The Biggest Feeding Mistakes Pet Owners Make
It goes without saying that every loving pet parent wants their four-legged family member to live the longest, healthiest life possible. And while life is unpredictable, a huge part of helping your dog or cat reach a ripe old age has to do with nutrition. It’s no wonder that one of the most common questions pet parents ask their vets is, “What’s the best dog diet / cat diet out there?”
The short answer is that there’s no one-size-fits all formula for every animal. Each pet has different dietary needs depending on health, age, activity level, genetics, and more. Therefore, the best feeding plan for your companion is the one you create alongside your vet or pet nutritionist. Still, there are many bad feeding habits that, in general, should be avoided when it comes to providing optimum pet nutrition.
Based on information collected from 35 vets and pet nutritionists around the world, here are four of the biggest feeding mistakes that pet owners make.
1. NOT ADDRESSING OBESITY
Obesity is a health issue that many pet professionals see, and in most cases, this condition can be reversed or avoided altogether. There are many overweight pets due to poor nutrition and owners feeding treats and ‘people food’ to them.
Barring medical issues that cause pets to gain weight, dogs and cats usually become overweight simply because they’re overeating. Below are just some of the consequences that result from overfeeding your pet.
First and foremost, medical issues should be ruled out if your pet becomes obese, especially if it’s sudden or accompanied by a change in appetite. “If your [pet] is overeating, take [them] to the vet to make sure they do not have worms or an underlying issue,” As mentioned, worms and parasites and even illnesses like Cushing’s disease and hypothyroidism can lead to weight gain, so it’s important to get your pet evaluated if he starts getting hefty.
Many pet parents give their companions too many treats because they want to show their love. But while the goodies make our begging pals happy for a few seconds, no pet can live their happiest, healthiest life when their weight makes moving difficult, or when they develop an illness that’s linked to their obesity.
Our furry friends often pack on the pounds when they’re fed too many table scraps. While certain fresh foods can make a healthy treat and can even add nutrition to your pet’s diet, it’s important to remember that some “human” foods — like chocolate, macadamia nuts, grapes, and more — can actually be toxic to them. Further, feeding your pet from your plate rewards bad behavior: begging at the table!
Of course, you can still feed your pal a snack or two. For healthy treats, try using carrot sticks, pieces of plain chicken or fish (no seasoning, sauces, or dressings!), frozen banana slices, or frozen bone broth as tasty rewards or as a pet diet supplement. As in any healthy lifestyle, the trick here is moderation.
Resource guarding can also lead to overeating and weight gain, something especially common in dogs. This happens when animals are overprotective of a resource — in this case, food — for fear that it’ll be taken away from them. This habit can cause pets to eat too fast, eat too much, and often, become aggressive if someone gets too close to their food bowl.
The best way to deal with a food-possessive pup is to feed them in a place where they feel safe and unthreatened. Next, it is essential to consult with a professional trainer to teach your dog healthier and safer habits. Resource guarding is more than having bad manners; it can be dangerous to other members of the family.
Perhaps your pet simply eats too fast or likes to munch throughout the day. If this is the case, don’t keep food out so he can “graze” — it’s difficult to track of consumption.
“Eating too fast or overeating are habits that pet owners should correct,” says Ardolino. “If your pet is eating too quickly, feed him a few smaller meals throughout the day rather than one large meal.” Further, she says, “Your dog may be overeating because [he is] bored, so exercise him more.”
When it comes to portion sizes, the recommendations on your dog or cat’s kibble bag usually give a good general guide, but the pet’s age and activity level should also be taken into consideration. (For instance, sedentary older animals probably need less food than energetic young adults.) Again, when discussing your dog or cat’s diet, this is a great question to ask your vet or pet nutritionist!
Let’s not forget that exercise is another huge part of weight management, too! The idea is simple: if your pal consumes more calories than he burns off, he’ll gain weight. Set aside time every day for some physical activity, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes. (Remember, their bodies are much smaller than ours, so each calorie consumed or burned has much more of an impact.) Not only does exercise burn off extra energy, it can eliminate boredom eating, plus it’s great bonding time for the two of you.
If your dog or cat is heavy or out of shape, be sure to start slow, and consult with your vet about the safest way to start an active routine. On those days when you simply don’t have time for a walk or a play session, consider holding off on those extra treats to keep your pet’s nutrition and caloric intake in balance.
2. NOT KNOWING WHAT TO LOOK FOR — AND WHAT TO AVOID — IN PET FOOD
When it comes to feeding your dog or cat a healthy, balanced diet, you shouldn’t opt for the cheapest food just to save money; however, paying top-dollar doesn’t ensure you’re getting the best quality, either. In order to choose a premium pet diet or food formula, forget the price tag and focus on the nutrition panel, instead.
Even if the food you choose is on the pricier side, you get what you pay for. If you buy cheap food, be prepared to spend more at the vet. The best course of action is preventative maintenance, which means paying more now for higher quality foods. In the end, your pet will be happier and healthier, and you’ll spend less at the vet.”
REMEMBER: IT’S AN INDUSTRY
The pet care industry rakes in about $70 billion a year in the US alone. It’s a big business, and just because an item is on a store shelf doesn’t mean it’s safe or healthy for your beloved pet.
As an advocate for your furry family member, it’s important to know the basics about how to read pet food packages. You know that your companion is a carnivore, so in finding a formula for your cat or dog’s diet, you may look for a protein source as the first item on the ingredient list. However, pet food companies are sneaky and can manipulate ingredients, print misleading labels, and find loopholes in the (already loose) pet nutrition laws.
