Pet Boarding & Daycare

Understanding the Nutritional Needs of Pets

Understanding the Nutritional Needs of Pets

By Professional Pet Boarding Council

Both dogs and cats need diets made up of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water; however, they have different nutritional needs and should not be fed the same formulation. In addition, there are different nutritional needs depending on the pet’s age (puppy, adult, senior), pregnant or nursing, breed, size and health status. Pets may need to be on prescription diets for health issues, weight management diets or low-allergy diets.

Prescription Diets

Major pet food manufacturers offer prescription diets for the treatment of certain illnesses and disorders in pets. Examples of health issues that may be treated with specially–formulated prescription diets are:

If a pet in your care is on a prescription diet, you should take care to make sure it gets the proper food. If a pet receives a food other than its prescription food, it could suffer a relapse or worsening of its illness. Pet care facility owners often require that owners with pets on such a diet bring food from home for use during the pet’s stay.

Feeding The Right Proportions

In addition to providing a well–balanced diet, part of your responsibility to the pets in your care will be to provide that diet in the proper proportions. Weight management of a client’s pet can sometimes be a very difficult job. If diet instructions say to feed, for example, “2 cups in the morning,” that means two level cups, not heaping cups. In addition, the cup should be a standard 8 oz. cup that would be used in baking, not a coffee cup, scoop or giant soda cup from the convenience store.

The Overweight or Obese Pet

Just as human Americans are likely to be overweight or obese, so are our pets. No one wants to hear that their pet is morbidly obese, or that the special treats they so lovingly provide their pet could be harmful. Discussing obesity with pet parents should be done respectfully, without placing blame. 

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention ( has good information for pet parents and pet care facility staff members. For example, an average Chihuahua should weigh around 6 pounds. If a chubby Chihuahua weighs 12 pounds (6 pounds overweight), that is equivalent to an average human woman (5’4” tall) being 145 pounds overweight! The Pet Obesity Prevention website also has calorie contents for many commercial dog and cat food brands. Different brands vary considerably—from 250 to 500 calories per cup!

The Special Cases

Occasionally you will lodge a pet that needs to gain weight, although this is not as common. Some pets arrive at their proper weight, yet experience a change of eating habits due to the change in environment. In addition to providing these pets with extra attention in an effort to get them to enjoy the experience, you will need to make certain that they get adequate nutrition. In both of these cases, you may need to get a little creative to entice them to eat.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are common in pets as well as humans. In pets, food allergies most commonly cause skin symptoms (hair loss, itching, ear infections and rashes) and/or gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea or loss of appetite). Pets, like people, can be allergic to anything in their food or environment, but the most common food allergens for pets are chicken, beef, dairy, egg and wheat. 

Food allergies are diagnosed with a “diet trial,” meaning that a hypoallergenic (low allergy) diet is fed exclusively for 8–12 weeks or more. Once stabilized on a food that does not cause an upset to the pet’s system, it is imperative that their diet be maintained. Even a single bite of a regular food to which the pet is allergic could cause a flare–up of symptoms.

There are two main strategies for the design of hypoallergenic prescription diets.
Some hypoallergenic diets, called “novel protein,” utilize a major protein source that is different than the pet has previously eaten. Most commonly–fed over–the–counter diets contain beef, chicken and/or lamb, so hypoallergenic diets eliminate those animal proteins and use more unusual proteins. Examples are fish, rabbit, venison and even kangaroo meat! The novel protein foods also use non–corn and non–wheat carbohydrate sources, including green pea and sweet potato. Other hypoallergenic diets, called “hydrolyzed,” are treated so that the proteins and carbohydrates are broken up into such tiny pieces that the immune system “ignores” them, although they still provide all the nutrition the pet needs.

The Basic Element of Survivor

Last, but certainly not least—in fact, the most important after oxygen—is an element every living thing needs to sustain life. WATER. Although it contains no nutritional value, without it a pet will die. In fact, going without water will more rapidly cause serious side effects than going without food will. All pets should be provided an ample supply of fresh, clean water. Be careful to ensure that water bowls are clean and free of detergent residue.

However, if a dog is to quickly lap down water, it can cause stomach upset and vomiting. In rare cases, drinking a very large amount of water can cause life–threatening electrolyte imbalances (cause water toxicosis). This can especially be seen in young dogs drinking water from a pool or hose. Some illnesses will cause a dog to drink excessively, such as diabetes and kidney disease, so the water should not be limited. If a dog tends to gulp down water too fast, you can try to slow it down by using multiple small bowls or putting ice in bowls to melt slowly.

As humans become much more health and nutrition savvy, it’s not surprising we are making the same attempt with our pets. In today’s health–conscious society, it’s no wonder pet foods abound in every size, shape and variety imaginable. Yet, not all are created equal. With so many pet foods to choose from, ranging from high–end premium foods and prescriwption diets aimed toward disease management to generic brands labeled simply “dog food” or “cat food,” it becomes more and more difficult to determine which is best for the pets in our care. However, you should begin gaining the knowledge you will someday need concerning the basics of nutrition and the importance diet plays on the overall health of the pet. 

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