Your Pet’s Nutrition Needs Compared to Yours

What kind of nutrition does your cat or dog really need to stay healthy?

From the WebMD Archives

Your kitty probably loves a lot of the same foods you do and is happy to eat a small square of cheese when offered. Your dog may relish just about anything you’re willing to share. It's so easy to please our pets with food -- but is it good nutrition?

Pet nutrition needs are not the same as ours, but many of us are clueless about what exactly they are. This primer on dog and cat nutrition will fill you in on what your pet needs to stay healthy and fit.

Consider these facts:

  • Small, low-activity dogs need only about 185 to 370 calories daily, while a large pooch between 67 to 88 pounds may need between 1,000 to 2,000 calories, depending on activity level and gender. Yet many of our dogs get far more food than they need. More than one-third of U.S. dogs over 1 year old are overweight.
  • A healthy 10-pound kitty needs just 220 to 350 calories a day -- about the number in a few ounces of cheese. No wonder the weight stats are about as bad for cats as dogs. At least one-quarter of U.S. felines are considered overweight or obese.

Here’s how vet experts break down the nutrition needs for dogs and cats to stay lean and healthy.

Cat Nutrition: The Meat of the Matter

Next time you look at your cat snoozing in a sunbeam, think tiger. Pound for pound, cats need twice the protein humans and dogs do. And the building blocks of good cat nutrition can be summarized in one word: Meat.

About 17% to 21% of adult human calories should come from protein. We can get it from meat, but also through beans, legumes, and dairy sources. Cats need double that amount of protein for good nutrition and it must come from meat or fish.

Why? Cats are “obligate carnivores,” which means they need to eat animal protein to obtain all the amino acids they need in their diet, according to Marla J. McGeorge, DVM, a veterinarian with a special interest in felines. The vital amino acid cats can't get from any source other than animal protein is taurine.

Taurine is critical for a cat's normal heart, eye, and reproductive function, but cats can't make it from other amino acids, as most mammals can. A meat-rich diet not only provides cats the taurine they need. It also gives them vitamin A -- a nutrient they're unable to convert from beta-carotene, says Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, professor of medicine and nutrition in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee.


Pets and Nutrition: Feline Fat Facts

Fats are a good energy source for cats. In the wild, cats consume about one-third of their calories as fat. Fats not only taste good, but they also help cats get the fatty acids they need and aid in absorbing fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, and E.

The problem is that some cats enjoy the taste of fat too much – just like some people. If you find that kitty is digging into her food bowl too often or you’re sharing tidbits of people food with her, be careful. Obese cats can suffer many of the health problems people face, including diabetes and arthritis.

Carbohydrates and Cat Nutrition

Domestic cats fed on commercial dry cat food may get up to 40% of their calories from carbs. Yet cats "do not need them in the percentages that are found in the majority of processed dry foods," McGeorge tells WebMD. In fact, there is no minimum recommended requirement of carbohydrates for cats, and too many carbs can be a prime reason domesticated cats put on pounds.

Water Is Vital to Cat Nutrition

Cats, people, and dogs are all made up of about 60% to 70% water. But unlike their canine and human friends, cats evolved with a low thirst drive, probably a legacy of their desert-dwelling ancestors.

Add a cat's low thirst drive to a diet rich in dry foods -- which contain only 5% to 10% water -- and it's clear cats can run the risk of dehydration. This may lead to serious urinary tract problems. Although a diet that includes wet cat food (about 78% water) helps, you should always have multiple sources of fresh, clean water available for your cat.

Fat Cats and Feline Fitness

If you can't feel kitty's ribs without pressing or if he doesn't have a visible waist, chances are good that your cat is a bit overweight. Fortunately, cats love exercise, as anyone who's experienced an ankle attack knows. Your job? Provide enriching play for both of you.

Because cats are geared toward short bursts of intense activity, get out the laser pointer, feathered toy, or string and play for five or 10 minutes several times a day (less at first if your feline friend is unfit). Always play it safe and let your vet know your fitness plans for your Fluffy. And don't forget, even a svelte kitty needs exercise and the bonding attention playtime provides.


