Feeding Dogs and Cats: What You Need to Know

Feeding Dogs and Cats: What You Need to Know

A pet’s diet needs to provide a balanced mixture of ingredients to support their maintenance, growth, reproduction and health. The diet should be palatable and not contain antinutritional factors in the amount or concentrations which can reduce the performance.

There are three methods of feeding dogs and cats:

  1. Free-choice, ad libitum or self-feeding. Allowed to eat as much as it wants and whenever it chooses because foods are made available all the time.
  2. Time restricted meal-feeding. Offered more food than it will consume within a specified period of time, generally 5 to 30 minutes.
  3. Food restricted meal-feeding. Offered a specific but less amount of food than it would eat if the amount fed were not restricted.

Some pet owners use only one, while others use a combination of methods, for example providing a dry or soft-moist food free-choice and meal-feed a canned food or specific foods such as meat, table scraps etc.

The feeding method can be determined by the type of food used:

  • Dry foods. Can be self-fed successfully to most dogs and cats, but some will overeat and become obese or have some digestive disturbances. There are some considerations that need to be taken into account here:
    • The dry food’s abrasive action on the teeth help keep them scaled and clean.
    • Gum exercise is also provided by the chewing of the dry food.
    • If the pet is not eating enough there might be problems such as sore gums or lips or bad teeth.
  • Canned foods, fresh foods and moistened dry foods. These should be opened or prepared fresh daily and not exposed to the air for more
    than 10 to 12 hr during summer because of possible spoilage. An alternative is to set a regular feeding time so that the owner can check on the animal’s appetite each day and uneaten food should not be in front of them for more than 30 minutes, particularly during warm weather.

Try to avoid between-meal snacks and table scraps because of possible unbalanced nutrition, obesity, digestive disturbances and development of a finicky eater or food beggar. It should not constitute more than 25% of the animal’s ration.

Keep in mind that poultry bones, chopped bones or small bones may lodge in the animal’s mouth or gastrointestinal tract, whereas large bones may result in broken teeth.

Although most adult dogs eat rapidly and voraciously, many dogs are inhibited-type eaters and prefer to be left alone while eating.

Most cats like to eat alone and without distractions or worry of competition. If feeding more than one cat, you should have separate bowls and their bowls should be separated. Regardless of the method of feeding used for cats, it is best to feed a ration type of cat food and to feed on a regular schedule.

How Much to Feed?

The amount of food to be given to the dog or cat is often determined by trial and error. Most household pets consume about 1/3 to 1/2 oz of dry matter food / lb of body weight when they are inactive / at maintenance.

Puppies may consume about three times this amount during the fast growing period. Hardworking and lactating dogs will consume up to three times the maintenance. When canned diets are fed, about three times as much by weight is needed as when dry foods are fed. Here are some considerations to be kept in mind:

  • The amount consumed by individual dogs vary and two related dogs of the same strain may require different levels of food intake to maintain their body condition.
  • Heavy exercise increases the nutritional requirements and a good dog may lose up to 20 lbs during the hunting season.
  • Cold weather will increase the requirement of food.
  • The size of the animal must be considered as a small dog will require more food per lb than will a large dog.
  • Nervousness is another factor. Purebred pets have a tendency to be more nervous and need more food, but they are always thin and often have a diarrhea problem.
  • Spayed and castrated animals need one third to one half as much food than they needed originally because of having less natural exercise.

Feeding During Pregnancy and Lactation

The primary goal here is of course to provide a nutritionally balanced diet. Dogs can be fed a canine reproduction or growth diet throughout pregnancy but it is particularly needed during the last 3 to 4 weeks of pregnancy and during lactation.

Dogs’ diet on DM basis should consist of at least 80% digestible and should contain at least 25% CP, 17% fat, 1,750 kcalME / lb, less than 5% fiber, 1% – 1.8% Ca, and 0.8% – 1.6% P.

