DVM, is a veterinarian with Friendship Hospital for Animals, and today she is blogging on the topic of pet food and treats. Enjoy!

I love shopping and that includes shopping for toys, treats and food for my pets. But I also see how it's completely overwhelming for pet owners to choose between all the different brands and formulations of pet foods and treats out there. Here are a few tips to help you balance the endless options of dry food, canned food, and treats for your pet.


Start with the Calories

The first step is to figure out how many calories your pet should be eating each day to either lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. That's because keeping a pet slim and svelte is the single best way to help prevent disease and extend its life. Consult your veterinarian for this "magic" calorie count. He or she can asses your pet’s body condition and make a scientific recommendation based on the results. Most pet food manufacturers will provide the number of calories (often listed as kilocalories or kcal per cup) on their websites. The chart of recommended feeding guidelines on the back of the bag of food is a guideline and may not accurately account for your pets unique calorie needs; your veterinarian is best at making a calorie recommendation. 


Treat Wisely

While tasty, most treats are not balanced for the nutritional requirements your pet needs to stay healthy. Therefore, treats such as rawhides, biscuits, table scraps and other "people food" should not account for more than 10% of your pet's daily calories. Calories do not have to be on the treat packaging, you may need to contact the treat manufacturer so you can calculate how much of the treat your pet can eat. Feeding too many treats can lead to a deficiency or excess of certain nutrients and cause illness. Essentially, most pet treats are empty calories — much like a big piece of chocolate cake is for us.

Balance Canned and Dry Pet Food

What combination of canned and dry food is best to feed? The short answer is there is no perfect combination. It is completely up to you how, or if, you combine the two. However, you must make sure that any food you feed has the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement of nutritional adequacy on its label. If this is not present, or it says “intended for intermittent feeding only,” then this is not a complete and balanced food and falls under the 10% umbrella discussed above. It's also important that you consult with your veterinarian to confirm that the combination of wet and dry food not only meets your pet's nutritional requirements, but that it does not exceed the calorie limits.

Many people choose dry food because they believe it helps prevent tartar buildup and dental disease. Excluding foods that are specifically formulated for dental health, dry food may help  to some small degree but this shouldn't be your sole reason for purchasing dry pet food. Simply chewing food is not a replacement for frequent teeth brushing and anesthetic dental cleanings done by your veterinarian.

Dogs do fine on a dry food only diet, which is great because it is much more economical than canned food, especially for a larger dog. That said, sometimes it is nice to mix in a bit of canned food to give them some variety. On the other hand, I prefer to feed cats mostly canned food, as I think it provides considerable health benefits.

In general, the makeup of canned food has much more moisture than dry kibble. This increased moisture helps to keep kitty’s delicate kidneys well hydrated and helps manage many common urinary health issues. However, some cats do like to have kibble to snack on throughout the day so I do like to include a little in their diets. Just make sure they stick to the calorie allotment for the day. 


Watch for Special Health Restrictions

Finally always keep in mind your pet’s individual health needs and dietary restrictions. For example, pets with kidney disease need specially formulated therapeutic diets to help maintain kidney function. Adding a new type of food or fun treat without first consulting with your veterinarian may inadvertently negate the benefit of the diet. The same may be said when handling other specific dietary restrictions. Save yourself the trouble and talk it over with your vet first. He or she knows your pet's needs the best.

Image: Jeff Thrower / Shutterstock

Last reviewed on July 26, 2015.


Ashley Gallagher, DVM


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