How Much Should You Be Feeding Your Pet?
Portion control is important when feeding our pets—it's how we ensure our furry friends are getting the recommended amount of daily nutrients. Too few and they could be underdeveloped, but too many and they could gain excessive weight, which can lead to conditions such as heart disease.
When it comes to portion control and nutrition, the specifics entirely depend on factors like species, breed, age, weight, activity level, and medical history. "You could get a room full of veterinarians and no one would exactly agree on how much or what to feed your pet," says Dr. Amy Attas, V.M.D., veterinarian and founder of City Pets, a veterinary house call service for dogs and cats in Manhattan, who also serves on the board of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She suggests establishing a relationship with your veterinarian so they can get to know your pet better. They can track the animal's progression and development, which helps them make specific dietary recommendations geared toward your pet.
Here, we consulted Dr. Attas for the specifics in answering this question for your pet's health.
Cat Nutrition Recommendations
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they have to eat meat to survive. Meat carries specific amino acids that are necessary for cats' health, explains Dr. Attas, which is why a high-protein diet is essential. She recommends using cat-specified food for your felines as opposed to human food, like scraps, which don't contain all the daily nutrients cats need.
Dr. Attas and other experts recommend feeding your cat no less than twice a day. She also reminds us that in the wild, cats have to earn their food. "Mice don't often fall from the sky and land in their laps," she says. Although cats are grazers, leaving bowls of food out all day encourages overeating. Instead, she suggests using food toys because it takes them longer to get the food out which slows down their eating, and allows them to work for their food. Other options include leaving small portions of dry cereal spread around the house for them to find, or using scheduled feeders (especially once more people return to working outside of the home). Dr. Attas warns against leaving wet food out for more than 30 minutes because it dries out and can grow bacteria.
In terms of calorie consumption, weaned kittens require more calories than adult cats because they are growing. After cats reach adulthood, you can follow the bag instructions of how much dry cereal to pour, stick with a can of wet food at each meal or use a mixture of both depending on your cat's preferences. The only exceptions are pregnant and nursing cats who need more calories because their intake is also feeding their offspring.
Dog Nutrition Recommendations
Unlike cats, dogs' diets are a little more flexible. For example, they can eat more carbohydrates because they're typically burning more energy. "You can cook for your pets, but that doesn't mean giving them what you're having for dinner," Dr. Attas says. Dogs need balanced diets, too, so you should use a food brand that follows all of the guidelines for balanced nutritional requirements. If you're wondering how to choose the best food for your dog, Dr. Attas says, "don't fall for pretty advertising. Ask your vet what to feed your pet."
Regarding portions, it depends on the size and activity level of the dog. "Puppies have super high metabolic rates. Their bones and bodies are growing, so they need [extra] food for that life stage," says Dr. Attas. Small dogs don't have the stomach capacity to take in enough nutritious food at one mealtime, so smaller more frequent meals are necessary. She recommends feeding puppies three to four times a day and adult dogs twice a day.
How to Tell If Your Pet Is Eating the Right Amount of Food
Physically, look for signs: If your pet is not eating enough, you can easily see their ribcage, vertebrae, and pelvic bones; lack of adequate food can also cause stunted growth, osteoporosis, and increased susceptibility to bacterial infections and parasites. If your pet is eating too much, you may not feel their ribcage, or you may see fat deposits over the back and base of their tail. With cats specifically, they usually have a distended abdomen that hangs under their bellies.
Additionally, their behavior can be a clue: If your pet is regularly scarfing down their food, they might require more food. If they consistently leave food in the bowl, you might be feeding your pet too much. If they look hungry, but aren't eating, it might be time to change up their food. Dr. Attas recommends using measuring cups for consistent feedings between multiple pet owners in the home, adding that they help determine when portions need to change. For instance, if you're feeding your pet a cup of food at mealtimes and they aren't eating all of it, go down to 3/4 of a cup instead, or the reverse, and go up if they still seem hungry after eating.
Dogs are social animals, so they like to be near you while they eat. Dr. Attas encourages this because it's not only a good opportunity for training (since your dog is motivated and hungry), it's also a good chance to learn your dog's eating habits so you can determine if something is wrong. With cats, it's a little trickier. Cats don't typically eat in front of you, so make sure to check their bowls to see what they're eating. If your cat vomits or has "hairballs" regularly, that could be an indication of a food allergy or some other problem; in this instance, consult your vet.
Overall, there are three main things you can do to ensure that your pet is getting the right amount of food: Talk to your vet and work to establish a feeding schedule with specific portions dependent on your pet's age, size, activity level, and medical needs. Then you have to keep track of your pet's eating habits and be aware if something changes. Modify their routine as they grow and change, and your pet will be in good hands.