Rethinking “just feed less” to reduce calorie intake
Laura Gaylord, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition), discusses strategies for reducing calorie intake while providing optimal health and nutrition for patients.
Content sponsored by Virbac
One of the most common questions we are asked as veterinarians is, “How much should I feed?” Given that more than 60% of our clients' pets are overweight, this question is critically important.1 As veterinarians, we need to ask, “How can we support our clients in choosing the best foods and feeding their pets appropriately?” At each exam, we might assess the pet’s weight and body-condition score and then when pressed for time, simply say, “Just feed less.”
This answer, however, may not be providing the best advice for the pet or the client.
Eighty five percent of dogs and 93% of cats are spayed and neutered.2 While spaying or neutering is advocated for virtually all dogs and cats, this intervention does have consequences—ie, it is the largest risk factor for obesity for our pets.3,4 This happens primarily through a decrease in metabolic rate and an increase in desire for food intake.5-7 The removal of sex hormones can result in an increased appetite, up to 63% in dogs and 23% in cats.8,9 If no changes in diet are instituted, weight gain is likely.
The trouble with “just feed less”
1. It may ignore the amount of food being fed and the diet type.
This is critical information needed to confirm that the pet is consuming the proper amount of food and the best diet appropriate for its life stage. Can the diet be safely reduced in quantity and still meet nutritional needs? We need to collect information about other foods or treats that are offered because these could be unbalancing the total daily diet.
2. It may create hungry pets.
Hungry pets beg. Food and treats are an expression of our love for our pets and an important part of the human-animal bond. Not acknowledging this and failing to have strategies to manage begging may result in clients giving in to their pet. When food emotionally equates to love, just feed less may feel like we are giving less love. In addition, reducing the volume of food fed reduces the volume of food within the stomach, which is a known trigger for satiety.10,11 With average diets, less food also means reducing intakes of protein (amino acids) and fiber, nutrients that have been confirmed to help reduce voluntary food intakes and begging behaviors in dogs.12,13
3. It may put pets at risk of nutrient deficiencies.
Studies have confirmed that restricting adult maintenance diets and weight-management diets will result in nutrient intakes that fall below recommended guidelines from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the recommended allowances from the National Research Council (NRC).14-17 Changing puppies or kittens from growth diets directly to adult foods while they’re still in their growth phase is not an optimal recommendation. Diets intended to support growth have been specifically formulated to provide the necessary higher levels of amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals—up to 2 to 3 times that provided in adult maintenance foods. This means if we select an adult diet prematurely when growth is still occurring, we are potentially underfeeding nutrients needed for optimal development.18
It is often difficult to clinically appreciate the effects of nutrient deficiencies in our pets unless they are severe. Protein or amino acid deficiencies may manifest as poor muscling and skin/hair coat, poor immune function, and even heart disease (dilated cardiomyopathy). Insufficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids may result in poor nervous system and/or retinal development as well as suboptimal trainability in young dogs. Severe mineral deficiencies may result in suboptimal growth, impacts on bone metabolism, pica, muscle dysfunction, anemia, and even fluid imbalances. Vitamin deficiencies may cause poor growth, impaired bone metabolism, poor skin, mucous membrane and hair-coat quality, anemia, nervous and cardiovascular system dysfunction, impaired clotting, and many other adverse effects.19,20 The best option is to ensure a proper diet is fed with adequate nutrient levels included to support growth to its completion.
4. How do we intervene and do better?
It starts at the puppy and kitten visits. We need to train our technicians/nurses to take good diet histories (e.g., what food, how much, how many treats/snacks, etc.) and document this at every visit. Make nutrition important! Just having the discussion acknowledges that we care about nutrition, are interested, and understand the powerful tool that nutrition and food are in our pets’ lives. Train staff to check body weight and also teach them to become excellent at body-condition scoring, as well as muscle mass scoring. Document this information consistently in the medical record, and follow it throughout the pet’s life. We can also track diet changes and how these have impacted the pet’s health over its lifetime.
Train clients to do body condition scoring
Use the 9-point scale to teach clients how to do body-condition scoring for their pets; repeat this training at visits into the pet’s adult years. Making clients proactive in monitoring their pet can prevent excessive weight gain or at least catch it before it is affecting the pet’s health status. Start talking about calories or kcals (kilocalories) in foods early and often so that clients will monitor this and appreciate how much their pet is eating. Adjust feeding amounts according to changes in body weight. Be sure to give specific guidelines and recommendations for exact foods and feeding amounts, as well as suggesting a defined limit on treats. Teach clients that they should use a gram scale to weigh foods rather than cup volume measurements, especially for smaller dogs and cats.
Choose diets that set us up for success
Feeding a diet that provides a lower caloric density, higher protein, and higher fiber level will promote satiety, reduce potential begging behaviors, and may prevent weight gain. A critical time to assess diet and feeding amounts is at the time of spay/neuter. It is our obligation as veterinarians to educate our clients on the changes that have occurred with this procedure. We can put steps in place to keep their pet healthy and at an optimal body weight.
Key factors of weight-management success are compliance and follow-up for any recommendations made concerning diet.21-23 This means we must have continued interaction with our clients after recommendations are given to ensure they understand and are following our recommendations moving forward. Scheduled rechecks can enhance our ability to keep clients on track as well as build our veterinary client-patient relationship. Keeping in touch with clients often will greatly improve success in achieving our weight-management goals.
Reaching the goal
Our objective as veterinarians is to support optimal health of the pet throughout every life stage. Educating clients about weight management and choosing the best diet for the pet is part of optimal wellness care. We can proactively choose diets at the time of spaying and neutering that provide optimal protein and fiber nutrient levels to promote satiety, reduce begging, and prevent weight gain, rather than simply telling clients to just feed less. This intervention alone will reduce that pet’s risk of disease conditions associated with obesity, improve quality of life, and potentially extend their life span by avoiding weight gain.
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- The 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey Debut. American Pet Products Association.
- Kutzler MA. Possible relationship between long-term adverse health effects of gonad-removing surgical sterilization and luteinizing hormone in dogs. Animals (Basel). 2020;10(4):599. doi:10.3390/ani10040599
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- Kanchuk ML, Backus RC, Calvert CC, Morris JG, Rogers QR. Neutering induces changes in food intake, body weight, plasma insulin and leptin concentrations in normal and lipoprotein lipase-deficient male cats. J Nutr. 2002;132(suppl 2):1730S-1732S. doi:10.1093/jn/132.6.1730S
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