Cats, on the other hand, can be fed a feline reproduction and growth diet throughout pregnancy, but, once again, it is particularly needed during the last three weeks of pregnancy and during lactation.

Cats’ diet on DM basis should consist of at least 80% digestible & contain at least 35% CP, 17% fat, 1,800 kcalME / lb, 1% – 1.8% Ca and 0.8% – 1.6% P.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind for pets during pregnancy and lactation:

  • Your pet should not be given any supplemental nutrition (e.g. meat, milk, Ca, P or vitamins) or fed anything other than a good quality diet meeting the specifications.
  • Pets with optimum body weight at breeding should be fed the same amount needed for maintenance during the first 5 to 6 weeks of pregnancy.
  • After 5 to 6 weeks, the amount fed should be gradually increased so that the pet is getting 15% to 25% more energy by parturition time.
  • During the lactation phase:
    • Feed at least three times a day or free-choice to maintain optimum body weight.
    • Feed 1.5, 2 and 3 times the maintenance during the first, second and third week of lactation to weaning, respectively.
    • Encourage the young to begin eating solid food at 3 weeks of age to assist the mother in maintaining her optimum body weight during peak lactation (third through sixth week).

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Feeding and Raising Young Dogs and Cats

Orphan Puppies and Kittens
  • Environment. You need a separate quarter for each young dog or cat and the temperature for the first 7 days should be 85F to 90F, 80F for the next two to three weeks and 75F by the fourth week. Bedding should be cleaned daily to prevent skin rash.
  • Milk replacer. You need a diet formulated to satisfy the nutritional needs of the young and various modifications of homemade and commercially prepared formulas, simulating the mother’s milk have been used with good success.
  • Methods of feeding:
    • General:
      • Keep all equipment scrupulously clean.
      • Do not prepare more than needed to feed for a 48-hour period and divide the formula into portions and store in a refrigerator.
      • Warm the formula to about 100F or near body temperature before feeding.
    • Nipple bottle feeding. Nipple bottles made particularly for feeding orphan puppies or kittens are preferred.
    • Tube feeding. The easiest, cleanest, fastest, safest and most preferred way to feed the orphan puppy or kitten.
    • Supplemental feeding:
      • Try to encourage the young to eat some solid food.
      • You may want to mix water with the solid food to make a thick mushy gruel.
      • Smear some of the gruel on the animal’s lips.
      • Once they are eating from a bowl, gradually decrease the amount of water mixed with the food until only the solid food is fed three times a day.
Weanling Puppies and Kittens

Feed the weanlings a diet 3 to 4 times daily. Wean the pets at 4 to 7 weeks of age (5.5 to 6 weeks is the average) and allow 7 – 10 days for the weaning process.

Often, the mother will start to wean on her own due to the irritation caused by the presence of animals’ teeth and toenails. Take the mother from the young in the daytime for the first few days, putting her back with the young at night. Then gradually take her away for longer periods so she will finally wean them permanently.

Older Puppies and Kittens

Feed them three times and twice a day for the fist three and 6 months, respectively. Dogs and cats that are 8 months to 1 year and older may be fed once daily. You may feed them twice a day if they aren’t fed too much at a time.

Feeding and Caring for Aging Dogs and Cats

Unfortunately, little scientific information is available on the nutrition of geriatric dogs and cats, but according to some reports, geriatric dogs may be just as capable in digesting and metabolizing nutrients as young dogs are. Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, older animals do not have different dietary needs than younger animals.

Some pet foods are formulated to contain less protein based on the idea that the dietary protein may contribute to the onset of or progression of kidney insufficiency. However, recent research has shown that increased dietary protein does not increase pets’ risk of developing renal disease.

