Keep current on calorie counts

August 15, 2017

No, calorie content is not required (yet) on pet food labels. But you can still help your veterinary clients figure out caloric intake.


As a veterinary professional, you know how important it is for pet owners to make good feeding choices for their pets. But, of course, it's much harder for pet owners to discern caloric intake for their fur babies than it is for you. Calories from treats and table foods should not make up more than 10 percent of a patient's total caloric intake, according to nutrition expert and CVC educator Martha Cline, DVM, DACVN. “So if calorie information is not available,” she says, “how are pet owners supposed to determine how much is too much?”  

Due to recent standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), it's become much easier for pet owners and veterinary professionals alike to discern how much is just right for pets. “While it is the state that regulates all animal feed and pet food,” AAFCO states on its website, “AAFCO has determined the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet food.”

Along with this, AAFCO has provided an accessible way to calculate calorie content on pet food labels. “Where a label calorie content statement is required or simply desirable, it may be calculated from the same proximate analysis data used for setting guarantees,” AAFCO states on its website. “The calorie content of a good is dependent on the amounts of crude protein, crude fat and carbohydrate in the product.” In other words, whether or not the pet food label spells out caloric content, there's still a way to figure it out.

However, Dr. Cline knows that many pet owners will not take the time to calculate this. “I find that many pet owners feed by volume and not by calories,” she says. “For example, a client will always feed her dog one cup of food twice daily, regardless of the type of food they're buying.” According to Dr. Cline, the calorie content of dry dog food can start at 300 calories (kcal) per cup-approaching up to 600 calories in some cases. “If they're just switching around from food to food, this can lead to over- or underfeeding a pet.”

Which is where veterinarians come in. “Knowing how much an animal is eating in terms of calories is helpful for managing various medical conditions if they involve weight loss or gain,” Dr. Cline says, “so we as veterinarians should know how to adjust the feedings.” She goes on to mention how important the AAFCO guidelines on calories are. You can find them in the form of a downloadable team handout here.

When in doubt, Dr. Cline wants veterinary clients to know it's better to bypass food where calorie content is a mystery, rather than try to calculate crude content in the middle of the pet food aisle. “I tell the owner that if the pet food or treat they pick up doesn't have calories listed on the label,” she says, “I consider it a red flag and tell them they should put it back. There are plenty of other good options.”