For instance, the ingredients on labels are often measured in their whole forms, so by the time they’re dehydrated and processed, the majority of the food may actually be non-nutritional fillers and grains. Further, the grains used in cheap foods can be so low-quality, they’re not even safe for human consumption. This is why many pet parents feel that grain-free pet foods are the best way to nourish their dog or cat.
Plus, big pet food companies depend on consumer trust, and take advantage of it.
But a high percentage of protein isn’t the only thing you should look for, since the quality of it depends on the source. You may be shocked to learn that ambiguously-labeled ingredients, such as “meat meals,” “animal meals,” and “by-products” may actually be a rendered, ground-up mixture of deceased animals including euthanized farm animals and road kill. Instead, look for specific protein sources, like “beef,” “poultry,” “lamb,” “fish,” etc.
Some pet foods and treats are filled with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, chemicals, and more. And when you think about it, kibble meant to look “appetizing” with dyes and fun shapes is a marketing tactic to trick owners, not their pets. After all, your companion doesn’t care what colors are in his food bowl!
Not only are cheaply-made formulas lacking in essential nutrition, they can also contribute to obesity, especially if they’re high in filler grains like corn, wheat, or soy. That’s because these ingredients are high in carbs and sugars with little nutrients. Basically, it’s empty-calorie pet junk food.
If this is all news to you, don’t panic! With a little knowledge, you can choose a premium food that fulfills your pet’s nutritional needs. (Bonus tip: the Dog Food Advisor website breaks down the ingredients of hundreds of pet food brands and varieties. Don’t choose a food based on the site’s ratings, but rather, use it as a tool to help you analyze ingredients. Along with research and advice from your vet and pet nutritionist, you can make the best formula choice for your pet.)
In general, when reading the ingredient panels on pet foods, here are some things to look for:
- Formulas where the first three ingredients are protein sources
- Specific protein sources like chicken, beef, poultry, fish, etc.
- All-natural ingredients you can pronounce
In general, here are some ingredients you should always avoid:
- Formulas where the second or third ingredient is a grain or filler carbohydrate like wheat, corn, legumes, or potatoes
- Non-specific protein sources labeled as “meat,” “meal,” “by-product,” “blood meal,” “animal meal,” etc.
- Ingredients with names you can’t pronounce (if it sounds like a chemical, it probably is!)
- Flavorings, dyes, or preservatives
- High fructose corn syrup
3. FAILING TO FEED YOUR PET A BALANCED DIET
Just like with humans, it’s imperative that dog diets and cat diets are balanced. While protein is an essential amino acid for our furry friends, they also need the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals provided by fruits, veggies, and other foods.
Wary of pet food brands following exposé articles, films, and countless recalls, many dog and cat owners are transitioning their furry family members to homemade or raw food diets. While these can be incredibly healthy choices, again, these kinds of diets aren’t one-size-fits-all, and work better for some animals than others.
Raw diets seem to be all the rage, and for good reason. When executed properly, dogs and cats fed uncooked whole foods can show immediate improvements in health, energy level, and more.
However, feeding your pet raw is much more complicated than opening a package of meat and dumping it into a food bowl. For proper pet nutrition, each meal must be balanced with the right micronutrients, and failure to add essential components into the diet can be detrimental to health in the long run. That’s why you must do your research, and most importantly, consult with a veterinary professional or pet nutritionist before transitioning your pal to a raw diet.
Feeding companion animals a vegetarian diet is also a growing trend, but in reality, their bodies are meant to be nourished by animal protein. This is especially true for cats, who are obligate carnivores. This means they must eat meat for survival, and depriving them of that can have life-threatening consequences.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
While all this information may be overwhelming, focus on starting small. Maybe you begin by feeding your pet less table scraps or switching packaged treats to carrot sticks or bits of chicken. Maybe you start looking for a kibble with more natural ingredients, and eventually, you might go raw. Just remember: every little measure you take to improve the health of your pet can make a big impact in the long run. More importantly, any change in diet — especially a big one — should be done under the guidance of your vet or pet nutritionist.
4. UNDERESTIMATING THE POWER OF NUTRITION TO MANAGE HEALTH ISSUES
You’ve probably heard the saying that “food is medicine,” and the same goes for our pets. While many health issues are unavoidable, so many of them can be avoided or managed with a proper diet. Pet parents should never underestimate the influence that a balanced, nutritional diet has on their pet’s overall health!
Johnna Devereaux, owner of Fetch RI, a holistic pet boutique in Rhode Island, says she’s seen lots of pets cheat death after a simple dietary change. “I have countless stories, but the ones that always come to mind are those that [the pet parents have] been told they should ‘put their pet down,’ as the pet is ‘too far gone’ and the animal is in pain,” she says. “They come to me as their last resort and last hope, and out of every single one of these stories, the animal is alive and thriving and [his] body is slowly healing and returning to a state of health no one thought was possible.”
MAKING THE BEST DECISION FOR YOUR PET
At the end of the day, the decision on what to feed your pet is up to you. However, it should be an educated one, and done under the guidance of a vet, holistic vet, or a pet nutritionist. Whether used to support a healthy lifestyle or manage an illness alongside medication or completely on its own, proper nutrition is the foundation to helping your pet lead the longest and healthiest life possible.
While there is no “right” diet that works for every animal, avoiding these four common feeding mistakes will help make your companion healthier from the inside out. As your pet’s biggest advocate, it’s up to you to be proactive, do some research, and help him live the full and happy life he deserves!