With a new year upon us and resolutions for health and fitness fresh in our minds, you may find yourself thinking that you want to help your cat or dog shed some of those holiday pounds or simply prevent additional winter weight gain over the next several months. While it is true that weight loss is governed by the simple formula of calories in not exceeding calories burned, when we feed our pets a complete and balanced diet that is designed to adequately meet all their nutritional needs, it may be not that simple.

If you’ve been following our blog for a while, it should come as no surprise that we recommend science-based, nutrient-driven pet foods. Realistically, however, that’s only part of the picture. No matter how complete and balanced a given diet may be, it isn’t going to do your pet any good if you’re not feeding appropriate amounts.

Recommended feeding guidelines exist for a reason. Not only are they required by law, but they also ensure appropriate energy (think calories) and nutrient levels for the average pet in a predetermined weight range. Both significantly underfeeding what the manufacturer recommends, as well as excessive supplementation with other food sources, can result in a nutrient-deficient diet that leads to potential health issues.

What is the science behind recommended feeding guidelines?

Commercial pet food, when correctly manufactured with nutrient-driven ingredients and research-backed formulation, is designed to meet the needs of most pets. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pet food labeling laws require that manufacturers provide recommended feeding guidelines for each of their diets. These guidelines are established by taking the calculated energy density of the food (kcal/cup, kcal/g or kcal/can) and dividing it into the calculated energy requirements of a typical pet within a given weight range.

What happens if a pet’s metabolic needs differ from the average pet?

Not every pet has the same metabolic energy requirements as the “average” pet. To further complicate matters, there are a number of different ways to calculate energy requirements and not every pet food manufacturer uses the same equation. The result is that dogs with higher metabolic requirements, such as working dogs, may be underfed, while dogs with lower metabolic requirements, such as most retrievers, may be overfed.

Fortunately, recommended feeding guidelines are offered as a range, with some manufacturers even specifying different guidelines for more sedentary pets, and these ranges are sufficient to meet the needs of the vast majority of pets.

What if a pet truly requires less energy than is recommended?

Most of us have been taught to feed our pets to achieve an ideal body condition score or BCS. While this is still the best means by which to assess if your pet is at a healthy weight, it is still important to take recommended feeding guidelines into account.

Continuing to restrict food, while effectively restricting calories, may actually lead to a potential nutrient deficiency as nutrients decrease in direct relation to energy, or calorie, restriction.

The general rule is that if you are feeding less than 75% of the manufacturer’s recommended feeding guidelines, you are potentially putting your pet at risk of nutrient deficiency. The best choice in this situation is to transition your pet to a prescription weight loss diet as these are formulated to be calorie-restricted but nutrient-dense.

What’s the problem with treats and supplemental foods?

Simply put, if the majority of your pet’s daily caloric requirements are met by treats and/or supplemental foods, no matter how healthy or wholesome they may seem, you will not be providing enough of a complete and balanced diet to adequately meet your pet’s nutritional requirements.

It cannot be stressed enough that every ingredient in a properly formulated diet is chosen for the specific nutrients it contributes to the formula. These ingredients are then blended together to create a truly complete and balanced diet when fed in the recommended amounts.

By decreasing your pet’s overall commercial diet intake, you are, again, restricting essential nutrients that no degree of well-intentioned supplementation can replace. Fresh foods and treats absolutely have their place in your pet’s diet, but they need to be kept to less than 10% of your pet’s daily caloric requirements.

Ask your veterinarian for guidance

Your veterinarian can help you determine your pet’s body condition score and set a goal for the future. He or she can also help you to calculate what your pet’s metabolic energy requirements are and which food will best meet his or her needs. Your veterinarian can also guide you through the transition phase (for more info on picky eaters, see our post Picky Pooches and Finicky Felines) and help set realistic goals for safe and healthy weight loss.