Older animals may even have a higher protein needs than young animals and dietary protein should not be restricted below the amounts provided for adult maintenance.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Early detection of nutritional disturbances and proper nutritional management thereafter may slow or prevent the progression of organ failures and possibly slow the aging process.
  • Good oral hygiene is important in ensuring adequate food intake and utilization.
  • The amount fed should satisfy hunger but should not result in unnecessary abdominal distension and discomfort. Feed small meals at least twice a day (on a regular schedule) of a palatable and highly digestible diet.
  • The diet of a normal aged dog should consist, on a DM basis, of at least 80% digestible and contain at least 14% to 21% CP, 10% fat, 1,700 kcal ME / lb, less than 4% fiber, 0.5% to 0.8% Ca, 0.4% to 0.7% P, and 0.2% to 0.4% Na, and be of good quality.
  • The diet of a normal aged cat should consist, on a DM basis, of at least 80% digestible and contains at least 25% to 35% CP, 15% fat, 1,700 kcal ME / lb, less than 4% fiber, 0.5% to 0.8% Ca, 0.4% to 0.7% P, 0.2% to 0.4% sodium, less than 0.10% Mg and be of good quality.
  • Older pets may have a reduced appetite and digestive / absorption ability. If so, they should be fed palatable high-energy diets at frequent intervals.
  • It is important for the aged dog or cat to have adequate physical activity to maintain muscle tone, enhance circulation and improve waste elimination.

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Nutritional Problems


Obesity is currently the most common nutritional problem in digs and cats in the US:

  • Dogs and cats are considered obese when they are 10% – 15% above their optimum body weight.
  • More common in female than male dogs up to 12 years of age and is about twice as high in neutered dogs of both sexes.
  • Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Collies, Dachshunds and Labradors have the highest incidence of obesity.
  • Obesity in cats is equally common in both sexes with higher incidence in older neutered cats.

Obesity can result in chronic health problems and reduced longevity because of locomotion problems and bone and joint disease, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, heat intolerance, altered resistance and many others.

Factors such as endocrine imbalances and abnormal responsive taste that interfere with internal body signals are rare, thus perhaps, overfeeding for whatever reason and insufficient exercise might be the primary causes for obesity.

Weight reduction should be considered for all dogs and cats that are more than 15% above their optimum weight to decrease health problems, reduce future health care costs, improve appearance and increase the animal’s enjoyment and length of life.

The goal should be to first reduce body fat stores and attain normal body weight and then to maintain the weight for the remainder of the pet’s life.

Exercise would be quite helpful to achieve that goal, not only by increasing energy expenditures but also by reducing appetite and food intake.

Methods for weight reduction program for the obese animal include:

  • Decrease the regular commercial diet by 50% of that needed for the maintenance of the initial (obese) body weight.
  • Feed the regular commercial diet at 60% for dogs and 66% for cats of that needed for the maintenance of optimum body weight.
  • Feed a nutritionally complete and balanced high-fiber, low-energy diet.
  • Feed at least three times a day with the amount fed restricted to feeding times.
  • Keep palatable water available at all times.
  • Exclude all table scraps, snacks, sweets, etc. and also avoid total fasting or starvation for quick weight reduction.
Nutritional Problems in Cats Eating Commercial Dog Foods

As mentioned before, the cat’s nutritional needs are quite different from those of the dog:

  • The cat has a much higher protein requirement than the dog.
  • Little dietary arginine is needed by the mature dog but the cat will die within hours after consuming an arginine-free diet.
  • Cats require taurine in the diet and inadequate taurine results in central retinal degeneration and blindness.
  • Cats cannot convert linoleic acid to arachidonic acid, so they must consume preformed arachidonic acid. If not, develop a dry lusterless hair coat or, if severe deprivation is present, emaciation and spots of moist dermatitis develop.
  • Cats cannot convert beta carotene in plants to vitamin A, so they must consume preformed vitamin A.
  • Cats cannot convert the amino acid Trp to the B vitamin, niacin and, therefore, require more niacin in the diet.

The primary treatment is to feed a nutritionally balanced commercially prepared or homemade diet formulated for cats. In general, cats should not be fed any single food item or cat food consisting of a single food item, such as some of the gourmet cat foods, at more than 25% of the cat’s total food intake.

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