Dogs: How Meat Helps Meet Dog Nutrition Needs

Dogs love many of the same foods we do. But if you think your precious pooch as a hairy little human, think again. Although your canine companion needs protein and good fats, he may need far fewer carbohydrates than you think.

Protein should make up about 18% of your dog's diet, as it should for you. Animal protein from meat and fish offers the balanced protein dogs need. Unlike cats, dogs also eat -- and enjoy – some vegetables, too.

Does this mean your dog could be vegetarian? The pros generally don't recommend it unless you feed your dog an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) compliant diet. This ensures that all the essential amino acids are included. (Check the dog food label for the AAFCO designation.) If you feed your dog a homemade plant-based diet, you may need to supplement it to provide all the amino acids vital to good canine health.

Dogs Love Fat, But How Much Is OK?

For good nutrition, dogs need fats to keep their coat, skin, nose, and paw pads healthy. Fats are also a great energy source and contain more than twice the calories per gram than protein or carbs.

That doesn't mean your pooch should have all the fats she craves. About 9% to15% of an adult dog's calories should come from fat. But it's easy for dogs to get too much fat, especially if they get treats from the table or sneak cat food tidbits. (Cat food has more fat, protein, and calories per mouthful than dog food, which is why dogs love it so much).

Carbohydrates and Canine Nutrition

Carbs aren't a natural energy source for dogs. Their bodies can make use of carbohydrates for energy, but they have naturally evolved to get most of their nutrition needs met by fats and protein.

As with cats, there's no minimum recommended amount of carbohydrates for dogs. The exception is at the end of gestation and early in lactation, Bartges tells WebMD. “Likewise, dogs do not have an absolute fiber requirement – although a no-fiber diet often results in diarrhea."


Dog Nutrition: Water Is Vital

Animals can't survive without plenty of clean water, and your dog is no different. Refill her water bowl daily and be sure to give her extra water after a long walk, game, or any other energetic activity.

Dog Obesity and Exercise

We've all heard the old saying that dogs tend to look a lot like their owners -- especially around the middle. Dogs need exercise to stay healthy -- and they're a great motivator for you to get exercise too. In fact, one study suggests that walking a dog daily can give as big a health boost as quitting smoking.

Although little dogs need less rambunctious play than medium- and large-breed dogs, all canines need activity at least once and preferably twice a day to maintain healthy bones and muscles. Talk to your vet first before starting an exercise program for an unfit pooch and be careful of heatstroke, which is a danger for all dogs, no matter how fit they are.

Obesity boosts a dog's risk of degenerative joint disease and chronic pain. If your canine companion doesn't have a waist, you can't feel her ribs without pressing, or there's no "tuck" in her tummy, she may be too heavy for good health. Ask your veterinarian to be sure.

Making Sense of Pet Nutrition

So is your cat or dog getting all the nutrients he needs? It can be difficult to understand all the fine points of pet nutrition and translate them into your pet’s daily diet. Your vet can help you optimize your pet's diet for good health, offer advice on exercise and behavior modification, and help your much-loved companion get the preventive care he needs for a long, healthy, and active life.

WebMD Pet Health Feature Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on August 4, 2010



Marla J. McGeorge, DVM, The Cat Doctor, Portland.

Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, professor of medicine and nutrition, Acree Endowed Chair of Small Animal Research, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Fogle, B. Caring for Your Dog: The Complete Canine Home Reference, DK Publishing, 2002.

Siegal, M. The Cornell Book of Cats, Second Edition, Random House, 1997.

Pitcairn, R. Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats,Third Edition, Rodale Inc., 2005.

ASPCA: "Nutrients Your Cat Needs," "Nutrients Your Dog Needs," "Overweight Dogs," "Vegetarian Dogs," "Feeding Your Adult Cat."

Dorchester County Health Department: "The Health Benefits of Water."

Pet Education: "Protein Requirements for Good Nutrition."

Mehus-Roe, K. The Original Dog Bible: The Definitive Source for All Things Dog, Second Edition, BowTie Press, 2009.

WebMD Pet Health Feature: "8 Common Cat Problems and How to Solve Them."

WebMD Medical Reference: "Protein: Are You Getting Enough?"

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